Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 14 May 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Global Climate Emergency, Sheep Farming, The Place Principle, Committee Announcement, Decision Time, Home-Start Glenrothes 21st Anniversary


Sheep Farming

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

We have, for understandable reasons, eaten into some of the time for this statement.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Understandably, the previous item ran over its expected time. Can you give me an estimate of when this item of business might finish, so that we can make appropriate arrangements?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Yes. It is very kind of you to ask that question, but it is not really a point of order, because control of the debate is in my hands. However, I am prepared to tell you—because I am that kind of person—that we have about eight minutes in hand, but I do not want members to abuse that.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)


The Deputy Presiding Officer

You see! I should not have told you. I can already see that Mr Mountain wants to lengthen his question.

This next item of business is a statement from Mairi Gougeon on supporting sheep farming in Scotland. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

There can be few sights that resonate more with us than spring lambs in the Scottish countryside. Thankfully, the weather this year has been much kinder to our hard-working sheep farmers, crofters and shepherds, and most would acknowledge that that has allowed for a good lambing season.

We have a lot of sheep in Scotland—there are about 2.6 million breeding ewes on 13,000 holdings. In total, there are about 24,500 farms, crofts and smallholdings now with sheep.

Of course, the concept of sheep on our hills was once controversial, but, ironically, they now help us to keep people on the land, with many farms and crofts using land that is not productive for other purposes to rear sheep.

We are also seeing a more diverse sector, with more traditional and native breeds making a comeback. If anyone has watched “This Farming Life”, they will be aware that breeds completely new to Scotland are beginning to feature.

As the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform has just said, all sectors will have a role to play in addressing the climate emergency, and farming is no exception. The sheep sector is already doing so—its grazing systems produce high-quality meat with low inputs. However, we must go further and faster, and I will fully involve the sector to develop new tools and production methods to better address climate change.

Working with farmers to make change happen is crucial and has underpinned how we have taken forward the key recommendations for Government from “The Scottish sheep sector review”, or the Scott review.

Our approach to traceability and provenance is key to that. We have introduced electronic tagging to create a robust recording and traceability system through markets and abattoirs. The data is held in ScotEID, which is an electronic identification system. That allows keepers to maintain their own information and makes compliance with the necessary sheep tracing legislation easier.

The system’s effectiveness enabled the Scottish Government to win a dispensation from the European Commission, to allow for incomplete reads to be acceptable in the common agricultural policy cross-compliance regime. That represented a significant win for Scotland.

The European Commission is proposing to change the rules through a new animal health regulation. The proposed changes would have been difficult for the particular circumstances of our sheep sector, which can often involve movements during a sheep’s lifetime in Scotland and across the United Kingdom from birth to fattening to finishing.

There has been a significant period of engagement with the European Commission to make the case for our current excellent sheep traceability system in Scotland to continue. I have corresponded with and met Commissioner Andriukaitis, and Scottish officials have worked closely with their UK Government counterparts to secure their support as well. In particular, I thank Alyn Smith and Catherine Stihler for their work as MEPs, alongside key stakeholder bodies, on the issue.

The European Commission’s consultation is live and I strongly urge Scotland’s sheep farmers and crofters to respond to it. They need to make their views known in support of the current wording of the new regulation.

Last year, the Scottish Government supported the sector’s efforts to persuade the European Union to introduce an allowance for alternative methods of ageing lambs for the purposes of removal of specified risk material—a key control for BSE.

The new method would have removed the need for manual dentition checks on lambs, replacing it with a much simpler date-based cut-off, saving the industry in Scotland and across Great Britain millions of pounds.

The Scottish Government and Food Standards Scotland have worked with the industry to develop an implementation plan and protocol. It would have given effect to a key recommendation of the Scott review, so we amended legislation and were preparing to go ahead.

However, as a result of Brexit uncertainty, the UK Government did not want that change to go ahead. It was concerned that continuing to argue for a differential position for Scotland and Great Britain would impact adversely on the UK’s application for third country status. In short, our sheep farming sector in Scotland was seen as expendable.

We have continued to press the issue, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently determined that it could not prioritise it, as we have in Scotland. Nor could we go it alone, given that that would mean that Scottish sheep farmers would be subject to different systems across the UK, adding complexity that would make sales in other parts of the UK impossible. Therefore, I have reluctantly agreed that we shall not be proceeding with that change until next year.

Of course, none of the everyday challenges of sheep farming compare with the overwhelming risk that Brexit represents. The reckless attitude of the UK Government and its failure to take no deal off the table threaten to make the export trade in sheep meat completely unviable. We may now have a stay of execution until 31 October, but no deal remains a very real risk.

No deal would result in our lamb exports being subject to the EU’s full most favoured nation tariffs of 40 per cent or more. That would increase the price for EU markets, have the potential to cause domestic prices to fall by around 30 per cent and reduce competitiveness. Therefore, officials across the UK continue to work on a proposed compensation scheme for the sheep sector to address the potential fallout. Our preferred option is a headage scheme.

Although we welcome undertakings from Michael Gove that the UK Government will pay all the costs arising from a no-deal Brexit, the UK Government must now make clear how much money it will make available for a compensation scheme. The best option, of course, is for our sheep sector to be able to sell its product, so we continue to explore how to keep markets open and grow new ones.

More people in Scotland and the UK buying Scotch lamb would help. Last year, we gave Quality Meat Scotland £200,000 to support its campaign to promote Scotch lamb. The impact was significant, with a 27 per cent increase in spend per buyer on lamb during the promotional period. We want to build on that success, so I can announce today that this Government will provide Quality Meat Scotland with an additional £200,000 to support marketing activity in the coming year, to help it to continue to promote Scotch lamb to people here at home.

Additionally, after years of pressing, we have persuaded the UK Government to repatriate the meat levy. Amendments have been made to the UK Agriculture Bill to allow that to happen, but to get the UK scheme established, it is vital that the bill makes progress at Westminster; it has been parked for months now. With the help of key stakeholder bodies, whose input was vital, we will help to deliver an additional £1.5 million to support our quality meat sector including Scotch lamb, so I want to deliver a clear message to Michael Gove: get on with it.

Protecting livelihoods is also one of the reasons why we are supporting efforts to address livestock worrying and predation. Reports of attacks are increasing, and those of you who have seen photographs in the press and on social media recently will no doubt have been shocked as me. I am fully supportive of Emma Harper’s proposed bill to update the law on that issue.

We have commissioned research to gather more evidence on the scale of the problem and to explore the impacts on animals and on farmers, their families and businesses. We continue to support campaigns by SPARC—the Scottish partnership against rural crime—and NFU Scotland to raise awareness and encourage more responsible dog control in areas where there are livestock.

As we saw last year from the terrible impact of the beast from the east weather on lambing and the toll that that took on farmers, families and communities, climate and landscape are key components of successful sheep farming. That is why we established the sheep and trees initiative in 2016 to provide support to improve the productivity of hill-farming enterprises.

Trees planted in the right place can provide important shelter and extend out-wintering, thus improving productivity while maintaining flock size on a reduced grazing area. The initiative is working; since 2016 more than 400 crofters and farmers across Scotland have been awarded £70 million in forestry grants to help them to integrate new woodlands into their farming enterprises.

Although more than 80 per cent of applications for grants to create more woodlands are now from farmers and crofters, the role of agroforestry and diversified and low-carbon land use will only increase as we respond to the climate emergency. We will support the sheep sector to play its part, as we do already through CAP payments.

Many sheep farmers will have benefited from this year’s loan schemes. The less favoured area support scheme, in particular, made sure that farmers and crofters got additional support in early spring. In April, we started making 2018 LFASS payments, and I advise that, next week, a further tranche of payments, worth approximately £15 million, will begin to arrive in bank accounts. Around 2,600 farmers and crofters will receive money, which means that nearly 8,100 farmers and crofters will have been paid since April, with more than £39 million directly supporting remote rural and island communities.

Only Scotland provides that additional help to our most marginalised farmers and crofters, many of them in the sheep sector. This Government remains absolutely committed to getting financial help to those who need it most.

We value the significant contribution that Scotland’s sheep sector makes, not just to the rural economy but to our landscape, our culture and our heritage. Brexit threatens to remove sheep from our hills and people from our land. We cannot let that happen. I want to assure everyone in Scotland’s sheep sector that this Government will continue to support them. We will always stand up for their interests and we will keep making the case for Scotland to stay in the EU, as the best way to protect their interests.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow about 20 minutes for questions and answers, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement. I refer members to my entry on farming and crofting in the register of members’ interests.

We welcome and share the general statement of support for sheep farming that the minister has made this afternoon, given the sector’s critical role in Scottish agriculture. However, the minister’s statement was not without some moments of hysteria. The claim that the UK Government views sheep farming as “expendable” must count as one of the wilder claims that the Government has made in this chamber. The claim flies in the face of comments that Michael Gove and others have made in support of upland farming in Scotland. Given the Government’s CAP payment fiasco and the cuts to LFASS that it continues to administer, it is pretty rank hypocrisy to accuse others of failing to support sheep farming.

The Scottish Conservatives readily acknowledge that the agriculture sector requires to reduce its emissions to combat climate change. Farmers and crofters understand better than anyone else the importance of farming in an environmental and efficient manner. We believe that a long-term transition must be undertaken in a way that is fair and just, with farmers seen as the solution and not the problem.

Many sheep farmers will have read with some anxiety the report of the Committee on Climate Change and its references to having less beef and lamb in our diets and reducing our consumption of those products. Given those references and the Scottish Government’s new commitment to net zero emissions by 2045, what reassurance can the minister give to Scotland’s sheep producers that they are not expendable?

Mairi Gougeon

On Donald Cameron’s comment about farmers being part of the solution, of course they are. They are custodians of the land, and it is vital that we work with them.

In the statement that she just made on the climate emergency, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform talked about a number of projects. I have visited a variety of initiatives that are looking at what we can do to tackle climate change and implement activities that can be replicated across Scotland. I recently visited one such project, which is part of the farming for a better climate programme. The initiative is to do with soil regeneration and involves five farmers in the north-east, who have a variety of farms. The knowledge that is developed will be vital to other farmers in Scotland.

I must address the point about LFASS payments. It is a bit rich of Donald Cameron and the Tories to talk about cuts to LFASS, when we have protected payments that have been done away with in the rest of the UK. We have protected LFASS payments as far as we possibly can—[Interruption.] I absolutely take umbrage with his comment; it is completely false to say that we have overseen cuts to LFASS when we have done the exact opposite and have made protecting LFASS payments as far as possible a priority of this Government.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Our farmers and crofters need stability and simplicity if they are to be able to plan ahead. A new subsidy regime must be in place as soon as possible, to give the industry a stable basis from which to innovate, tackle the challenges of climate change and meet the new targets.

Will the minister say when the new group of rural advisers will come forward with a blueprint for a new regime, so that our farmers and crofters can meet their new targets?

While we are talking about stability, it would also be helpful to know when LFASS payments will be made at 100 per cent, rather than the 80 per cent that is currently paid.

Mairi Gougeon

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, updated the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on a number of those issues when he appeared before the committee a few weeks ago, especially in relation to the commitments on LFASS payments and the work that we are doing on that to try to find a solution.

The stability and simplicity that Rhoda Grant spoke about are key to our policy. That stability—knowing what they can expect for the next five years—is exactly what we want to provide to farmers, and to rural Scotland. We have more detailed plans than exist in the rest of the UK—it is vital that members remember that.

Rhoda Grant also made a point about the new group that will be established. The cabinet secretary referred to that during his committee appearance. We are obviously keen to establish the group and get it going, because we recognise that we need to go beyond the policy that we have set for the next five years. We agreed to do that in the parliamentary debate in January and again recently. Work on that matter is progressing.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

It is disappointing to hear that the United Kingdom Government did not support moving from the unwieldy dentition method of ageing lambs to date-based cut-off, which the sheep sector in Scotland wanted. How did the UK Government arrive at that position, what influenced its thinking, and were the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations consulted in any meaningful way before DEFRA announced its decision?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank the member for raising that point. A key recommendation that came from the Scottish sheep sector review related to driving abattoir profitability. The uncertainty around Brexit was definitely the key factor in the UK Government’s failure to take forward the proposal. Probably like most things that are Brexit-related, the UK Government’s co-ordination with the devolved Administrations on the proposal has been challenging. On 4 March, we were advised by DEFRA that it wanted to postpone the move; the response from ourselves, the other devolved Administrations and stakeholders showed that that would not be a popular move and would be the wrong decision. Both myself and my Welsh counterpart wrote to Lord Gardiner, who is the responsible UK minister, and there was some limited engagement before DEFRA took the final decision to postpone on 29 April. Scotland’s voice and interests were not listened to and its needs were not taken into account. When it comes to making decisions, the UK Government rarely, if ever, puts Scotland’s needs and interests first.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call Peter Chapman, I note that 11 members wish to ask questions; even giving members additional time, that will be very difficult. I want you to go straight to a question, Mr Chapman—no preamble. That goes for everybody who follows.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

LFASS payments are due to be cut by 20 cent this year and 60 per cent next year. The cabinet secretary has repeatedly stated that he will limit the cuts to 20 per cent, but we have seen—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Excuse me. That is called a preamble. Question, please.

Peter Chapman

Is that another worthless Scottish National Party promise? Can the minister give us any reassurance today that any progress has been made on mitigating—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Chapman. Sit down, please.

Mairi Gougeon

That is simply not the case, and Peter Chapman will be aware that the cabinet secretary said as much when he appeared in front of the committee a couple of weeks ago. The payment is 80 per cent this year, and we are committed to finding a solution. Members will not find anyone else in the rest of the UK who is as committed to that funding as we have been, to looking at LFASS as we have done and to making that a priority as we have made it.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The climate change plan suggests that practices such as traditional livestock grazing, which reduces the need for synthetic fertiliser, can help with carbon storage. Can the minister tell us what is being done to promote a positive vision of how farming can benefit, and benefit from the need to address, climate change? Is it really either sheep or butterflies—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you for that question. I am trying to keep them short from everybody.

Mairi Gougeon

My colleague was referring to the rather flippant comment that was made by Andrea Leadsom. When it comes to sheep and butterflies, in Scotland, it is definitely not a choice. We are looking at a wide variety of initiatives for soil regeneration, some of which I outlined earlier, and other vital projects are under way, such as our climate change champions.

I referenced the programme “This Farming Life”, which aired on the BBC a few weeks ago. It looked at the practices that Lynn and Sandra are implementing on Lynbreck croft, near Grantown-on-Spey, and the work that Bryce Cunningham is trying do at Mossgiel farm with his soils and dairy herd. From those projects, we can create a wide variety of policies and, hopefully, lead by example, replicating them in other areas.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I appreciate that it is an important debate, but I could do with a bit of co-operation all round in keeping questions short.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

Would the minister be willing to commit to developing a standardised carbon audit process to be used by farmers across Scotland, recognising their future contribution?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Ms Beamish. That was spectacularly right.

Mairi Gougeon

I would consider doing so, and I would be happy to meet Ms Beamish to discuss the matter further.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Will the Government help to protect lamb exports to the EU, particularly through speedy export health certification? That will be important when we leave the single market and customs union, as the UK wishes to do.

Mairi Gougeon

When we thought that we were facing the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, just last month, the sector identified export health certification as a key priority, and we are trying to find a solution to the issue. In order to do so, my officials have been working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency and local authorities to ensure that there will be adequate certification provision in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As part of that work, the APHA has been investigating the potential for flexibility and efficiency through the introduction of certification support officers, who could facilitate the signing of export health certificates.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

The minister says that Brexit threatens to remove sheep from our hills and people from our land. What steps is the Government—including the minister and her colleagues—taking not simply to sustain populations in rural communities but to increase them?

Mairi Gougeon

I thank Mr Finnie for raising a vital point. I had a meeting with the Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, Ben Macpherson, to discuss exactly that issue. It is another big fear and a big obstacle and challenge that we face in the light of Brexit. The potential changes to immigration that we see will do untold damage to people in Scotland, particularly in our rural areas, which are set to suffer the most. The issue is very much on our minds, and we are seeking to discuss it because we want and need to see people living and working in rural areas. We will do everything that we can to make that happen.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Will the minister confirm whether sheep farming interests will be represented on the group that the Government is convening, which will recommend the new bespoke system of support for Scotland in the post-Brexit years—if, indeed, Brexit actually happens?

Mairi Gougeon


Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Will the minister commit to hearing feedback from my consultation on livestock attacks by dogs, which ends tomorrow, and is she open to working with me to create a piece of legislation to protect our farmers from such an emotional and costly experience?

Mairi Gougeon

I offer my personal thanks and the thanks of the Scottish Government to Emma Harper for taking forward an important issue and an important bill. I look forward to hearing more about the feedback that she has received through her consultation, which I believe has received about 700 or 800 responses so far.

Recently, we have all seen pictures in the media and on social media of the damaging effects that livestock worrying causes not just to animals but to farmers, their families and their businesses. I am happy to work with Emma Harper on her proposed protection of livestock (Scotland) bill as she develops it.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests as a partner in a farming partnership.

I am disappointed that the minister is telling Michael Gove to get on with his Agriculture Bill when the Scottish Government is not getting on with its bills. When will the Scottish Government publish its two agriculture bills?

Mairi Gougeon

That is simply not the case. The matter was discussed by the cabinet secretary at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee when he updated the committee members on those bills, to which we will make technical changes before they are introduced.

We have devolved Administration meetings every month, and we have been pushing every month to see what the timetable is for the UK Agriculture Bill. We see vital things such as the red meat levy, which could make a massive impact in Scotland, but we have no idea about the timescale and no idea when that levy will come forward.

When it comes to direction and what we are doing, we have far more detailed plans in Scotland than exist anywhere else in the UK.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

Given that Michael Gove is in the air, I ask the minister whether she agrees that it is shameful that Michael Gove, the UK environment secretary, has shafted Scottish hill farmers on the matter of convergence money. EU convergence money of £160 million was triggered only because of the low rates paid to Scottish hill farmers.

Mairi Gougeon

I could not agree more with that comment. The only reason that we received the money in the first place was the farmers and crofters in Scotland. What did the UK Government do with that money? It spent it everywhere else but not here.

The Tories have the cheek to talk about LFASS payments. Well, guess what? The convergence money could have gone a long way in helping to support our sheep and hill farmers, and it could go a long way if we were able to get it back. That is why the review is so important. A massive injustice was done to Scotland and to Scottish hill farmers years ago, when the UK Government took the decision to shaft us on £160 million of funding. We want that money to be returned to Scotland, and we want it to go where it is needed—to Scottish farmers and crofters, who were the only reason that we got it in the first place.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I say to both Mr Crawford and the minister that I am not terribly happy with that word. [Interruption.] It is for me to decide whether I am happy with it, and I am not happy with it.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Without legislation, farmers and crofters face a potential cliff edge in 2020 when it comes to rural payments. Will the minister at least tell members when the Government will publish the specific rural support legislation that is required to provide for future payments?

Mairi Gougeon

That legislation will be brought forward when we require it and when that needs to be done. Following a no-deal Brexit, we would still be able to give farmers the payments that they were due, so that is not a risk for us at the moment.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

In her statement, the minister mentioned culture and heritage. In the light of Scottish Natural Heritage’s decision to remove sheep from Dromore farm, in my constituency, what will the Government do to protect the hefted sheep flocks and traditional hill farms in the south of Scotland? Once they are gone, they will be gone.

Mairi Gougeon

I do not know about the specific instance that Finlay Carson raises, but I will be happy to meet him to discuss the issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes portfolio question time. I thank all members, because we got a move on and we got everybody in, including a latecomer: Mr Carson.