Scotland politics

Scottish independence: Farmers give their views on referendum debate

Tractor on farm Image copyright Getty Images

The BBC's referendum correspondent, Laura Bicker, speaks to two Scottish farmers who sit on opposite sides of the independence debate. They talk about their hopes and fears for the future.

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Farmers have one thing in mind when it comes to making a decision about which way to vote in the independence referendum - Europe.

Every animal bred on a Scottish farm is tagged, traded, and regulated by the European Union.

It's the first thing Perthshire farmer Jim Fairlie mentions as he drives his quad bike through one of his many fields full of pregnant ewes.

The sun is shining and it's (almost) warm enough to take a jacket off. Jim says it's the easiest lambing he's ever done in his life.

One newborn still huddles near a hedge with its mum. She's still a bit uncertain on her feet as she's just a few hours old. But she already has a number and she will soon be tagged - twice.

Jim scans the field, checking for any problems with a bag of feed in hand. He has a Yes badge pinned to his jacket because he believes he will be better served by an independent Scottish government.

He tells me: "The food and drink sector in Scotland is one of the fastest growing sectors we have.

"Tourism is vitally important to Scotland's economy. Agriculture underpins both of these vital sources of income to Scotland and it won't matter which party is in power in Edinburgh they will understand and they will realise how important agricultural is to our economy."

Scotland exports nearly £5bn worth of goods from farming, fishing, forestry and food and drink.

Jim believes devolution has been good for the industry and has given Scottish farmers a platform and a voice.

On that, many farmers agree. What they can't agree on is if Scotland should take a step further.

The National Farmers Union in Scotland has held a series of debates on independence. The national event in Stirling was sold out 10 days before it was held.

It's president, Nigel Millar, believes his members are more alive to the independence debate compared with the rest of society. He is aware it will affect their lives directly.

He says: "The government in Scotland has been positive about food and drink policy. Our members who are positive about independence say that Scotland could take us a step further and give us a more positive future. When comparing the two governments there is a feeling we don't get the same positive signals from Westminster.

"The real issue is the ongoing relationship with Europe. Is that going to be disrupted? Will it change? Will we be part of Europe. It's fundamental. So much of our regulation and trade support comes from Europe."

In the Borders near Kelso, farmer John Elliot has real concerns. He slides open a barn door to show me his latest prize bulls off to market.

His cattle are all branded with a heart - a symbol handed down through generations of the Elliot clan.

John says: "I really wouldn't like to think what would happen if we didn't stay together. The world wouldn't come to an end but it wouldn't be so good for us.

"We are promised that things will carry on as they always have been but I wonder where the money is going to come from? Everybody has been promised that they're going to get improved conditions or at least as good as existed before. But promises are promises."

Scotland received £583m in farming subsides from Europe last year, and will receive almost £4.6bn between 2014 and 2020. The Scottish government has guaranteed that payments for that period will be underwritten by a Scottish Treasury, as the UK Treasury does now.

John does not believe assertions that Scotland would enter the EU easily.

He says: "Farming has to be supported, particularly in a country like Scotland where we have very large areas which is classed as 'less favoured' which just couldn't stay in business unless the EU did support us.

"If you take my business - it could be the case that England would be in the EU and Scotland wouldn't. We sell to the continent, cattle and embryos for example. We'd have to go through some sort of protocol which doesn't exist at the moment. These things, with the best will in the world, take a long time to set up.

Image copyright Getty Images

"It would be another factor that we have to cope with. We've learned to cope with things like the weather but sometimes the political directives come in and they have a huge effect on our business and the economy of farming."

I put it to Jim that farmers already had enough uncertainty to deal with.

He says: "Listen, you get out your bed in the morning and things are uncertain. The world is full of uncertainty

"It's not about us creating uncertainty by wanting an independent Scotland it's about what would happen if we vote no. That's a bigger uncertainty to me."

Jim is referring to a possible referendum on whether or not the UK would stay in the European Union - a debate prompted by the Conservatives who have promised to hold an in/out vote if they win the 2015 general election.

Both Jim and John will be watching keenly what happens in the coming months and what the outcome of the 18 September ballot will be.

After all, they believe their livelihoods will be shaped by how voters choose to answer the six word question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"