South Scotland

EU referendum: What do farmers in Scotland want to happen?

Sheep Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Scottish sheep farmers export a large percentage of their product to Europe

The arguments are many and complex when it comes to the EU and farming. Ahead of the 23 June referendum, I spoke to farmers in the south of Scotland to see what they think of the debate.


In rural parts of southern Scotland it is easy to think the issue of potential European Union exit is a distant one.

They have been an agricultural heartland for centuries and, local farmers hope, will continue to be so for years to come.

You might imagine that - however the vote goes on 23 June - it would have little impact here.

But the moment you speak to anyone involved in farming, you recognise the reality is a little different.

The industry has long-established links to Europe and any change to that situation could have profound effects.

At the same time, it would only be fair to say that the relationship has not always been a smooth one.

Rob Livesey, who farms in the central Borders and is a vice-president of NFU Scotland, sums up the situation succinctly.

Total Income From Farming

2015 (First Estimates)

£3,388m

Income before expenses of £2,721m

  • £1,282m Livestock

  • £488m Crops

  • £469m Livestock products

  • £452m Grants and subsidies

Thinkstock

"The Common Agricultural Policy and the EU have been key to a lot of how farming has evolved since 1973 when we joined," he explained.

"So, it has always been in our minds and we have kind of behaved in a way determined by how the EU operates.

"Looking forward, the unknown is always a worry and knowing what the options are and what the full implications for us as farmers are is difficult to get a handle on."

He said there were a couple of key questions which any European exit would raise.

Mr Livesey explained: "I suppose, firstly, we would suggest just now that we haven't got much confidence in our support mechanism being maintained.

"Europe has supported us economically quite substantially during those years and whether Westminster or the Scottish government would be able to continue to do that would be in question."

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The other issue is one of access to markets.

He said: "The EU, with its 500 million people, is a really key place for our products to go both within the UK and outside and we don't see any of those opportunities missed.

"The support that I talked about earlier is being reduced on a daily basis, that pot of income coming into farms is getting less and less and we really need access to those markets to maintain our incomes.

"So anything that threatens that is really concerning to us as farmers."

'Nightmare scenario'

Mr Livesey believed that was a particularly worry for his sector - sheep farming - with Europe taking the majority of their product.

He said: "We only need to look back to the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 when our market really collapsed and we were in a very difficult financial position.

"That was really because we couldn't export lamb to the continent.

"If you remember back when the French were burning lamb and all that kind of nonsense before we got trade arrangements put in place properly.

"We don't want to see that coming back again - that's a nightmare scenario for us as sheep farmers."

Whether or not Brexit becomes a reality, it is clear that our relationship with Europe will be quite different for the next generation as it has been for our forefathers

Sarah Allison, the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs
SAYFC
Image copyright SAYFC

Not that he believes everything in the way the EU operates has been perfect.

Many farmers have felt frustrated at the constraints placed on them over the years of membership.

"The other side to it really is that the EU has also imposed on us many regulations which seem irrelevant and anti-competitive," he said.

'Europe isn't working'

Gary Mitchell, who runs a dairy farm in Stoneykirk in the far west of Dumfries and Galloway, is one who would be happy to leave that world behind.

He said: "My personal view would be that I think we should come out.

"From an agricultural point of view, it is always talk about subsidies - we need agriculture subsidies to survive.

"I know certain sectors need that subsidy but I would like to see the market actually returning.

"In 1991 we were 75% self-sufficient in food, now we are only 62% - so to me Europe isn't working for our productivity in agriculture and I think that is where we need to see things change."

Image copyright Thinkstock

And what about those at the very outset of their agricultural careers?

Sarah Allison of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs said they wanted to hear both sides before coming to any decision on how to vote.

"The EU institution has long been a key partner of Scottish agriculture," she said.

"Whether or not Brexit becomes a reality, it is clear that our relationship with Europe will be quite different for the next generation as it has been for our forefathers.

"What our next generation of farmers need to hear is a clear and reasoned debate of the positives and negatives of EU membership, as ultimately it will be them who are living and working with the consequences."

That is why debate and discussion of the European referendum is likely to be just as vibrant at livestock marts and agricultural shows in the days to come as it is among politicians and big city firms.

Are you involved in the agricultural industry? What outcome would you like to see in the European referendum and why? Email us your views to dumfries@bbc.co.uk.

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