Ex­pert: High­lands un­der threat of mass de­pop­u­la­tion af­ter Brexit

The Herald - - POLITICS - ALIS­TAIR GRANT

THE High­lands risk “calami­tous” en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age and mass de­pop­u­la­tion af­ter Brexit, a se­nior EU of­fi­cial has warned.

The top Euro­pean Com­mis­sion ad­viser said phas­ing out farm­ing sub­si­dies – cur­rently paid for by the EU – would be dis­as­trous for Scot­land’s re­mote ar­eas.

En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Michael Gove has promised “spe­cial treat­ment” for Scot­land’s farm­ers, while fund­ing is guar­an­teed un­til 2022.

But crit­ics have raised con­cerns over long-term un­cer­tainty and warned cut­ting sub­si­dies could tear apart com­mu­ni­ties.

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion of­fi­cial, who asked not to be named, said farms could even “stop pro­duc­ing” food.

Asked what would hap­pen if sub­si­dies are taken away or phased out, he said: “The con­se­quences are po­ten­tially calami­tous for the en­vi­ron­ment be­cause it’s one thing for farm­ers to stop pro­duc­ing, but the fact is farm­ers are crit­i­cally im­por­tant stew­ards of the land­scape and of the coun­try­side.

“If you look at what’s hap­pened in the US, where farm­ers have es­sen­tially aban­doned land and left it, you have dust bowls and so on. If the High­lands, which are a very par­tic­u­lar eco-sys­tem, are to be aban­doned by farm­ers, there is no­body who is go­ing to man­age that ter­ri­tory.

“It is very harsh ter­ri­tory, it’s very chal­leng­ing and clearly it is es­sen­tially not eco­nomic.”

Speaking to jour­nal­ists in Brus­sels, he warned of de­pop­u­la­tion if sub­si­dies are axed.

He added: “The re­al­ity is all of our ter­ri­to­ries are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ur­banised. Peo­ple are mov­ing into towns and we need to sus­tain ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

“I’m not say­ing farm­ers are the back­bone of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties but a lot of ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties re­volve around small agri-food busi­nesses.

“To keep peo­ple in the ru­ral coun­try­side you have to keep the ser­vices. So the school stays, the phar­macy stays, the lo­cal shop stays.

“You take peo­ple out, you lose the ser­vices, and the whole in­fras­truc­ture of the ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties starts to fall apart.”

Farm­ers across the UK make far more money from EU sub­si­dies than they do from live­stock or crops.

In the High­lands and other re­mote ar­eas, ex­tra fund­ing is pro­vided un­der the Less Favoured Area Sup­port Scheme (LFASS).

Jon­nie Hall, of Na­tional Farm­ers Union Scot­land, said se­cur­ing post-brexit cer­tainty was “up­per­most in the in­dus­try’s list of pri­or­i­ties”.

He said: “LFASS pro­vides a vi­tal in­jec­tion of fund­ing for hill farm­ers and crofters. With­out the an­nual £65 mil­lion of life­line sup­port to the most vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas of Scot­land be­ing main­tained next year and be­yond, many hill farms and crofts would be un­sus­tain­able. This could lead to much wider ram­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the po­ten­tial for land aban­don­ment.

“This is an un­prece­dented pe­riod of phys­i­cal and fi­nan­cial chal­lenge for Scot­land’s farm­ers and crofters.”

„ Scot­tish Labour MEP David Martin.

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