Expert: Highlands under threat of mass depopulation after Brexit
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.