The Impacts of Brexit on Agriculture in the Highlands and Islands



Agriculture is an extremely important industry in rural areas of Scotland. Douglas Irvine, Executive Manager of Economic Development at Shetland Islands Council, blogs about the impact that Brexit will have on this vital industry in the Highlands and Islands.

Over 20,000 people in the Highlands and Islands are engaged in agricultural activity worth, annually, around £285 million directly and £387 million in total to the region. The agricultural industry is also an integral part of the Region’s Food and Drink and Tourism sectors, and generally supports rural economies throughout the Highlands and Islands. A wide variety of businesses depend on agriculture for their income including transport, agricultural contractors, agricultural suppliers, veterinary services, marts and abattoirs. The land managed by crofters and farmers in the Highlands and Islands is vast, containing 75% of priority habitats in the UK and 40% of the UK’s priority species.

Important as agriculture might be for the economy in the Highlands and Islands, the industry is a marginal activity in most of the region. This is due to remoteness, which leads to substantial increased costs, and to the constraints of poor climate and upland, often mountainous, terrain, which restricts income. The agricultural industry is therefore highly dependent on the current largely EU sponsored support framework to survive.

Most recent studies on how Brexit will affect agriculture in the UK predict poor outcomes for those parts of the industry that are net exporters. The predictions for sheep production in particular are the worst in most trading scenarios and those for beef production is worrying as well. Unfortunately, extensive sheep and beef production are staple aspects of agriculture in the Highlands and Islands and so significant falls in farm gate prices are likely. Continuing agricultural support is therefore essential and any prospect of  reduction in agricultural support post-Brexit in the UK would be felt severely in the most marginal farming area,s including the Highlands and Islands.

In view of the growing concerns about a probable massive decline in post-Brexit agriculture in the Highlands and Islands, the five Councils, working with RSPB, have published a report entitled “Post-Brexit Implications for Agriculture in the Highlands and Islands”. The report provides an analysis of all available data and confirms how serious the situation is likely to be for agriculture in the region following Brexit unless UK and Scottish Governments are prepared to introduce a framework of agricultural support that promotes active agriculture in the vulnerable farming areas. A list of key the potential measures that would encourage active agriculture to continue to thrive in the Highlands and Islands is as follows:

Developing a Framework of Measures to Support Agriculture in the Highlands and Islands after Brexit

  • UK and Scottish Governments understand that specific measures are urgently required to encourage active farming in the areas of marginal farming activity vulnerable to decline in the post-Brexit era.
  • It is essential to retain a basic level of income support targeted at the most vulnerable farming areas along the general lines of the current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and Least Favoured Areas Scheme (LFASS)/Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme (ANC).
  • Any BPS or LFASS scheme must include higher payments on the first 50 hectares and then a tapered system of lower payments on any additional hectarage.
  • Payment caps are necessary for basic levels of income support.
  • Coupled payments schemes such as the Beef Calf Scheme and the Sheep Scheme should be made available in the vulnerable farming areas.
  • A UK/Scottish version of the EU Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) scheme needs to be brought in to replace LFASS.
  • A scheme of outcome focused specific environmental measures will be required to protect nationally important species, habitats and landscapes.