A review into the Scottish sheep sector has come up with no less than 24 wide-ranging recommendations for improving the profitability in an industry that is worth some £240 million annually to the economy.
The 12-strong review group was chaired by former Scottish sheep farmer of the year John Scott, who yesterday described the industry report card as saying: “Could do better.”
Speaking at the launch of the report, rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said it was crucial that government and the industry worked together to overcome the current challenges, such as farm revenues falling sharply in recent years leaving sheep producers to rely heavily on subsidies to keep them in business.
He wanted to make more of the market opportunities for lamb, a view echoed by Scott, who described lamb produced in this country as a “hidden secret”.
Ewing believed that if the recommendations which range from providing specialist training for the next generation of shepherds through to making maximum use of information from the electronic identification of sheep were taken on board, they had the potential to benefit the Scottish sheep sector by more than £26m per year.He warned this would not just happen. It would need the buy-in and active participation of the entire supply chain.
At the launch on a Perthshire sheep farm, Jim McLaren, chairman of Quality Meat Scotland, was enthusiastic about its findings, saying that, while the dedication, commitment and skills of those who worked in the Scottish sheep industry was truly commendable, there were opportunities that could be seized to improve efficiency and drive innovation within the sector, ensuring sustainable and profitable growth.
“We have a fantastic product in Scotch Lamb PGI which is delicious and versatile and there is no doubt that in a world which is increasingly demanding quality red meat, there is an opportunity to drive consumption both at home and abroad,” he said.
George Milne of the National Sheep Association highlighted the range of the recommendations, pointing out some could be implemented at farm level while others, including research, needed a national commitment.
In another recommendation, the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) has been tasked with setting up a feasibility study into establishing a sheep meat added value facility in Scotland; thus changing the current situation where the majority of lambs produced in this country are processed in England and Wales.
Accepting this challenge, SAMW president Allan Jess described the review as a “living document” that should be regularly updated: “Although an enormous amount of time and effort has already been devoted to this review, the real work actually starts now.”
Brexit threat to processing jobs
Scotland’s farming leaders and their counterparts in the meat processing sector have met this week to highlight the high dependence this economically important industry has in employing non UK labour.
Approximately half the employees in some of Scotland’s abattoirs and meat processing plants are thought to come from abroad. As such, they may be vulnerable to any Brexit decision.
Following the meeting, both NFU Scotland and the SAMW called on the UK government to provide assurances on the workers’ status so that there is future stability in the industry. Both organisations have indicated they would like to see the issue clarified now rather than waiting months or years for the Brexit process to commence and conclude.
The union’s livestock chair Charlie Adam said: “While the timetable for Brexit remains to be defined, it is essential our abattoirs and processors don’t operate in an employment vacuum. Without a clear government-led employment strategy for non-UK staff identified at an early stage in the process, we will see our abattoirs struggle to function.”
Adams went on to ask the government to ensure that abattoirs were not cut off from recruiting appropriate staff from outside the UK.
“These are permanent jobs and many of them are highly skilled,” he said. “We have an industry in Scotland which provides top quality meat from farm to plate, but to keep this up we need the right people working in our red meat chain.”