Drawing up a coherent assessment of the health – and changing nature – of Scotland’s diverse rural sector with the aim of keeping politicians, policy makers and decision formers up to speed might always have been viewed as a tough job.
But it might be worth sparing a thought for the team at SRUC, Scotland’s rural college, charged with pulling together the biennial flagship report, who saw the difficulty of the task dramatically intensified by the UK’s vote to leave Europe as it was being compiled.
As an indication of its significance, a survey by the group – which was released along with the Rural Scotland in Focus report yesterday – found that one in five Scottish farmers and crofters considered bringing forward retirement plans due to fears over Brexit.
And of the 720 farming businesses surveyed – from across the gamut of Scottish agricultural enterprises – more than half said that the Brexit vote had increased business uncertainty to a level where it could lead to lower on-farm investment significant enough to have a negative impact on the wider rural economy.
Steven Thomson, senior agricultural economist with the college, said that while Scottish agriculture was used to change, the sheer degree of Brexit uncertainty – caused by the almost incalculable number of possible scenarios which could result from Britain’s withdrawal – was of a different magnitude.
However, the report highlighted that against a background of an ageing farming population – and almost regardless of future trade deals and support measures – innovation and the use of technologies, processes and procedures which improved productivity and reduced production costs would be a necessary.
Turning to the forestry sector, the report pointed out that while the Scottish Government had set ambitious targets for reforestation, a number of challenges would need to be addressed in order to meet them.
As tree felling currently outstripped replanting, the report concluded that measures were needed not only to encourage new planting of woodland and forests but also to encourage restocking of existing ones after they had been harvested.
“Only then will there be any chance of reaching the 25 per cent woodland and forest cover target by 2050,” said section author, Professor Davy McCracken.
“This will require not only continued engagement with those landowners who have historically been amenable to woodland planting but will also require increasing engagement with the wider farming sector who historically have shown less interest in tree planting.”
McCracken also said that if more native woodlands were managed more appropriately, or even just managed at all, they could also become more “productive” from the economic, environmental and social perspectives.
However, he said that leadership was required to change attitudes and perceptions towards woodland and forest management and creation and the Scottish Government would need to work even more in partnership with forestry and wider rural land use representatives in the future.
Business case for the country
The report also stressed that farming was far from the only business activity providing employment and income in the countryside – and despite the challenges often posed by poor broadband, mobile phone and transport provisions, a growing number of enterprises were setting themselves up to take advantage of rural living.
But Dr Jane Atterton said that while this area was of growing importance – with one-third of Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises being located in rural areas – a lack of hard information meant much of the enterprise which went into setting up these businesses fell under the radar.
“We don’t have a rural strategy within the national policy for this sector which often revolves around innovation and creativity,” said Atterton.
“And because we don’t have sufficient facts and figures it is difficult to carry out any meaningful assessment of how fast it is growing.”
She said that this lack of evidence had contributed to two false assumptions – that the rural economy equated purely to agriculture and that cities were the only engines of growth.
In order to create the rural vision necessary to drive this diverse sector forward, Atterton claimed that a better evidence base with a recognised recording procedure was required to effectively pinpoint the current baseline.
However, she stressed while a lot was heard about rural “needs” and the disadvantages of operating in the countryside, it was also important to focus on the many positive attributes which could be gleaned by locating a business in rural rather than in urban areas.