Comment: We need to get back to the land

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IT ALWAYS used to intrigue me when watching some old Western that the camera turned to the
saloon and there was a sign asking the cowboys to leave their firearms at the door.

I remembered that Wild West request this past week while attending the meeting on the future of land tenure in Scotland. Not, I hasten to add,
because there might be blood on the floor and bullets pinging round.

The sign I would have hung on the door would have simply asked “leave your prejudices behind as you enter”. The need for such a sign was obvious as just about everyone came in lugging their land tenure baggage.

There were landowners and their agents not wanting any changes in legislation that might strengthen the hand of tenants; there were tenants sitting on long leases fearful of any action that might rock their boat, and yet NFU Scotland – which had organised the shindig – was optimistically trying to create a vision for the future at the gathering.

Tenancy issues are not the favourite subject for the union as it has within its membership both tenants allegedly ground down by landowners and landowners who plainly do not want to see the value or control of their holdings slip away to tenants.

It is a tricky issue for the union but at least it had a stab at trying to get a road ahead from the present, where suspicion and fear exist at the outer edges of the debate. An important point being that, as more than one speaker remarked, most tenancies operate well and only a few produce the highly-publicised wrangles.

I mentioned earlier that many of the delegates carried their baggage with them but I except one group from that view and that was the young farmers, or the new entrants.

If I had a pound for every time I had written down a version of “these young people are the future” or “the average age of our farmers is 50-something and we need new blood” or some such phrase I would be almost as rich as a slipper farmer.

However, the younger farmers at the meeting were adamant that if the abomination of not being able to access support cash given to their neighbours was sorted out, actual access to farming was a much smaller concern.

I will repeat that because it is important politicians who have an obsession with new entrants understand the point. Politicians believe statistics which show them that the farm form-fillers are aged 50-plus, not realising the next generation is out working on the farm. Put simply, age statistics are wrong and the age profile in farming is much lower than is publicised.

Mind you, it may well be their current fixation with youth entering agriculture is a guilty reaction arising from not getting new entrants onto the same level of subsidy support as their neighbours.

So I repeat what I heard from the youthful speakers and that is sort out other parts of the business, especially provide fair and equal support, and anyone keen enough will get into
farming.

However, I still think that Scotland should change its land tenure legislation, introducing an easement and flexibility into the equation of taking land. Share farming operates elsewhere, so does contract farming, and both are
options for the future.

So is introducing flexibility and different types of tenancies. Not, I hastily remark, into existing tenancies but allowing new ones to be established without the need for a squad of professional and costly experts to provide necessary advice.

The Scottish Government has promised a review next year.

There was some expectation that when the First Minister announced the Land Reform Review Group last summer to have a radical look at all aspects of land ownership, tenancy legislation would be included.

But the now minimalist review group, with only one original member, has decided to concentrate its efforts on improving community access to land and that is about it as far as it is concerned. So radical and all embracing it is not.

This leaves the politicians to deal with tenancy legislation next year, and my hope is those involved will leave their prejudices and self interests at the door and introduce sufficient flexibility and new options to produce a vibrant farming industry where ownership of land is not the be all and end all.