Mairi gets ready for her ‘Meet the Parents’ moment - Brian Henderson

While a degree of familiarity with many of the key players means that it won’t quite be first date nerves, Mairi Gougeon’s visit to NFU Scotland’s autumn conference later this week might still have an inkling of “Meet the Parents” about it.

Mairi Gougeon will be at the NFU Scotland conference this week (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)
Mairi Gougeon will be at the NFU Scotland conference this week (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

For, while the cabinet secretary has been in post for several months now, Covid has spared her much in the way of en-masse contact with the great unwashed of Scottish agriculture.

If the challenge of meeting so many new faces wasn’t enough though, the cab sec will also expose herself to a potential grilling from the floor as the event will see the annual “head to head” debate with the union’s president which would normally take place at AgriScot.

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But anyone expecting a hesitant or subdued performance from the MSP for Angus North and Mearns is likely to be in for a big surprise. For there was certainly no sign of nerves from the then junior minister when she gave an extremely assured – if somewhat delayed – address to double-barrelled landowning elite at the Scottish Land and Estates annual conference a couple of years back.

Like anyone being introduced to the rellies for the first time, though, there’s a vague yet unstated expectation that a little something will be brought along to ensure a smooth passage into the hearts and minds of the future in-laws.

But while the normal question might be “red or white?”, Ms Gougeon might have to stretch herself a bit more when deciding what to take along to the party – as it will have to both break the ice and prove she is serious about taking policy development forward.

So, what should we expect?

Given the increasingly urgent clamour for some direction on new policy, some hint of travel would certainly be much more welcome than the announcement of yet another working group to look into it – or indeed another consultation on what has already been talked to death.

And while the administration had expressed a definite intention to have something solid on the table ahead of the upcoming COP 26 climate conference which, unless you’ve been living under a stone, you will know kicks off in Glasgow in less than a week’s time – so far there’s been precious little sign of any firm move on this front.

So, with only a few days to go before COP, might it just be that a rabbit will be pulled out of the hat at the union’s bash to fill the dual function of pleasing the crowd while also delivering on the promise to have something which has the backing of the industry to serve up as a showstopper at the climate conference?

But what form could such an announcement take?

We certainly don’t want anything that was thrown together in a hurried last-minute rush to beat a somewhat arbitrary deadline – and indeed such a move would undermine the entire ‘slow-but-thorough’ maxim which has underlined the deliberations so far.

However, we were promised a series of pilot projects to field-test new approaches before the actual transition from the current cut’n’paste CAP schemes to a new tailored Scottish policy.

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Plans to baseline individual farms’ carbon footprints, soil health, and biodiversity levels underwrote these moves – so there could be some revelation on this.

Some will also remember the stushie earlier in the year when it was claimed that senior civil servants had put the kybosh on industry-led plans which had been drawn up for a pilot project for the suckler beef sector.

And while claims that these civil servants planned, instead, to railroad through a large reduction in the national beef herd to meet climate targets were refuted by the Scottish Government, rumours continued to circulate, despite the industry pointing out that such an approach would simply see emissions offshored – while destroying Scotland’s highly sustainable beef sector.

Interestingly, the brief resurrection of claims last week that a cull was still being considered saw the administration move swiftly to flatly deny the murmurs – stating no active reduction was planned.

On top of this, the lack of any recent broadsides from industry firebrand, Jim Walker – who co-authored the original farmer-backed pilot project which was stymied by civil servants – could mean that ScotGov have been considering the readiness of the original farmer-led scheme as a means to pull an oven-ready rabbit out of the hat before COP.

But, as with any discretionary gift, it might be rude to expect too much…

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