David Barnes, deputy director of agriculture and rural development at the Scottish Government, said that the debate over allowing the use of stocking densities to identify active farmers was very much still alive.
Speaking at a National Sheep Association conference in Bridge of Allan, he said that recent reports that the move would be disallowed by the European Commission – as it might be seen as breaching the World Trade Organisation (WTO) “green box” rules on trade distortion by being linked to production – “depended very much on who you spoke to”.
He added: “The commission started off taking a very purist line – but negotiations are on-going. We are convinced that the regulations have enough wriggle room for the measure still to be accepted.”
He said that although the headline phrasing of the WTO green box measures indicated that there should be no link to production, it also allowed some linkage where the degree of distortion to production and trading would be only minimal. “And with a number of states giving backing to this move we are confident that we can get the measure approved,” he said.
However, Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser to the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, told the conference that there was growing evidence to the contrary and, if anything, the commission’s line had hardened in recent weeks.
“And the release of the most recent draft of the delegated regulations which covers this aspect – on Friday night – stressed that there should be no linkage to production,” said Moody.
The volume of work to be done before the new reform package would be ready for implementation was also highlighted by the speakers – and it was made plain that time was a crucial element in the process.
Decisions on some major issues will be required before the end of the year and on many others by the middle of 2014 if there was any hope of systems being in place to cope with the introduction of the new scheme in 2015, it was revealed.
Douglas Bell, senior agricultural policy consultant with the SRUC, said that computer modelling had shown that a complicated business lay ahead – as any single decision taken would have considerable knock-on consequences for individual farm enterprises.
It was also made plain that, on the issue of extending coupled payments to the sheep sector – a move favoured by the NFUS – there was very little support from the NSA and its members:
“We certainly haven’t had a single sheep farmer contacting us to say they’re in favour of the idea – and although we’re about to embark on a round of meetings to discuss this and other issues, so far all the feedback has indicated that we should definitely avoid all the extra rules and regulations that would go with it,” NSA development officer George Milne told the meeting.