By Jim Walker
The Scottish suckler beef herd is the engine room that drives economic activity and environmental management across large swathes of rural Scotland from the Northern isles to the Southern uplands. Suckler cows offer an irreplaceable way of turning grazing land, permanent pasture, and poor quality rough grazing on the hills and uplands of Scotland into a much sought-after, internationally renowned and high quality source of protein. Livestock offers the most efficient way of managing much of this land as a source of protein, and suckler beef systems have access to a ready market.
In June 2019 there were 16% fewer suckler cows in Scotland than in 2005, and a massive 20% less than in 2000 when the Scottish suckler herd counted just under 520,000 breeding females. It is estimated that looking after the current 417,000 suckler cows is responsible for providing approx. 20% of Scottish agricultural employment. This means that one in five people working in the Scottish farming industry are directly employed by the suckler beef sector, many of them in family-owned and family-run farming businesses. With nearly 4,500 jobs being created directly in the red meat processing sector and a further 30,000 jobs in the wider supply chain which includes feed manufacturers, vets, auctioneers, hauliers, builders and mechanics amongst others, red meat production including primary cattle rearing is a vital industry for Scotland, particularly in rural areas.
Cattle farming accounts for 26% of total agricultural output in Scotland. This makes it the single largest and most important enterprise type within the Scottish farming industry and proportionally more significant, and therefore more important, than elsewhere within the UK where it accounts for approx. 15% of agricultural output, or compared to the EU where that figure is below 8%. Cattle production takes place on one out of five holdings in Scotland, and any major structural changes to the sector therefore have a significant impact on Scottish farming and indeed the Scottish economy as a whole. Were we to lose a further 20 or 30% of the suckler herd, as some have suggested in order to meet Scotland's climate change targets, this would result in a loss of over £160m to the Scottish economy and affect up to 12,000 jobs in areas with few alternative sources of employment, particularly during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
It is a fact that domestic food production will inevitably contribute towards a nation's total emissions, and Scotland is no different in that regard to any other country on the planet. But shifting these emissions abroad simply by cutting domestic food production in order to meet certain emissions reductions commitments does not resolve the issue itself, it merely exports the problem elsewhere and as such will not achieve a reduction in global net emissions. However, the conclusion should not be drawn that Scottish beef farmers cannot improve; they can. By being more productive, resilient and efficient, they will become more profitable and less reliant on public support, something the younger generation in particular craves. They can and will play a full part in combatting climate change by cutting emissions without significantly cutting numbers. A focus on domestic food production can deliver distinct benefits, most notably because every aspect of the land management and food production process can be monitored to ensure that practices are carried out with due consideration to the environment. Producing homegrown food is a desirable way of managing the land and has the added benefits of creating growth opportunities in the local economy as well as providing some degree of food security, the importance of which has yet again become all too clear during the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Scotland's suckler beef farmers have had to adapt to several seismic events over the years, from changes to the Common Agricultural Policy to the impact caused by Foot and Mouth Disease, and most notably the effects of the BSE crisis which closed export markets for 10 years. As such they have a history of responding to challenges, and the latest one that the world faces is climate change. The sector has already adopted innovative measures to play its part in fighting the challenge of climate change and is ready, willing and able to do more.
The SBCS will outline a path to reach achievable, clearly defined outcomes which will significantly reduce the emissions from the suckler beef sector, estimated to be just over 2.6MT CO2e in 2018, in order to help Scotland reach its net zero commitment.
The scheme is designed in such a way that any suckler beef farmer wishing to participate will be able to join, regardless of business structure, type, size or location. The measures outlined in the scheme will be user-friendly to enable and encourage maximum uptake, and will highlight that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the efficiency of suckler beef production in Scotland can – and will – work hand in hand.
The scheme criteria for entry and participation are innovative and meaningful, and the scheme will deliver on its defined objectives and targets by using a mixture of categories, each containing different management options that have the potential to deliver significant environmental and efficiency benefits along with likely improvements in business profitability. The uptake of various management options will provide access to relevant capital investment, continuous personal development (CPD) and training to ensure that businesses can utilise and incorporate innovative technology into their production systems. Access to innovative technology and relevant training will not only benefit individual farming businesses but will also generate additional labour opportunities within the Scottish suckler beef sector and beyond, thereby encouraging more people into the industry and particularly the younger generation which often offers already extensive knowledge and experience in dealing with information technology and electronic equipment.
The delivery of the scheme will be farmer-led but independently verified and audited to ensure that the products from participating farms meet standards that currently cannot be matched anywhere in the world. The sale and marketing of these products will be promoted by a trademark and a certification mark which will be licensed to users, thereby allowing participating farmers to reduce their reliance on public support to generate a profit margin, and gain some control over the marketing of their produce within a supply chain system that hasn't functioned properly for the last 25 years.
I am indebted to my group for their contribution to this report and the scheme it has inspired. Their enthusiasm, innovative ideas and grasp of the opportunities and challenges we face continue to provide the motivation that will drive forward these proposals in the most difficult circumstances.
The group would like to acknowledge the contribution of all those who made the effort to present to us and all those who replied to our consultation. Many of these ideas are captured in the management options we have incorporated into the scheme. In particular, I would like to thank Nigel Miller, NatureScot, and Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, for their input, advice and support.
Similarly, the team from SRUC, in particular Steven Thomson, Julian Bell, Gavin Hill and their colleagues for their tireless and ongoing work analysing and modelling the data required to evidence and support our work. Dr Andrew Moxey also needs a special mention for bringing his experience, knowledge and expertise inside Government to help guide and develop a workable scheme that can actually deliver the changes it promises.
Finally it would be impossible to overstate the contribution of Claire Simonetta from Mull in helping to deliver one of the most well thought out, detailed and professional pieces of work I have ever had the privilege to be involved in. Her effort, commitment and skill in the drafting of this report have been Herculean. She deserves huge credit for her work especially in the face of the IT and communication challenges we have faced between Mull and Sanquhar during a pandemic!!!!
This report represents the first stage on what will undoubtedly be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile journey. The next stage is the detailed design and development of the scheme that will deliver this new type of outcome driven approach to agricultural support. This will incorporate climate change, environmental and farm performance outcomes and improvements that offer a real chance of a better future not just for suckler beef farmers but all participating farmers.
Scotland has a unique opportunity to show the world that modern food production can operate hand in hand with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The fight against global warming, the preservation of our precious biodiversity, and improving economic activity, employment and food security are so important we can't afford to wait any longer talking about them.
We need to act now.