LAIRG, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 16: People watch as sheep farmers gather at Lairg auction for the great sale of lambs on August 16, 2016 in Lairg, Scotland. Lairg market hosts the annual lamb sale, which is the biggest one day livestock market in Europe, when some twenty thousand sheep from all over the north of Scotland are bought and sold. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Scottish farmers have called for a combination of continued access to the EU single market and sweeping reforms as divisions over Brexit were laid bare at their annual conference.

Allan Bowie, president of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, said that many farmers feared that they would be sacrificed in any post-Brexit trade deal made by UK ministers more concerned about cheap food than agricultural sustainability.

Farmers also fear the loss or restriction of EU subsidies, while those reliant on foreign workers for harvests and food processing say that curbs on labour movement could be disastrous. 

At the same time, Mr Bowie said, Brexit offered the sector the great hope of replacing the Common Agricultural Policy, which was “not working for Scotland or the UK”. 

“There is more excitement than fear,” Mr Bowie said, speaking at the NFUS gathering in Perthshire. “We are looking for a food security agricultural policy that is fit for the UK . . . that’s the exciting bit.” 

Few industries face greater direct impact from Brexit than agriculture and Scottish farmers warn that their sector is already fragile. The net income from the agriculture industry in Scotland dropped from £837m in 2013 to an estimated £667m in 2015.

Nearly three-quarters of that net income came from subsidies, according to the NFUS, meaning any reduction of CAP payments could render many farms completely unviable. The single market is also crucial, with Scotland’s non-whisky food exports to the EU worth £724m in 2015, more than two-thirds of the total sold outside the UK. 

The NFUS is calling for “unfettered access” to the EU single market and assurances that future imports will be subject to all UK standards. 

But some farmers are pessimistic about the prospects for continued access to EU markets and labour combined with a simpler, locally tailored policy replacing the hated CAP. 

“There is an incredible amount of naivety . . . we are playing with fire,” said Charlie Adam, a cattle and cereal farmer from Scotland’s north east. Mr Adam voted to remain in the EU and still hopes that the Brexit vote might be reconsidered. Much of the bureaucracy blamed on the EU was actually created by Scottish government officials, he added.

Even some who voted Leave are having second thoughts. James Barrie, a cattle farmer in the Borders, near England, said he voted for Brexit out of frustration at EU agricultural rules. But now Mr Barrie, 64, is worried about the impact on exports and the increased possibility of Scottish independence, which would be damaging for his business.

The next generation of farmers could suffer, he fears. “I voted to come out but I feel as if I was a bit selfish,” Mr Barrie says. “Maybe I didn’t take their interests into account enough.” 

Still, others insist it is time to grasp the opportunities to break away from EU policies such as the derided “three-crop rule”, a measure aimed at preventing monoculture farming that opponents say it is entirely unnecessary in many UK landscapes.

Peter Chapman, a farmer and Conservative member of the Scottish parliament, said he backed Remain but that it was now time to enthusiastically build a new farming policy system, without which Scottish agriculture would anyway be “stuffed”. 

Much will depend on how much political backing farmers can muster in Scotland and across the UK. Mr Bowie said that farmers were looking for the kind of assurances the UK government appears to have given the carmaker Nissan that its trading conditions would not be undermined by Brexit.

“I know the City of London, the car manufacturers, all the other industries are looking for these reassurances,” he said. “But we cannot be left as an afterthought.”

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