Hill Farmer's Blog - 20 December 2018

There is an unequivocal case for maintaining lifeline LFA support at current levels writes Langholm hill farmer Lorraine Luescher of Glendinning Farms, a member on NFU Scotland’s LFA committee.

It is absolutely clear that events over the past year have resulted in significant financial and physical challenges for upland farming businesses all over Scotland.

In a bid to build a case for maintaining LFASS payments at current levels going forward into 2019, 2020 and beyond, the LFA Committee carried out a survey of members to establish losses of sheep and cattle between June 2017 and June 2018 and then to provide comparison figures for the average losses over the previous five-year period.
The results revealed a 120% increase in sheep losses from June 2017 to June 2018 and a 97% increase in cattle losses compared with the average over the previous 5 years. 

We were also asked to project the effects of adverse weather events alongside the potential loss of a large percentage of our LFASS payments on the future viability of our businesses. Results showed that 94.7% of respondents did not believe that their businesses would be viable over the next 3 years without LFA support.

NFUS is already using this information to support a request to the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the European Commission for a derogation to the European Regulation which requires a reduction in LFASS payments of 20% in 2019 and 80% in 2020. 

Farmers generally play down the bad times but during the late winter and spring of 2018, some harrowing stories emerged. Hill businesses went into last winter from a low point due in part to the long, wet summer which had made it difficult to sell store lambs in the autumn sales of 2017. Many finishers of store lambs hadn’t managed to complete the harvest of their crops and couldn’t take lambs. My own income from sheep sales from a flock of 2700 ewes was down £17,000 compared with the previous year.

This was followed in the early part of 2018 by the impact of the prolonged period of deep snow cover in January and again in late February and March. Some hill places suffered huge losses of sheep in the build up to lambing. 
Figures provided by the fallen stock companies only told part of the story as it was several weeks before the extent of the loss became apparent. As the snow melted, we continued for many weeks to find the remains of sheep which had perished, trapped by the snow on the hill.

The heaviest losses were suffered by those who were unable to get to sheep with feed. In my case, I spent almost double my usual spend on sheep feed. I still lost around 20% of my blackface ewes and nearly 10% of my South Country Cheviots. In the end the Cheviots lambed well and had milk, but the blackies performed less well with only 66% of the scanned lambs surviving. This left me with very few blackface lambs to sell.

It’s difficult to rebuild numbers in a hefted flock because you cannot easily replace ewes with purchased sheep as these ewes will have no knowledge of the ground, you’re introducing them onto, and no natural immunity to local challenges such as ticks. This is a very risky way to rebuild numbers, and survival rates are often low.

Most hefted flocks are made up of regular-aged sheep between one and five years old all bred on the farm. We generally sell the 5-year-old ewes and keep the best ewe lambs as replacements thus maintaining numbers, but where the lambing percentage has been low there may be insufficient ewe lambs to do this, and keeping older ewes is not always advisable as they are less able to survive the winter conditions.  Rebuilding numbers in this way reduces income from sales and it can take up to five years to complete the process, with consequent loss of income over that period.

My experience was replicated across many high hill farms in the Southern Uplands and beyond. Despite fewer store lambs and draft ewes going through the markets this year, prices have not returned to the level of 2 years ago. And for those of us trying to rebuild our flocks, we are doing this against a backdrop of ever-increasing input costs.
For example feed blocks are up £30 per ton this year, straw is costing up to £135 per ton, and the prices of vaccines and injectable scab prevention have risen by 8% this year. Ewe rolls have increased in price by 32% since 2015, from £195 per tonne in October 2015 to £257 in October 2018. All this threatens the future viability of agricultural businesses in Scotland’s Less Favoured Areas.
The situation in the hills is unprecedented and there is clearly a pressing case for ongoing LFA support at least at current levels. Otherwise the risk of extensive land abandonment is very real.

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