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22 May 2000

Give our farmers a future

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

In the visitors’ dressing room underneath the west stand at Murrayfield, a Border rugby team were listening to a pre-match harangue from their captain. A man of very few words, Jack Armstrong laid down team tactics and summed up the opposition, Edinburgh Wanderers, in one staccato sentence: “Right boys . . . just get out there and retaliate first . . . be physical . . . because . . . remember . . . this is a city team . . . just a bunch of solicitors, accountants and . . . poofs.” “Poofs, Jack?” “Aye, poofs. I saw one of them come into the stand with his raincoat tied at the front.”

The poofs happened to be the Scottish club champions in the late 1960s and, despite the power and granite-hard commitment of his pack of Border forwards, Armstrong often found himself on the losing side against the city slickers. Nevertheless, his own strength in the tackle was immense; and, after putting an All Black in hospital when they played the South of Scotland, he won half a dozen caps as a flank forward for Scotland.

Armstrong would probably have played more for his country, but he never really had the time to do any serious training. His natural fitness stemmed almost exclusively from his work. A hill farmer, he walked many miles every day and, at certain times of the year, lifted tons of live weight each week. Armstrong started work early in the morning, was out in all weathers, and finished when he was too tired to do any more.

Nowadays, he thinks he is completely finished. At 60, his immense strength is leaking away. And last week, trying to catch a ewe that had become separated from her lambs, he had what the doctor called “an incident”, when his heart palpitated and took more than an hour to return to normal. Always believed to have a big heart, it turns out that Armstrong’s is too big.

Looking out over the evening fields and the big Border skies under which he has walked his life, Armstrong reflected that much of what he and his wife, Joan, had put into their farm would be lost. Neither of their boys are interested in taking it on; given the state of farming in Scotland, who can blame them? Certainly not their father. And he expects no sympathy from the city slickers he pounded into the ground 30 years ago. Farmers had a decent, even prosperous, life at one time, and now they are in trouble – exactly the sort of cycle that has affected other traditional industries. Why should farming be immune?

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Despite the palpable air of sadness around the big man, Armstrong has no anger or wish to recriminate. But what does interest him is the likely reaction of urban populations when the countryside they see out of their car windows begins to change significantly. He is not talking about a long process stretching over generations, but something much more immediate. As farming becomes less and less attractive, and places are sold to big companies or given over permanently to large-scale pasture, dykes and fences will fall quickly into disrepair, shelter woodland will not be looked after properly or even replaced; and, as the comforting man-made pattern of fields and hedges so characteristic of the British countryside begins to lose its shape, Armstrong believes that change will come very soon – because many fewer people will care about the ground and what stands on it.Quantifying and managing it are not the same as caring about 1,000 acres of Scotland. For these simple human reasons alone, according to Armstrong, rapid change is coming. But will those who drive out of the cities to picnic, walk, fish, or just to enjoy the view, object when the countryside begins noticeably to decay?

A series of statistics published by Lloyds TSB Scotland sets out the immediate future for farming in stark terms and suggests that the pace of change might at the very least cause concern. In the next five years, the number of working farms in Scotland will fall by a further 8 per cent. Of those left, 52 per cent, such as Armstrong’s farm, have no successor in place. In the Scottish Borders, the average age of farmers is 58, and Lloyds TSB predicts that a staggering 46 per cent of all working farmers will retire in the next ten years. What lies behind these human percentages is a huge lump of acreage.

Brutal market economists will immediately see that these statistics will solve most of the problems of overproduction, and will also gradually draw farming away from an over-reliance on public subsidy. This is just as well. With the likely entry into the EU of several eastern European nations whose agrarian economies will need support, there is likely to be a far smaller slice of the Common Agricultural Policy funding for Scotland and Britain in general.

A series of predictable difficulties is brewing into a crisis in the Scottish countryside. Ross Finnie is the Minister for Rural Affairs in the Scottish Executive and is no doubt fully aware of the complexities of the CAP and the rest of the labyrinthine arithmetic surrounding agricultural policy. But his immediate task should be something much simpler. He needs to give farming in Scotland some hope, and some sense that it is worth hanging on for better times. Politically, he needs to get out there and retaliate first.

Alistair Moffat

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