The outcome of the Scottish independence referendum has huge implications for North East farmers and our single market. Not the single market that Europe offers, but the local market, stretching over our region.
Currently we have a strong local market that knows no physical border between England and Scotland. Border controls with an independent Scotland will surely arise if they are not in the EU or are classified as a new member, as new members have to join the Schengen area (free movement of people) and adopt the euro as their national currency.
In either case, Northumberland will be at the frontier of the EU or Schengen area and as such will require border controls. The movement of animals and people would be a nightmare.
Using the euro for Scottish purchases, and sales, presents an additional challenge for North East farmers. One thing is guaranteed when it comes to adding currency exchange into the mix – there will be profits to be made and they will not be made by farmers but by the banks and traders. So in practice what will happen to the markets?
Take that great institution Kelso Ram Sales, one of the largest in the world, with thousands of rams and buyers and sellers from across the UK. This traditional method of buying and selling tups has survived the six-day movement rule, yet I doubt Kelso would survive Scottish independence. A buyer (or seller) would have to be very committed to go to purchase (or sell) a tup in a different currency.
Currently there is vast movement of finished, store and breeding stock to and from Scotland. For example, Scottish Aberdeen Angus for Waitrose go to Doncaster to be slaughtered. Thinking that all livestock will be slaughtered at their place of origin is not a realistic option – if it was, it would happen now.
Farmers finishing cattle in the North of England have traditionally bought lots of cattle from Wales and the South West of England. Due to the bovine TB problems in these areas, and the resulting TB tracing test, quite a number of farmers have indicated that in future they will go to the Scottish Borders markets to purchase their store cattle as Scotland is TB-free.
The free movement of livestock with the UK is also essential to maintain breeding stock supplies. This single market is in danger of being compromised with border and currency complications. For those farming either side of the border, daily life will become more difficult. Operating across different tax systems – income tax, corporation tax, VAT, national insurance – will be like opening a can of worms, requiring the expensive support of accountants. At the moment living and working across the border is fairly easy. Land prices and rents are currently influenced in part by the different CAP schemes in England and Scotland. Bringing currency into the mix will only add to the complications and further increase the use of land as a speculative investment.
It is very noticeable that agriculture is in a much healthier state in mainland Europe, and farm infrastructure, such as steadings, buildings and fences, are better maintained. Since devolution, the Scottish Government, to its credit, has been trying to achieve this healthier state by encouraging farmers to farm well.
They still have their advisory service and are promoting the repopulation of hills and uplands.
Defra, on the other hand, focuses on policing rules rather than promoting industry.
Owen Paterson and Defra need to wake up and learn from Europe and Scotland’s positive attitude to implementing policies which will encourage profitable agriculture and help the maintenance of our rural infrastructure and landscape. We already have ridiculous bureaucracy that is incompatible between England, Scotland and Wales. For example, movement forms are going from paper to electronic with the full introduction of EID. However, the English and Scottish sheep EID do not speak to each other. The whole of the UK needs to be one system as it is one market.
If Defra cannot get its act together and work with the other ministries to have a practical workable system when we are all one country, I very much doubt its willingness to find common solutions if Scotland becomes independent. More time and money will be wasted by all parties, farmers, government, and others in the industry.
There really are more questions than answers when it comes to working out the implications of Scottish independence.
The Westminster and EU parliaments respect the rights and needs of a proud and devolved Scotland. Further devolution of powers is also on the cards.
Those seeking Scottish independence want the current market arrangements to stay the same. To keep the same market opportunities and the prospects of a more profitable future for both English and Scottish farmers, it is better to stay together.
Dougie Watkin, a farmer from Norham in north Northumberland, who has land on both sides of the border, says: “There’s only one thing that’s certain with independence – it leads to extra costs and bureaucracy and more hassle, and to what end. If we were separate countries, we would be clamouring to be together!”
It really would be quite something if you had to take your own passport to the mart as well as those of your cattle.