A REPORT on how Brexit could affect farming and crofting in the Highlands and Islands has been described as a "wake-up call" by Shetland Islands Council's economic development manager.
Douglas Irvine said the report, which was commissioned by the Highlands and Islands Agriculture Support Group and is published today (14 May), said existing challenges look only set to "increase rather than diminish" after the UK leaves the EU.
The group is now calling on the Scottish Government to ensure that future policy in areas like farming and land management is tailored to tackle the predicted challenges.
The report, titled Post-Brexit Implications for Agriculture and Associated Land Use in the Highlands and Islands, found that extensive livestock grazing across the region is vulnerable to potential Brexit-induced price reductions and to the removal of income support measures.
This could lead to the acceleration of existing trends in declining agricultural activity, land abandonment and a shrinking agricultural workforce.
It added that declining active land management could have a knock-on effect on food, drink and tourism, while it said mitigating Brexit impacts will require both income support to maintain a resident population of land managers plus more targeted support for providing specific public goods.
"Crucially, relative to current and past arrangements, policy support measures and funding levels need to better reflect the distinctive needs and contributions of the Highlands and Islands," the report continued.
Irvine, who is also the chairman of the Highlands and Islands Agriculture Support Group, said the report is a "wake-up call and shows how important farming and crofting is to the economy, people and environment of the Highlands and Islands, but also how vulnerable it is".
Rural economy and connectivity secretary Fergus Ewing said it is "vital" that the needs of the Highlands and Islands are not ignored in what he called one of the most challenging times in decades.
"I welcome this important report, which highlights the distinctive challenges of farming in the Highlands and Islands, both in terms of the land and those available to work it," he said.
"It confirms what I have been saying ever since the Brexit referendum – that Brexit is going to be the biggest challenge that the industry and rural communities has faced for generations.
"It is therefore vital that the special circumstances of the Highlands and Islands are not ignored, and that their unique social, economic and environmental conditions remain supported."
The RSPB's Vicki Swales said the organisation called on Scottish Government to "ensure that, in future, the environmental land management carried out by farmers and crofters – and all the public benefits that provides – are properly supported and rewarded."
The publication follows a report issued by Scotland's Rural College in February that suggested sheep stocks in Scotland could halve in the years following Brexit due to rising costs and farmers transferring from sheep to cattle, which is predicted to have better costs.
The latest report was carried out by consultants Dr Andrew Moxey of Pareto Consulting and Scotland's Rural College's Steven Thomson.
The Highlands and Islands Agriculture Support Group consists of the five local authorities in the region in addition to RSPB Scotland.