A NEW scheme to support sheep producers in Scotland’s hills and uplands opened for applications yesterday (Sept 1) – but farmers are still in the dark over exactly how to access the funds.

An estimated 3500 to 4000 hill farmers and crofters, keeping breeding flocks on some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged land, can now apply to the Scottish Upland Sheep Support Scheme (SUSSS), a fund worth €8 million (£6.1m).

The coupled support scheme is for home-bred ewe hoggs – young female sheep retained from the previous year’s lamb crop for breeding. Payments rates will depend on the number of ewe hoggs claimed, and vary with the exchange rate in force at the time, but the Scottish Government has estimated that it could be worth around €100 per ewe hogg – a lifeline payment for hill farmers and crofters at a time when both market returns and primary support payments are falling.

To claim under the SUSSS, applications, either on line or on paper, must be submitted in the relatively short six-week window between September 1 and October 16.

However, NFU Scotland has voiced concerned at the lack of basic information on the application process to date, and this week called on the Scottish Government to write to every potential applicant immediately to ensure that they are all fully aware of the rules.

Union president Allan Bowie said: “Scotland’s hill sheep farmers and crofters need a clearer steer over this important new scheme that could help underpin returns to their business. The scheme is now live, applications are open, but that information has, to date, been poorly communicated to potential claimants and we need Scottish Government to turn that around with a degree of urgency.

“At €8 million, this scheme is one of the key measure of ensuring that CAP direct payments are best targeted at those who actively farm. Facing a lower Basic Payment on Region 3 land, an upland sheep scheme helps to ensure that we use our limited budget to best effect. Crucially, by targeting it at ewe hoggs, it has been designed so that it funds are only for those who keep regular breeding flocks on our most disadvantage land.

“It is vital that eligible farmers and crofters make the most of this scheme as it will be an increasingly important element of the direct funding available to their business.

“As a Union, we are doing our bit to relay that message to our members but Scottish Government must do its part as well. This package of funding was only secured after hard fought negotiations at a European, UK and Scottish level. It is in everyone’s interests that we make it work and for that to happen, we need the Scottish Government to be more proactive in getting scheme details out there.”

- For in-depth news and views on Scottish agriculture, see this Friday’s issue of The Scottish Farmer or visit www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk