By Sarah-Jane Laing, Executive Director of Scottish Land & Estates

IF you wander through many of Scotland’s farming landscapes, you’re likely to hear not only the sounds of the countryside but also the chatter of conversation in many different languages.

Our agriculture sector is directly responsible for contributing £670 million to the Scottish economy and alongside our tourism industry, it is vital in maintaining thriving rural communities. Yet, the role permanent and seasonal migrant workers in sustaining that success should not be underestimated. Put simply, our colleagues from across the world help to keep the Scottish rural economy on the road.

In recent media coverage, farms across the country, especially in the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and Angus, have explained how difficult it is to fill seasonal roles with local labour – despite meeting the living wage and offering other significant benefits on top.

Instead, those roles have been filled by workers from Ukraine and Moldova under a UK Government pilot allowing 2,500 additional non-EU workers to come to the UK to offset the falling numbers of seasonal workers. One soft fruit farm in Arbroath has recruited 100 Ukrainian employees who were keen to come here to pick strawberries which are grown at table height to make it easier and faster for workers to harvest.

The Conservatives announced earlier this month that they will quadruple this pilot to 10,000 workers next year if they are returned to power. Whilst this would be welcomed by agricultural businesses, it highlights the ever-shifting sands that our rural economy has been dealing with since the EU referendum in 2016 where short-term, never mind long-term decision making, is fraught with uncertainty.

Our organisation Scottish Land & Estates, which represents rural businesses across the country, recently published its “‘manifesto” for a thriving rural economy – essentially our policy asks of whoever forms the next UK government.

Trade and labour are one of our five key priorities, including the reintroduction of a permanent Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. But it should be remembered that migrant workers don’t just come to Scotland for agricultural work; our leisure and tourism industry is heavily reliant on a non-UK workforce. This industry plays a huge role in the sustainability of Scotland’s rural communities. Unless we see alternative arrangements proposed by the Home Office, the tourism industry, and subsequently the rural communities they support, are going to suffer.

That will also have knock-on impacts for the other policy aims of Scotland and the rest of the UK. Our urgent need to combat climate change is paramount, and Scottish landowners have been at the forefront of forestry planting, renewable energy and peatland restoration programmes for many years as we seek to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and sequestrate carbon.

However, there is an adage that is frequently mentioned by rural stakeholders: businesses cannot be green when they are in the red. If policy decisions are taken that do not allow farming and tourism businesses to prosper then it is unlikely that going the extra mile on climate change will be the priority.

As we look to December 13 and beyond, the next UK Parliament will be able to make significant decisions on reserved matters that will impact upon rural Scotland – on our environment, our economy and on our communities.

Scotland’s rural communities have proven to be resilient, flexible and innovative – and we have every confidence that this will continue as we face uncertainty and challenges ahead. However, we do require assistance in order to help that happen – both from policymakers and employees from outside the UK who are already working hard to help our businesses and communities to thrive.