by Claire Taylor

IT is Christmas Eve on our family farm near Coylton in south Ayrshire. I’m waiting impatiently for the news to break that a Brexit deal has been delivered – an early Christmas present from the Tories as it has since been touted.

I agree at first, with a sigh of relief, that the farming sector – which I spend my days writing about – has avoided the prospects of hefty tariffs on our prized red meat industry amongst other sectors, and concerns over free movement of labour might be averted.

The devil, however, is in the detail and so it is still too early to celebrate. Although tariff-free trade can mostly continue between the UK and the EU, increased paperwork and export health certification is slowing the process and the National Farming Union president, Minette Batters, has stressed that any extra costs must not be passed back to farmers, who are already operating on thin margins.

Under the UK-EU trade agreement, almost all food and plant exports from the UK to the EU can continue, but seed potatoes – grown to be replanted to produce a potato crop – were not included, due to disagreement over plant health regulations.

Seed potato production is a vital sector in Scotland, and we grow around 80 per cent of total UK production. Scotland will no longer be able to export its annual 20,000 tonnes of seed potatoes to the EU, however, a continuity trade deal with Egypt should still protect Scotland’s single largest market, which receives 30-40,000 tonnes annually.

I have never seen so many politicians take to Twitter to speak so loudly in support of potato farmers of late – with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leading the charge. Long may this new-found support for the sector continue.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and here we are in 2021. Brexit’s no longer the leading headline and with the nation in the grips of another lockdown, all everyone cares about is knowing when their turn will come to be vaccinated, longing for the go-ahead to kickstart our lives and the economy.

I have many hopes for the year ahead, one of which includes the removal of ‘unprecedented’ from the scribblings of every journalist in the country – myself included. Did you know we are living in unprecedented times?

The past year has been one of many changes and to focus on a positive. Scots reignited their love affair with Scotland’s great outdoors. Every second post on Instagram this summer depicted another “Munro moment” or nature discovery – giving the nation a much-needed mental health boost.

Unfortunately, my work inbox was also filled with cries of anger from various nature organisations – appealing to the public to access the countryside responsibly and take their litter home with them. What might be a playground and escape for many, is a workplace for our countryside custodians who have had to cope with increased footfall on their land – even our Prime Minister made the headlines in August for pitching his tent in a farmer’s field in Applecross, without permission. Along with a rediscovery of Scotland’s countryside came the public’s reconnection with how their food is produced. Lockdown sparked a buy-local revolution, a return to the days of visiting local butchers and grocers, along with getting to know where and how our food is produced.

With more people working and cooking at home, family dinners were back on the table and local businesses relished the demand for their produce, similar to that of the Christmas rush.

Supermarkets have often won over the public on account of their one-stop-shop appeal, but supporting small independent businesses will keep money circulating locally, rather than supermarkets being a Dick Turpin – without a mask.

With an election this May, climate change will be top of the agenda for most candidates and with the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow, this November, Scotland is desperate to present itself as a global leader in tackling greenhouse gas emissions. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing MSP, told the Oxford Farming Conference that Scotland had the potential to be the “engine room of climate change action for the UK”.

In an attempt to achieve this, Scotland seems determined to cover its land with trees. A concept which, if executed in a way that works alongside and not instead of farming production, should be welcomed. Scotland has ambitious plans to plant around 12,000 hectare of new trees a year – that’s around 25 million trees – and that target is set to rise to 18,000 hectares of new plantings by 2025.

However, the Government must tread cautiously and look to work more co-operatively with farmers if we are to ensure that we do not just see huge swathes of land turned over to forestry and our beautiful countryside devoid of the people and rural communities who work to preserve the iconic landscapes which give Scotland its sense of pride and identity.

As we look ahead with optimism to a year where Zoom quizzes become a much-needed thing of the past, there are lessons from lockdown which must not be forgotten in our return to “normality”. My hope is that support for local businesses and our rediscovered love for Scotland’s great outdoors continues.

I feel honoured to join The Herald as a columnist at such a significant time in our history, to be able to provide comment and analysis on the issues which shape rural Scotland, whilst Brexit’s unravelling, elections are approaching, and climate change ambitions take centrefold to our everyday lives.

There’s a bumpy road ahead… and sometimes we just need to be able to see the wood for the trees!

Claire Taylor is The Scottish Farmer’s political affairs editor.