Wolves, bears and lynx will be reintroduced to Scotland “over my dead body”, the SNP's Rural Economy Minister has promised as he came under intense fire over the damage beavers are causing farming.
Fergus Ewing told the NFU Scotland (NFUS) annual general meeting that the reintroduction of any species that make farming more difficult “won’t happen in Scotland as long as I’m around.”
In an apparent swipe at the controversial reintroduction of beavers, he said the problems they had caused “shows precisely why it’s absolutely essential that we do not proceed on any more misguided experiments of this nature.”
The minister’s intervention came after Paul Lister, who became a multi-millionaire after inheriting his father’s MFI furniture business fortune, outlined plans for a 50,000-acre reserve for two packs of wolves in Sutherland.
But farmers warned Mr Ewing that beavers were a much more imminent threat to their livelihoods, arguing it was unfair they had to bear the costs caused their introduction and a future licensing regime to keep down their numbers would “cost serious amounts of taxpayers’ cash”
In another blow to the sector, the minister admitted that hill farmers and crofters will be forced to apply for a loan because a botched £178 million IT system that was supposed to pay their EU subsidies was still not “totally” ready.
He also used his keynote address to reject claims his officials’ failure to conduct any financial modelling for a post-Brexit subsidy system was a “dereliction of duty”, arguing the lack of detail from the UK Government made this impossible.
Andrew McCornick, the NFUS president, had used his keynote speech the previous day to warn the unauthorised release of beavers in Tayside was a “far bigger” problem than Brexit for affected farmers.
He said the animals were threatening many farmers’ ability to farm by causing riverbanks to collapse, flooding and soil erosion. “There must be a point where we can say enough is enough,” he added.
An estimated 200 wild beavers have been living in the area for several years, after they escaped or were illegally released, in addition to an officially-sanctioned trial reintroduction programme at Knapdale in Argyll.
In addition, Mr Lister, who owns the 23,000-acre Alladale estate, has commissioned a consultation to house about a dozen wolves behind a 3m-high fence. He has also previously suggested that bears could be brought to Sutherland, arguing the move would transform tourism.
But, rejecting the reintroduction of lynx, bears and wolves, Mr Ewing told the conference: “This will happen over my dead body. I cannot and I will not support anything which creates further gratuitous challenges or difficulty for our farming sector.
“There are quite enough predators to be getting along with, some of which you are permitted to control. So, there will be no lynx in Scotland, there will be no wolves and bears.”
He also pressed Michael Gove, the UK Environment Secretary, to reject plans to reintroduce lynx in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland, arguing they do not know “when they’ve arrived at Hadrian’s Wall or find it difficult to get across.”
But farmers challenged Mr Ewing to step up and address the beaver problem, which he admitted was “serious” in the affected areas.
He warned that the public would not “countenance a mass cull” but pledged to go to Strathmore in Angus to see for himself the damage and discuss ways to mitigate it.
Mr Ewing said all the problems with the IT system that is supposed to make Common Agricultural Policy payments have yet to be resolved, meaning loans will have to be paid out for the third year running, but “we are getting there.”
He announced eligible hill farmers and crofters will be offered a loan worth up to 90 per cent of their Less Favoured Area Support Scheme money from a £55 million fund.
The minister argued that any financial modelling for a post-Brexit subsidy scheme would be “pure speculation” as the UK Government has provided “no figures, no plans and no money.”
But Peter Chapman, the Scottish Tories’ Shadow Rural Economy Minister, said Mr Ewing’s claims were met by “deafening silence” in the audience.
He said: “Nothing is stopping Fergus Ewing from taking the initiative and putting forward his ideas for how the system will work after.”