Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing yesterday reiterated his commitment to maintaining Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme (LFASS) funding at the full £65 million level for the next two years.
However, he hinted he may be forced to rob richer sectors such as arable farming in order to finance the package.
Mr Ewing will need to find an extra £12m of top-up funds for next year’s LFASS budget, which will otherwise be reduced to 80% and £36m the following year.
And while he says he is holding out hope the ongoing convergence review will result in EU funds being returned to Scotland, Defra has repeatedly made it clear there will be no redistribution of money.
“Obviously, we will have to find that money from somewhere,” Mr Ewing said ahead of a speech to NFU Scotland’s annual meeting.
“There are no easy decisions in Government and this one is in that category.”
He later made it clear redistributing funds was just one option being considered, but insisted it was only right to provide help to those most in need.
“Those in the farming world that most need help at the moment are in the less favoured areas – there’s not much dubiety or controversy about that and I have the support of stakeholders,” he said.
“I discussed the general approach with them at their less favoured areas committee meeting.
“If the convergence funding review doesn’t result in funds being returned to Scottish agriculture, we would have to take (the money) from existing budgets.”
However, the idea was condemned outright by newly re-elected NFUS president Andrew McCornick.
“What makes him think other sectors need the money less?” he said.
“If we’re competing with Europe when they’re getting higher levels of support, our arable sector will need as much support as it can get as well.
“He’d better come up with a better answer and it should be new money or underspent budgets from somewhere else.”
Turning to Brexit, Mr Ewing condemned what he called the UK Government’s “recklessness” in failing to rule out a no-deal after Environment Secretary Michael Gove had openly admitted such an outcome would see farmers facing “undeniable threats” to their livelihoods.
“He has openly admitted the consequences, that it would be catastrophic for sheep farmers,” Mr Ewing said.
“Mistakes are usually an error of judgement but this is not in that category. It seems to me that it is unpardonable to act in such a fashion when you can take no-deal off the table.
“Things are bad enough at the moment, but if the UK Government allows us to go to a stage where we see a collapse in lamb prices, for example, what additional pressures will it put on people who are isolated and don’t see a future at the moment?”