Visitors to the Royal Highland Show at the Royal Highland Centre in Edinburgh on June 20- 23 will have no shortage of rural issues to chew over.

The 240th anniversary of the Royal Highland & Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS) coincides with a period that has witnessed a whirlwind of change sweep through Scotland’s rural landscape after floods and storm damage, the Covid-19 pandemic, the impact of global conflicts and the geopolitical fallout from these seismic events.

In direct response to that whirlwind, organisations in agriculture, primary food production and land management in Scotland have formalised a stakeholder group to come together as one voice on common objectives when Scotland’s future agriculture policy is defined. As the Scottish Government’s Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill continues its course through the Scottish Parliament, the Food and Agriculture Stakeholder Taskforce (FAST) has been constituted as a limited company.

FAST has been founded in response to frustration in the rural sector about a perceived ‘lack of detail’ on agricultural policy in Scotland and a ‘lack of broad engagement’ from the Scottish Government with the wider sector.

Executive director of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland (IAAS), Neil Wilson, says that the aim of FAST is to provide leadership and collaboration on common goals for the agriculture sector.

“We are stronger speaking together as one voice on mutual areas of concern and significance where possible,” he said.

“Not only does this allow our asks to be clearly and concisely delivered to Scottish Government but FAST also provides policy makers with a wide range of sector expertise.”

Wilson added that policy-makers can draw on this expertise to help shape policy rather than undermine the long-term success of agriculture and food production.

“We ultimately all want the same thing: the right policies in place to drive profitable and sustainable agricultural supply chains and primary food retail in Scotland,” he said.

And with climate change and biodiversity loss being key drivers of change both politically and practically, there seems little doubt that land management looks set to take its rightful place at the forefront of Scotland’s political and economic agenda.

Taking steps now to ensure that our land is resilient and able to meet the challenges of tackling climate change while producing high-quality food will make sure Scotland’s rural sector is both fit for the future and able to thrive rather than just survive.

Speaking at the annual conference of rural business organisation Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) in Edinburgh in May, SLE chairman Dee Ward welcomed the renewed focus of political leaders on fostering a prospering economy that can build resilience and deliver for people, jobs, and nature.

The conference took place in the context of a Scottish legislative agenda that included bills on agriculture, wildlife management, land reform and housing making their way through Parliament in the coming months.

Noting that estates generate an estimated £2.4 billion gross value added per year for the Scottish economy, support ap- proximately 57,300 jobs – around one in 10 rural jobs – and provide land for 14,000 rural enterprises, Ward said that rural businesses could play a hugely important role in supporting the resilience of rural communities as well as helping to address the climate and nature emergencies.

“I believe that now is the moment for the Scottish Government to reset its relationship with rural Scotland, better understand the positive work we are undertaking to deliver benefits for everyone and create an evidence-based environment for legislation that supports our work to continue delivering these benefits now, and in the future,” he said.

“Recent years have seen the introduction of policies and legislation that fail to recognise the enormous contributions es- tates are making to our national outcomes.

“I urge estates to continue delivering these benefits, for nature, people, and climate, let our positive impact do the talking – and leave our government in no doubt that we are leading the way in growing our rural economy and in our fight against the climate and nature emergencies.

“Providing the government is ready and willing to work with us, I’m certain we can do even more to foster this social, economic, and environmental contribution. Estate businesses are playing a key role in food production, forestry and peatland restoration, tourism, clean energy and nature and wildlife conservation.”

Addressing the conference, agriculture and connectivity minister, Jim Fairlie, said that improving the resilience of rural businesses is vital in order to safeguard Scotland’s economic prosperity in the future.

“Many businesses are still feeling the negative impacts of Brexit and the Covid pandemic and many are also feeling the effects of the twin crises of climate change and nature loss,” he said.

“I recognise the vast contribution rural businesses make to our economy. This government is committed to working with rural businesses to improve resilience in order to meet these challenges head on.”

SLE is hopeful that the rural expertise of the new government leaders First Minister John Swinney and Deputy first minister Kate Forbes will be important

in tackling the challenges of the next few years should they choose to seize the opportunity to revitalise the Scottish Government’s relationship with businesses in rural Scotland.

Such revitalisation could be realised through a range of measures, such as addressing the gap in funding and delivery on climate mitigation and nature restoration, including forestry; agriculture; peatland restoration and natural flood management, reversing rural depopulation by supporting the delivery of more rural homes, ensuring a fair share of Scotland’s housing budget is allocated to rural areas and focusing on delivering promised upgrades to rural transport and digital connectivity.

Sarah-Jane Laing, chief executive of SLE, said that with
a change in leadership a new opportunity exists for rural Scotland’s communities and businesses to have a greater voice in rural policymaking.

“Both Mr Swinney and Ms Forbes represent rural constitu- encies and fully understand the issues and pressures that exist
– and how government decision making is vital in working for, not against, rural Scotland,” she said.

“Estates account for 57 per cent of Scotland’s renewable energy generating capacity while welcoming 5.4 million Scottish residents annually to enjoy the natural environment.

“Between land reform, the Agriculture Bill shaping future farming subsidies, changes to deer management, a new Hous- ing Bill and various other issues such as natural capital, forestry and peatland restoration, we recognise that substantial change is on the horizon.”

Recognising this pace of change sweeping through Scotland’s rural sector, David Tennant, head of show for the RHASS, emphasises that while tradition livestock competitions and parades are the cornerstone of the event, the Royal Highland Show is anything but conventional and itself embraces change.

With a growing focus on sustainability and enhancing the visitor experience, the show has evolved to include a wide array of unexpected elements such as mountain biking displays and an interactive honey marquee, with Scotland’s Larder showcasing a collection of brands presenting their finest cheeses, fruits, oils, chocolates, spirits, and more.

After welcoming 217,000 guests last year, the RHASS is keen to build upon this success and attract an even larger crowd this month as it seeks to keep up with the many changes sweeping through and shaking up Scotland’s dynamic rural sector.