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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 October 2007, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
Sheep farmers face 'bleak' times
By Andrew Cassell
BBC Scotland correspondent

In a house by Loch Awe, deep in the hills of Argyll, we are enjoying a fine breakfast laid on by the farmer we have come to see.

A shepherd with his sheep
Food for the sheep is now in short supply in the Scottish Highlands

We are pressed for time but it would have been churlish to refuse such generous hospitality.

During the meal it is clear that, in common with hill farmers across the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Angus MacGillivray is struggling.

The cause of his difficulties are being rounded up outside.

He has around 400 sheep grazing his land but many of them shouldn't be here at all.

His lambs, born in April, had been sold for export back in August but foot-and-mouth restrictions meant he couldn't move them.

Marginal

Now the markets are gone, his animals cannot find enough food on the hillside, and he cannot afford to buy extra fodder for them.

Under their ample fleeces, the animals are skin and bone.

"Without the welfare scheme, I'd have to give them away," says Mr MacGillivray.

He pauses and apologises for choking back his emotion as he surveys the animals in the pen before him.

"I'm sorry," he says. "This is a year's work..."

If something isn't done about it now, there won't be a sheep industry in the west coast of Scotland
Angus MacGillivray, farmer

A year's work wasted is the phrase he couldn't bring himself to say.

"This is when we make our money for the rest of the year. This is our harvest and we aren't able to move anything or sell anything."

He is not alone.

For Scottish hill farmers the Highlands are a marginal environment in which to nurture their animals - the climate is harsh, the season short.

They rely on being able to sell their animals onto farmers in more fertile areas who then fatten them up for market or a specialist export market in Spain and Italy.

'Too late'

In the absence of those markets the Scottish Government is to pay hill farmers to slaughter more than 250,000 lambs to stop them starving to death - 15 will be paid for each carcass.

"We have the welfare scheme," says Mr MacGillivray. "But it's not going to be quick enough.

"It is a fortnight too late. Because of the amount of lambs left they are not going to get them shifted in time."

Scottish farmers in the Highlands and Islands are furious that a foot-and-mouth outbreak hundreds of miles away may cost many of them their livelihoods.

For Mr MacGillivray, survival this winter depends on the sympathy of his bank manager and the size of his overdraft.

"It's very, very bleak," he confides as we part company.

"And if something isn't done about it now, there won't be a sheep industry in the west coast of Scotland - there will be nobody in these hills looking after them."





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