Good afternoon. The first item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-12425, in the name of Rachael Hamilton, on the culture and heritage value of agriculture. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament notes the importance of the almost 200 agricultural shows that are held across the UK; understands that it is estimated that 10% of the population attends at least one of these events each year; notes that these include the Border Union Agricultural Show in Kelso, which has been held for over 200 years, the Berwickshire Show in Duns, and the Newcastleton, St Boswells and Yarrow shows; believes that these are important for showcasing the best of what the agricultural sector has to offer to people from outwith the farming community, driving up standards and preserving and protecting heritage; understands that many farmers can trace their ancestral links with their land that goes back centuries; believes that farmers are best placed to ensure that their land is productive and sustainable, yet understands that they need to be open to the fresh ideas of new entrants; notes what it sees as the importance of the physical heritage of farming, including farmhouses and steadings and the many ruins and derelict buildings, such as shepherd huts, which can be seen around the country; believes that these derelict sites can pose as monuments to the agricultural past but can also get new leases of life as rural housing, shops, B&Bs and other facilities; notes the contribution made by groups such as the Scottish Association of Young Farmers in preserving traditional customs and practices, organising social events and encouraging people to join or stay in agriculture, and wishes them all the best with this work.
“Agriculture, in every civilized nation, has been justly regarded as an object of the first importance, and, of all the useful arts, the most deserving of public attention and encouragement”.
Those words, which still hold true today, were first written in the year 1800 in the book, “General View of the Agriculture of the County of Fife”.
I am pleased to speak in this debate recognising the culture and heritage value of agriculture throughout Scotland. I congratulate Rachael Hamilton on securing the debate.
Fife has a long-standing, varied and proud agricultural heritage. Anyone visiting Fife can see at first hand that its landscape has been carved out by agriculture and industry. Covering 132,500 hectares and a farmland area of 97,000 hectares, Fife boasts 524 farms of 50 hectares or more. In total, there are 1,530 farms and holdings in Fife, including 17 dairy farms, 19 specialist sheep farms, 28 specialist beef farms, 202 cereal farms, 44 specialist poultry farms and 282 mixed farms. As well as being industrial, Fife is a farming area.
It is clear to anyone that agriculture is a significant part of Fife’s local economy. As well as being a necessity, it is also something that people take pride in and wish to celebrate. The motion takes note of the various agricultural shows that take place across the country, and, of course, Fife is no exception to that tradition. Since 1821, an annual show has been held in Fife to encourage and showcase the breeding of livestock. Nowadays, one of the most popular agricultural shows in the country, the Fife show, takes place near Cupar every year. The show is run by volunteers and its aim is to promote, support and work with agriculture in Fife and beyond.
We must recognise the value that having something like the Fife show brings to the local area. Thousands of visitors come to see livestock and vintage and modern machinery, to visit the game fair area, to take in the entertainment and to sample wonderful food and drink. It is estimated that between 14,000 and 15,000 people attend the show in Cupar every year. Such events provide fantastic family outings while celebrating our shared agricultural heritage. In addition, such events are part of our modern culture.
The west Fife show, which was founded in 1962, takes place near my home village of Kelty. The event provides a wonderful outing for families, and it is a chance to educate everyone about agriculture, rural life and how their food is grown and produced.
Even though I come from a background of coal mining in Fife, I and the communities across Fife are well aware of the importance of agriculture to our local economy and, indeed, to our way of life. I am proud to join other members in the chamber in celebrating all that is good about agriculture.
I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing this timely debate to the chamber, now that we are very much in agricultural show season. I also thank every farmer, crofter, food producer and person who works on the land.
I grew up in the Caithness countryside and spent many long weekends and holidays with the Mackays on the neighbouring farm, Biggins—or “Beagins” as it is in Caithness dialect. I belonged to Bower young farmers club, which was the Scottish young farmers club of the year in 2016, and I continue to have great friends in the farming and crofting community across my constituency.
I congratulate Bower young farmers junior team on winning the junior stock judging at the Royal Highland Show, and I congratulate Beth Dunnet for getting first junior individual and Alistair McCarthy for getting second junior individual. [
.] Yes—thank you.
I remember those days well. They shaped my childhood and, indeed, they shaped who I became as a person. Members will not be surprised that finding new kittens in the shed or the barn, being out on the tractor or in the lorry on the way to the mart—we had a mart in Caithness in those days—gathering in and dipping the sheep, getting bitten by the horse, helping with the lambing, playing on the bales and just being outside are some of the best memories from my childhood. Those experiences made me aware of where my food comes from and gave me a huge appreciation of the hard work that farmers and crofters put in at all hours of the day and night, and they gave me an inherent love and respect for farmed and wild animals.
My constituency holds several shows that celebrate agriculture: the Caithness county show, the Sutherland show and the Dornoch show. Although the Black Isle show is in Kate Forbes’s constituency, a strong northern contingent is always present. Shows provide a chance for like-minded people to get together, celebrate success, share best practice and chew over the latest prices, weather and beasts. Such shows are, of course, immense social occasions—I think that we all know that, after a certain time, the beer tent at an agricultural show is the place where all the best deals are made.
According to James Hunter in his book “Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland”, agriculture has been the backbone of the Scottish countryside since at least 3000 BC. It has shaped our landscape, it has provided food for our plates and it has been handed down from generation to generation. Agriculture has a proud history, but we are at a stage when we need to look forward to make sure that it has a secure future, too.
The motion mentions bringing “ruins and derelict buildings” back into use, and I could not agree more. Unfortunately, some of them in my constituency stand as a permanent reminder of the horrific circumstances surrounding the Highland clearances. The crumbling stone edifices remind us of the people who should still be working that land.
I recently wrote a piece for the
Farmers Guardian in which I spoke about Scotland becoming a good food nation. It is essential that farmers, crofters, growers and food producers are involved in a national conversation about what we and they want that nation to look like.
Our legislation needs to be bottom up. I suggest that we need to get a farmer or a food producer on every enterprise agency board, every community development trust, every community planning partnership and every community council, and in every meeting and advisory group. We cannot underestimate how crucial those voices are.
I, too, congratulate Rachael Hamilton on her motion.
Other members have talked about shows, but “preserving and protecting heritage” is the phrase that jumps out to me.
Scotland has a rich heritage, whether it is in the north-east, with the bothy culture among farm workers—John Ord’s “Bothy Songs and Ballads” was the book that retained some of the culture and family connections—or in the Highlands, where I am from, where the Forestry Commission and the estates have bothies.
There is a lot of language that people would not necessarily understand now. I noted that Rachael Hamilton talked about a dialect, and of course another way of preserving the culture is through the language. The Gaelic language is rich in the Highlands and it plays a significant role in the preservation of many traditions. That is a role that music plays as well, through the Highland bards and, indeed, the storytelling of the Travellers.
The motion says that
“many farmers can trace their ancestral links with their land that goes back centuries”.
That link with the land is vital, and people have had great affection for their community.
The motion also talks about land being “productive and sustainable”. That issue has been alluded to with mention of the provenance of local food. That area offers increasing opportunities and people are looking for innovative ways to address them.
It also talks about new entrants, which is very important. Although we want to reflect on the past, we also want to consider the future, so fair play to the Scottish Government with regards to new entrants to farming. Indeed, it has encouraged crofting communities to get young people into crofting. It is absolutely vital, for the reasons that Rachael Hamilton outlined about age, that we get young people into agriculture.
Physical heritage is important too. In the very short time that I have, I would like to mention a number of locations in my area. One is the Auchindrain township museum, which is between Inveraray and Lochgilphead. The settlement operated until 1967, when the last people moved away. It is a museum of a township system. In the past, the vast majority of people lived and worked in the countryside, and townships were very common. That model of working was very particular to the west Highlands of Scotland.
Looking at the museum’s website today, I saw the phrase
“and starvation was always just around the corner”.
The history and the heritage are about the struggle that people have had.
In the 1700s, scientific methods came in, with drainage, animal breeding and the like, which benefited tatties and turnips. The website also talks about “agricultural improvement” as being
“the farming equivalent of the industrial revolution”.
As my colleague Gail Ross alluded to, we must beware some of the great improvers, because the Highlands are blighted by the absence of people where there should be people, as a result of initiatives in the past.
As for opportunities that are afforded children,
“Do you want to milk a cow, build a bothy, or plant a forest?”
That is an offer from the shieling project near Inverness, which I visited last week. It gives an opportunity for children to stay on the site. The shieling system was one whereby people moved to the higher ground during the summer months with their livestock. The project is a tremendous initiative.
Finally, there is what we were told is Britain’s first open-air museum, the Highland folk museum at Newtonmore, which offers rich opportunities and more than 12,000 artefacts at the Am Fasgadh building.
The motion also mentions diversification and that is very important. We do not want a situation where the countryside is looked on as some sort of museum. It should be a living and vibrant place.
It also mentions “new leases of life”, and I would like to see that. I have heard the cabinet secretary allude, on one of the rare occasions when we have had something in common on such matters, to seeing the glens repopulated. We need a vibrant community. Debates such as this one might spur people on in that direction.
I refer members to my entry in the register of interests. I am delighted to host this debate on the importance of the cultural heritage value of agriculture.
We definitely saw the very best of rural Scotland at the Royal Highland Show last week, which very much reinforces the importance of our farming heritage in Scotland. It is rightly described as the “greatest show on earth” and it certainly lives up to that claim. This year was another fantastic year for attendance as 190,000 people from all corners of Scotland attended the best showcase of Scottish agriculture and produce. The show delivers more than £65 million in economic benefit to the United Kingdom, and visitors are expected to have spent around £8 million on shopping at the event.
Given the hard work of those who organise agricultural shows, we owe them a great debt of gratitude. As I alluded to in my motion, 10 per cent of the population attend at least one of these shows each year, which is testament to their broad appeal and desire to educate and inspire people to take a greater interest in farming and the countryside.
Closer to home, the Borders hosts some of the best agricultural shows in the UK. If members have not been to one, I thoroughly recommend that they come along. The largest show, the Borders Union agricultural show in Kelso, which is held on the last Friday and Saturday of July, showcases the best of Borders farming. There are many other great shows—namely the Yarrow show, the Berwickshire show in Duns and the Newcastleton show. The breadth and variety of these shows allows towns and villages to attract the best of farming but also tourism.
The Scottish countryside hosts a vast wealth of tourism businesses that employ local people, support the rural economy and display the very best of regional produce. People have a hunger for locally produced food and drink. In recent years, we have seen a boom in interest in Scottish and local produce. May that continue for a very long time.
One tremendous success story is Born in the Borders, which is an outstanding example of diversity in farming that encapsulates the best of the Borders. The farmer uses his own malting barley to produce craft beers and is now also producing wonderful gins—trust me, they are definitely worth a try.
Let us not forget the cultural importance of the countryside, which the National Sheep Association highlighted in a recent paper. For example, stone walls and barns have a practical purpose to contain stock, but they are also an important link to local history. Environmental stewardship encourages the preservation of heritage features such as ridge and furrow ploughing and old sheep washes. Cultural heritage covers traditional practices, place names, customs and dialect, too. Those characteristics shape the rural identity of our local communities and attract tourists to visit rural areas.
Old farm cottages have been transformed into holiday lets and farm steadings have been converted into farm shops—the list goes on. The potential of the Scottish countryside is massive and has yet to be exhausted. In such examples, rural businesses are directly bringing skills, knowledge and employment into the countryside.
I believe that the strong tradition of farming in Scotland must continue to be passed on to the next generation. As we know, the average age of a farmer in Scotland is 59, so it is crucial that we attract new blood and, importantly, women to agriculture.
I have seen at first hand the excellent work that the Royal Highland Education Trust carries out in encouraging children to develop an interest in farming. Indeed, its stand at the Royal Highland Show was teeming with schoolchildren. I would like to see the Scottish Government allocate more funding to the RHET to put it on a more sustainable footing, so that the co-ordinators who look after the volunteers are able to reach more schools and more schools can access the good work that the RHET does.
The Border Union Agricultural Society holds a countryside day in my constituency. This year, 1,200 primary 5 children from more than 60 schools in the Borders gathered at Springwood park in Kelso to be part of the day. Now in its sixth year, it educates young people about rural industry, food production and the environment. It has such a buzz about it. The society is passionate about educating the region’s children about farming and food production.
I would like there to be other such countryside days right around Scotland. They inspire bright, talented young people to choose one of the diverse careers that the region’s rural industry offers, and instil a love and appreciation of the countryside that will protect and sustain our rural life and economy for generations to come.
Adam Henson, one of Britain’s best-known farmers, has called for the introduction of a general certificate of secondary education—GCSE—in agriculture. Employability minister Jamie Hepburn said that he wanted to
“make sure that our labour market is in a position to support ... projected growth and supply the next generation of professionals for the industry.”
Recent figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that agriculture at degree level is starting to gain popularity and, as a graduate of Harper Adams, I can vouch for that. The number of certificates awarded for higher education courses on agriculture, horticulture and animal care has risen by 117 per cent. Perhaps the minister will consider a formal Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification in farming and rural issues for school pupils, which would introduce young people to careers in farming or the wider rural economy, and inspire them to take up such a career. Bringing new talent into the industry might also bring the average age of farmers down from 59.
The popularity of young farmers clubs remains strong. I am a former member of my local young farmers club and I benefited from its social, educational and charitable opportunities. From raising money through barn dances to debating competitions and stock judging—I was also a keen flower arranger—the young farmers club was part of my life and young farmers clubs have been part of the fabric of rural Scotland for 80 years. The young farmers motto that was created in the 1950s remains relevant today: better farmers, better countrymen, better citizens. It is vital to capturing the interest of young people and encouraging them to take the rural route when thinking about career choices.
Ultimately, in order to retain expertise and attract new talent to the countryside, we must do more to encourage new entrants, both male and female, to farming. I was delighted to attend the women in agriculture event at the Royal Highland Show, along with Emma Harper, and to see such an enthusiastic and determined group of women who are involved in agriculture. We must ensure that that talent is fully realised. I know that Fergus Ewing has provided Scottish Government backing of £250,000, and I hope that there is parity with the amount of support that is given to male entrants to agriculture.
I am so grateful to members for supporting my motion today. It is vital that we speak about our proud agricultural past, and debate and discuss how we can move forward in rural Scotland to realise the full potential of our fantastic countryside.
I thank my colleague Rachel Hamilton for bringing the debate to the chamber and I salute her thorough speech. It is right that we highlight the importance of the expertise on the farms and in the fields around Scotland that is provided to us. I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy.
I grew up in the south-west of Scotland on tway dairy farms. One was near the Lochans close to Stranraer and the other was near Dumfries. My father was a dairyman and I learned to drive tractors before I could drive a car.
Agricultural shows in the south-west start in Stranraer and work their way east to Wigtown, Stewartry—with the show at Castle Douglas—and Dumfries and Lockerbie. I have enjoyed attending them all and I plan to attend them all again this summer.
Last week, I attended the Royal Highland Show on Thursday and Friday. I spoke to many folks over the two days about promoting food, farming, production, science and sustainable farming, as well as about sheep worrying. There was a lot of concern about what exiting the European Union will do regarding tariffs, stability in the supply chain and EU farm workers. It is important that we remember that workers on dairy farms are not seasonal workers; they are here all year long, their kids are in our rural schools and they are part of the rural community.
I am excited to see the progress of the women in agriculture task force headed up by Joyce Campbell—a Sutherland sheep farmer—along with the cabinet secretary. I attended the women in agriculture breakfast event at the RHS. We heard from Joyce Campbell, Kate Rowley and Minette Batters, who is the UK president of the National Farmers Union. We are all encouraging more women to go into agriculture.
NFU Scotland has presented its “Steps to Change” document and suggestions for change as we head to exit the EU on 29 March 2019. I encourage everyone to read that document so that we can all be better informed.
It is essential that people across Scotland connect with food producers. It is important that kids grow up learning where their food comes from and how many miles it has travelled, and knowing that a lot of people are involved in getting that food from farm to fork.
I see the tide turning in Scotland. We are witnessing a change in the attitude towards protecting and promoting the provenance of our guid produce.
One expert presented the argument that shows give a false impression of what farmers do because the public observe sheep being delicately trimmed with scissors at eyeball distance and the beasts being presented all washed and manicured. The perception is that the public do not get the opportunity to see what farmers actually do and how they get covered in muck and stuff like that. A direct rebuttal to that comment was made at the women in agriculture meeting when the Royal Highland Education Trust was commended for its work in encouraging school visits to farms. Indeed, the RHET in the south west, which is co-ordinated by Fiona Jamieson, has been successful in letting first and second-year children experience directly visits to Scotland’s Rural College at Crichton campus, which is a working farm.
I applaud the work of farmers, growers and crofters and the rural businesses that they support. From farm to fork, Scotland’s economy is rural.
It is always good to talk agriculture. With that in mind, I need to declare an interest, because I am involved in agriculture and have my own farming business back home.
I thank my colleague Rachael Hamilton for bringing the motion to the chamber. It is such a wide-ranging motion that we could talk about almost anything. It gives us an opportunity to widen the debate.
Having said that, I also want to speak about the Royal Highland Show. I spent two days there last week and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I always do every year. It is a great opportunity for us to showcase our agriculture and for farming folk to meet and greet each other. The social aspect is very important. Business has to be done, but there are also friends and family to meet and we often meet them only once a year, at the Royal Highland Show.
There are many good regional shows all over the country. My nearest one is the New Deer show, which has been going for 170 years, so it has a great history. A wee bit further away from me is the Turriff show, which is the biggest two-day show in Scotland. They are fantastic as social events and for showcasing the great agricultural produce that we have in Scotland.
I want to pick up on the RHET, which Rachael Hamilton mentioned. I visited its stand at the Royal Highland Show and thought that it was tremendous. It is important that we educate our youngsters about where their food comes from and what it is all about. I think that the RHET gets a wee bit of funding from the Scottish Government, but it is fairly small beer and I echo the plea to give it a wee bit more funding because it does a great job.
I have been involved in education with the SRUC. I have also been concerned about what is happening at Craibstone campus in Aberdeen, but I think that we now have some clarity about what is happening and we have secured its future to be better than what was the state of play in the past.
The debate is a great opportunity to celebrate what farmers do and deliver. The first thing that farmers do—it is the reason for them getting up in the morning—is deliver high-quality food. That is what they are about. However, of course, they do more than that. For example, they manage the countryside. Very little of Scotland is purely wild land; most of it is managed in some way, shape or form by landowners. Farmers also deliver in terms of biodiversity, wildlife and healthy living for the population who live in towns and cities, because we allow them to have access to our land so that they can go out and enjoy the scenery, get some fresh air and have some good exercise.
Farmers deliver a lot. However, as I said, food production is our main aim, and we do that to a high standard. There is no doubt about the fact that animal welfare standards in the UK are as high as anywhere in the world. We have done a lot to deliver healthy meat. We use less antibiotics than we have ever done—we are driving down that usage. When we grow cereals, we use a lot of global positioning system technology because targeted inputs are important not only for the environment but for our bottom line. We need to target our inputs right where they are needed and in the right quantities, and we are doing that more and more.
Of course, what we produce is the raw material that sustains Scotland’s food and drink. That sector has been a huge success story and it is the biggest manufacturing industry in Scotland. It is worth £15 billion to the economy every year, and there is a target to double that to £30 billion by 2030. That is an ambitious target, and it can be achieved only if we work towards it in conjunction with our farmers.
I, too, thank Rachael Hamilton for securing the debate, which I am delighted to take part in. I echo her comments and those of others about the Royal Highland Show, although it is obvious that the whipping system in the Scottish Liberal Democrats is more severe—I managed to visit for only one day, rather than the two days that others managed.
The motion says that 10 per cent of the population attend agricultural shows, which is not difficult to believe given the turnout at Ingliston last weekend. In Orkney, 10,000 people regularly turn up at the county show on the second Saturday in August. That represents about half of the total population, albeit that many attendees are visitors. In a community where breeding coos outnumber inhabitants three to two, it is perhaps not surprising that support for the county and the five other shows—in Sanday, Shapinsay, the Hope and Burray, east mainland and west mainland—is as strong as it is. The holding of six shows in a week demonstrates their importance to Orkney’s farming community and, in turn, farming’s importance to the wider Orkney community.
That the shows are important is true economically, as others have said, because business is done and sales are made. As Gail Ross intimated, some sales are impulse buys that are brought about by too much time being spent in the beer tent, which means that people run the serious risk of going home as the proud owner of a shiny new trailer or even a combine harvester.
Shows also play a crucial social role—they attract locals, former residents and new visitors. They provide a gathering place and help to build the sense of community. The bewildering array of stalls that are run by local businesses as well as charities, voluntary groups and fundraising projects is testament to the reach that shows have deep into the community. Without the funds that are raised at the shows, many of those organisations would be unable to carry out the vital work that they do for the rest of the year. Even when the wind is blowing tents across the showground or when conditions underfoot are akin to those at the Somme, as has been the case on a couple of occasions in recent years, public support for the shows in Orkney remains strong.
Our shows of course reflect the long-standing farming heritage in Orkney, going back to neolithic times. It is often said that a farmer cannot put a spade in the ground without the serious risk of unearthing some significant historical artefact. In recent years, we have seen a real embracing of that heritage, through things such as the festival of the horse and the boys ploughing match, which date back to the 1800s and involve spectacular outfits, and the fabulous Corrigall farm, Kirbuster and Smiddy museums as well as Barony mills. All of those provide a fascinating insight into Orkney’s farming past, informing those in the local community and visitors alike.
I am conscious that I could and should say an awful lot more, but I will finish by paying tribute, as others have done, to the Scottish Association of Young Farmers, which is very well represented in Orkney, where membership is extremely strong. The motion is absolutely right to point to the role that the association plays in generating social activity, preserving customs and, crucially, bringing in new ideas to help to ensure that farming in Orkney and across Scotland has not only a proud past but a bright future. The embodiment of that is perhaps Kerry Annal from South Ronaldsay, who the cabinet secretary had the pleasure of presenting with the young livestock ambassador award at Ingliston last week.
I again thank Rachael Hamilton for allowing Parliament to put on record our acknowledgement of the culture and heritage value, as well as the economic value, of agriculture in this country.
I warmly congratulate Rachael Hamilton on bringing forward this topic for debate. The debate is timely, given that almost all of us who have participated seem to have attended the Royal Highland Show last week, along with 190,000 others who visited the show over its four days. Indeed, I encountered so many MSPs at the show during the Thursday that I wondered whether the chamber was entirely empty when we were supposed to be at work. Instead, we were enjoying huge gulps of fresh air, unaccustomed though we are to that experience in here.
As we have heard from all the contributors today, the Royal Highland Show and shows across the country are an essential part of rural life and part of our cultural heritage. As I think Mr Chapman said, they bring people together, which is a good thing, especially at this time when many farmers and crofters live a fairly isolated life and may no longer have people working on a farm. It is easy to forget that these days. Shows are very social gatherings and an important annual staple in the calendar of many people in rural Scotland, and rightly so.
One of the many bodies that make a huge contribution is the Royal Highland Education Trust, which at this year’s Royal Highland Show received more than 6,000 children over two days. In total, 30,000 youngsters, including my 10-year-old daughter, visited the show. The trust plays an enormous part in bringing home the realities of farming to young people, although I think that there is common ground across the chamber that much more could be done in that area.
In addition, the women in agriculture event, which Rachael Hamilton and Emma Harper mentioned, was an excellent and well-attended event, with a real buzz in the room. The contribution by the president of the National Farmers Union for England and Wales, Minette Batters, was outstanding. Unfortunately, I missed Kate Rowell’s contribution, although I heard that it was excellent. It was a really inspiring event. I pay tribute to Joyce Campbell, who co-chairs the women in agriculture group that has been set up in Scotland. I should say that the group was not my idea but the First Minister’s; I should place that clearly on the record and not claim credit for it. However, I have been co-chairing the group, and it has been a really exciting experience.
There is the possibility of fairly major change, unleashing the full potential of the female section of the population in agriculture and rural life. They achieve great things at the moment, but it is common sense that if there is a bit more help and access to training and other opportunities, an awful lot more could be done. I think that that is the view across the chamber.
Rachael Hamilton pointed out, quite rightly, that the average age of a farmer is 59. I know that she has not experienced this, but I can inform her and verify from my own experience that life does not finish at the age of 59; there are still new chapters to be written and even new experiences to be enjoyed. There anent, Presiding Officer—you do not need to look so surprised—a new experience will befall me when, in August, I will be a chieftain of the Grantown highland show. I am not quite sure what power I will have and whether it exceeds the powers that are available to me as cabinet secretary, but I shall certainly make the most of my day in the sun in Grantown.
However, to be serious, much of the debate quite rightly focused—as did the motion—on new entrants. That area is close to all our hearts across the chamber. I am proud of the fact that we have been doing a lot for new entrants. We want to do much, much more. Let me be absolutely clear about that lest I be accused of complacency—perish the thought. The theme of new entrants is a common one and, given the age profile, it is absolutely essential to get new entrants. I had the pleasure of meeting again some of the leaders of the young farmers movement at the Royal Highland Show and we discussed how we could move forward and perhaps seek new ways of bringing in new blood to the farming community and the wider rural economy.
In recognition of the importance of encouraging new entrants to the industry, the Scottish Government has provided £22 million in start-up and capital grants since 2015. I think that it is fair to point out that we are in fact the only part of the UK to do so.
I also established a group called FONE, which is an acronym that stands for farming opportunities for new entrants—quite catchy, I thought, Presiding Officer. I actually thought of it myself, in a rare flash. In any event, to be serious, the group developed a programme in order to identify holdings of land in the public sector generally—including Scottish Water, the Forestry Commission, and quangos—that could be used for farming by new entrants. Henry Graham has been a driving force behind that initiative and I am pleased to say that the initiative is ready to make available more than 1,000 hectares of public land to new farmers. That is the sort of exercise that we can do in Scotland, which arises from our brain power and application and drive rather than any cash being involved, although cash greases the wheels. The FONE initiative is one that we will take forward and advance.
I apologise for missing other members’ speeches.
As John Finnie and Gail Ross said, agriculture has played an important part in sustaining and preserving the heritage and culture of rural areas. Does the cabinet secretary agree that new national parks could play a significant role in protecting, promoting and—most important—reinvigorating the rural economy, particularly in constituencies such as mine, Galloway and West Dumfries, which is the most beautiful constituency in Scotland?
I am certainly aware of the arguments, although from talking to farmers—I made two farm visits in Ayrshire this morning, at South Corton and Girtridge, and I thank Willie and Alison Kerr and John Howie for hosting the visits—I think that most of the initiatives in that regard come from individuals and communities. I am not convinced that we need a new public body to drive forward the rural economy. The tag of national park is certainly regarded as an asset by some people, but one must also consider the potential consequences, such as planning restrictions, which other people argue are a counterbalance. That is perhaps an argument for another day, because I do not think that the issue is mentioned in the motion—although I am broad minded about these things, as you know, Presiding Officer.
John Finnie and Gail Ross talked about housing and the need to bring old buildings back into use and indeed to repopulate rural Scotland. The issue is very close to my heart. I will not wax overly lyrical about this, but I will say that it would be terrific in Scotland to see the clearances counterbalanced by a de-clearance and a bringing back of people into the rural economy—a repeopling, as it were, of many parts of Scotland. If we are seriously to do that, many policy changes will have to be put in place.
I am pleased that, since 2007, the Scottish Government has awarded more than £18 million through the croft house grant scheme, which has helped to build or improve more than 900 croft homes, thereby providing homes for 900 people. What a good way of spending a relatively moderate amount of public money. I mention that scheme; there are many other housing developments at the moment, on which Kevin Stewart is leading.
I think that my allotted time is coming to an end and that I had better wind up. On behalf of all members, I think, I thank everyone who is involved in the volunteering and the huge amount of work and commitment that make agricultural shows happen. Such shows are part of our national life. They are really important events and, above all, they are great fun.