Q You are a lawyer and farmer – tell us about it?
I have been a partner with Brodies for the last four years and in practice for over 20, specialising in the rural sector. I also run a family farm in Kincardineshire with my wife and two children. My legal practice is broad-ranging, covering all aspects that touch the rural sector. At home we farm just over 300 acres mixed arable and livestock, growing mostly malting barley and a sheep enterprise, all run in-hand. Many of the issues that I am faced with on the farm are the same as those faced by my landowning and farming clients and that helps me in giving advice. I am also a director of Ringlink (Scotland) Ltd and Angus Cereals Ltd.
Q What are some of the challenges that the rural sector faces?
The sector is facing multiple challenges, and I believe also opportunities. The last couple of years have seen low farm gate prices and CAP support falling, not to mention delay in payments. On the land ownership side, land reform has posed challenges to the sector, creating tensions in agricultural holdings, as well as the added dimension of land registration. The recent EU Referendum creates further uncertainty, although the falling pound has been welcomed by those exporting agricultural produce, and land may look keenly priced to foreign eyes.
Q How do you think the rural sector will respond to these challenges?
I think it’s fair to say we are in a transitional phase. Change tends to encourage people to reassess their position. What we are seeing is some farm businesses looking to expand, while others exit. In general there is a trend towards farm businesses becoming larger by farming more acres, often under contract or other flexible arrangements. The sale or break-up of some estates is creating opportunities for some farm tenants and new estate buyers. Despite the Brexit uncertainty there is currently interest both domestically and from overseas. Other landed estates are continuing their evolution to operate in a more commercially-focused way, and the addition of renewable energy and tourism has been important to many as part of a portfolio of commercial enterprises.
Q On a practical level, how will CAP reform or Brexit affect farms like your own?
In common with other farms we are in a kind of limbo between falling CAP support and Brexit. CAP still applies until such time as the EU treaties are dis-applied from the UK, and we don’t yet know what the new regime may look like. That means, under CAP for example, we need to adopt a more complicated cropping regime at home to satisfy the CAP greening provisions, and generally adapt the business to a lower level of support. This may all change of course post Brexit, although it’s hard to imagine that everything that we don’t like will be neatly swept aside! More than anything, in response to this uncertainty, we are more focused on costs, and are asking ourselves the hard questions about how productive each enterprise is. We are very much more focused on ewe productivity, for example, and how we manage our grass efficiently.
Q What do you enjoy about working as a lawyer in the rural sector?
I am passionate about the rural sector, and all aspects of it. It is a huge and diverse canvas of land use, landscape, environment, agriculture, forestry, amenity, tourism; energy… the list goes on. It’s a real pleasure working with some great people in the sector, which always has the capacity to surprise and ignite your interest. Life in the country, in many ways, is far from slow. I believe strongly too that it is important to inspire and create opportunities for the next generation, and that the voice of the rural sector needs to be heard loud and clear by government. As a firm, we take participating in legislative consultations very seriously as a way in which we can contribute to that, as well as contributing to the work of key bodies such as Scottish Land & Estates and National Farmers Union of Scotland.
Q You have recently taken on the role of Head of Land and Rural Business at Brodies. What’s your vision for the team?
We have a great team of very talented lawyers – across the three locations of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. We have invested heavily in recent years, recruiting good lawyers at all levels and providing a strong internal training program in specialised areas of rural property to make sure everyone’s knowledge is bang up to date. We have a good mix of lawyers with rural connections, and some who don’t, but all of whom have a real talent and interest in the sector. Our vision is simple, that we aim to be the law firm of choice for the sector, all aspects of it, chosen because of our technical knowledge, and our ability to deliver sound, commercial and efficient advice.
Q Lastly we hear you are a qualified shearer?
Yes, I have been shearing sheep on and off for a number of years, very much on an occasional basis but using contractors as most people do for the bulk of the flock. However, I enjoy shearing and obtained a British Wool Marketing Board Bronze Seal qualification a few years back and now shear the whole flock myself. I enjoy the challenge of mastering technique, speed, stamina and strength - it’s strangely addictive, and beats any gym routine!