Q) You are a lawyer and farmer - tell us about it?
I have been a partner with Brodies for the last seven 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 on various industry working groups, including Tesco Sustainable Lamb Group and QMS Sheep Industry Group.
Q) What are some of the challenges that the rural sector faces?
The sector is facing multiple challenges, and I believe also opportunities. In recent years we have had some price volatility but the weaker pound has undoubtedly helped the sector. On the land ownership side, land reform has posed challenges to the sector, creating challenges for both landlords and tenants in agricultural holdings, as well as the added dimension of land registration. Brexit has created further uncertainty, although the falling pound has been welcomed by those exporting agricultural produce, and land may look keenly priced to foreign eyes. However, the big challenge which is looming large is climate change. It is going to be critical that the agricultural sector can put its message across effectively to both policy makers and consumers. As Fergus Ewing said this morning, speaking at the Highland Show, farmers are the original friends of the earth.
Q) How do you think the rural sector will respond to these challenges?
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. Landed estates are continuing their evolution to operate in a more commercially-focused way and to engage very closely with their local communities. The addition of renewable energy and tourism has been important to many as part of a portfolio of commercial enterprises. Forestry has gone from strength to strength recently, buoyed perhaps by tax breaks and its environmental credentials. I think what we will now see is the agricultural sector addressing climate change and challenges in the red meat sector in the way that landed estates have risen to the challenge in recent years of improving community engagement.
Q) On a practical level, how will you address these challenges on 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. We are trying to hedge our position by engaging more closely with the supply chains that we are part of. We recognise that farming doesn't stop at the farm gate, and that we have to understand what our customer wants, the traceability they require, and the specification their process need. I have found that to be a hugely interesting experience and I have learnt a lot by doing so. On climate change and the environment, I think there is a big wake up call for all of us, and I am looking closely at what we are doing and making sure that it is sustainable environmentally, and also that there is "space" for the wildlife around us. I am actually looking forward to stepping up to that challenge and also seeing how my children also embrace that.
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 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 four locations of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dingwall. 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 which I was delighted to achieve. I enjoy the challenge of mastering technique, speed, stamina and strength - it's strangely addictive, and beats any gym routine!