SCOTLAND could soon be in danger of losing one of its finest and fastest-growing food and drink industries to countries such as Portugal.

Rumours are circulating in Arbroath and elsewhere in Angus, as well as the other main soft fruit growing areas in the Carse of Gowrie and Fife, that a major grower and packaging concern is already looking at a move to Portugal. It is believed these areas can no longer attract migrant workers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who are skilled at picking strawberries, raspberries and other soft fruits.

The National contacted several fruit farmers but none would identify the potential mover, and though he would not comment on the speculation, Angus South SNP MSP Graeme Day voiced concerns that Brexit had already damaged the industry in his constituency.

Day issued a stern rebuke to UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Theresa May, who as home secretary was responsible for ending the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) that allowed migrant workers in from Romania and Bulgaria for up to six months.

The National has learned that Gove and the Home Office are trying to concoct a new version of SAWS and the Environment Secretary is due to make a statement on the matter next month.

Day has been working closely with Angus Soft Fruit which is a consortium of 19 farms, 18 of which are located in his constituency.

He said: “The soft fruit farmers have traditionally recruited from Eastern Europe and they have had staff come back year on year who are skilled in what is an intense job.

“They require about 4000 migrant workers a year to come and pick the fruit in Angus but because of a variety of factors, most essentially Brexit which is deeply worrying for them, some 350 seasonal employees did not come here or left early last year.

“As a result, Angus Soft Fruit took a hit of around £650,000 last year dealing with the shortfall by paying overtime and losing income because £430,000 worth of fruit was left unpicked.

“The reason why Brexit caused this is because the value of the pound went down which affected the workers’ income so they would be better off working in Germany, and they told us that the rhetoric surrounding Brexit suggested they would no longer be welcome here with some concerned that they would catch a plane here in March and be told ‘sorry, you’re not getting in.’

“Now we won’t know until March just who will be returning, and Michael Gove has said there will be some sort of announcement about the future of seasonal workers. But that will be too late, and we don’t know what the scheme will be.

“It is long overdue that the sector and the workers were given some certainty about this. It is a huge concern for a multi-million pound industry which is heavily dependent on this workforce.”

A UK Government spokesperson said last night: “The Government places great value on the UK’s food and farming industries, both as a crucial component of the UK economy and of the fabric of rural Britain.

“Until we have left the EU, the UK will remain a member with all of the rights and obligations that membership entails, and employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors are free to continue to recruit EU workers to meet their labour needs.

“The Prime Minister has also proposed an implementation period of around two years following our exit, during which EU citizens will be able to come to live and work in the UK, though there will be a registration system.

“We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our negotiations to leave the EU, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our nation’s economic success.”