A NEW report confirms that Brexit is the biggest challenge the Highlands and Islands has faced for generations, according to Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing.

The study highlights the significant challenges that could be faced by farming and crofting communities in the Highlands and Islands post Brexit and calls for targeted help to deal with them.

It looks at the likely impacts of different Brexit scenarios on the economy and communities and their related effects on wildlife, the environment and key sectors such as tourism.

The report concludes that existing trends such as declining agricultural activity, land abandonment and a shrinking agricultural workforce, could be accelerated by Brexit. These trends have already had a negative effect on environmental land management and the food and drink and tourism sectors.

The Highlands and Islands Agriculture Support Group (HIASG) which commissioned the report, is now calling on the Scottish Government to take note of its findings and ensure that future farming, land management and rural development policy provides a targeted response.

The work was carried out by consultants Dr Andrew Moxey of Pareto Consulting and Steven Thomson of SRUC for HIASG which is comprised of representatives of all Highlands and Islands local authorities and RSPB Scotland.

The report, Post-Brexit Implications for Agriculture and Associated Land Use in the Highlands and Islands, is being presented at an event in Edinburgh today attended by representatives of farming, crofting, environment, rural and local development and tourism organisations.

Ewing, who is to speak at the event, said the report highlighted the distinctive challenges of farming in the Highlands and Islands, both in terms of the land and those available to work it.

“It confirms what I have been saying ever since the Brexit referendum – that Brexit is going to be the biggest challenge that the industry and rural communities has faced for generations,” he said. “It is therefore vital that the special circumstances of the Highlands and Islands are not ignored, and that their unique social, economic and environmental conditions remain supported.”

Douglas Irvine, Economic Development Manager for Shetland Islands Council, and chair of HIASG said the report was “a wake-up call”.

“It shows how important farming and crofting is to the economy, people and environment of the Highlands and Islands, but also how vulnerable it is,” he said. “The challenges faced here look set to increase rather than diminish.”

“We urge the Scottish Government to ensure future farming and rural policy and funding responds effectively to the scale of the challenges faced by this region and is well targeted.”

Just over two-thirds of Scotland’s High Nature Value farmland is located in the Highlands and Islands region due to extensive farming methods and small-scale farming and crofting. The region has a high share of sites designated for their national and international environmental importance, benefiting birds such as corncrake and curlew, great yellow bumblebees and habitats such as machair and peatlands.

This environmental quality draws visitors from far and wide.