COMMUNITIES in the Scottish Highlands would be abandoned like the “American dust bowls” if Michael Gove’s proposals concerning rural payments are introduced, a top European official has warned.

The UK Environment Secretary wants to introduce a system from 2020 where subsidies are replaced with a new system of proving a commitment to “the public good”. But crofters are heavily dependent on income from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, receiving on average £28,000 from subsidies and £2100 from selling goods.

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Speaking in Brussels, the leading adviser on European agricultural policy was asked by journalists what would happen if income subsides are phased out in Scotland after Brexit.

The senior European Commission official pointed to the dust bowls in the US – areas which were hit by drought and suffered mass evacuation in the 1930s. The disaster is described vividly by novelist John Steinbeck in his books The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

“The obvious implication, I suppose, is that farming stops producing,” the official said. “The consequences are possibly calamitous for the environment because farmers are critically important stewards of the landscape and of the countryside. You look at what happened in the US, where farmers have essentially abandoned land and left it with dust bowls and so on.

“If the Highlands of Scotland – which are a very particular eco-system – were to be abandoned by farmers, there is nobody who is going to manage that territory. It is very harsh territory, it’s very challenging and clearly it is essentially not economic.

“The farming that is going on is keeping people in the rural countryside. It is maintaining a degree of production but, more importantly, it is ensuring a very valuable eco-system is being sustainably managed by those farmers who are essentially being kept on the land by those subsidies. If those stop, what is the incentive for people to stay on the land? What is the incentive for them to continue to sustainably manage the land? And if they don’t, what are the environmental consequences of what would seem on the face of it to essentially be land abandonment?”

The official explained farmers play a central role in keeping the economic and cultural life of rural areas afloat. “The reality is all of our territories are becoming increasingly urbanised. People are moving into towns and we need to sustain rural communities,” he said. “To keep people in the rural countryside you have to keep the services. So the school stays, the pharmacy stays, the local stays. You take people out, you lose the services, and the whole infrastructure of the rural communities starts to fall apart.

“There needs to be a debate about what kind of community people want to have in the future. If they want to have viable rural communities, complementing our urban centres, then they need to have people stay there – that starts with farmers. Farmers are pretty good spenders, they turn money around. They get the cheque from the creamery and they go down to the merchant and buy their goods. If you take away his purchasing power, you compromise the viability of the merchant and suddenly the whole eco-system starts to crack.”

Scotland’s Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “Since my first meeting with the Secretary of State for Environment, I have been making precisely the arguments the EU Commission is now making. Failure to support our hill farmers will lead to land abandonment and a lack of stewardship, as well as threats to rural communities. I will continue to press these arguments to ensure Defra and the UK Government fully understand the impact this would have on Scottish hill farmers.

“The UK Government must amend its agriculture bill to ensure the devolution settlement is fully respected and funded, so that we can continue to tailor farm support to meet our unique needs.”

Defra did not respond to The National’s request for a comment.