TRIBUTES have poured in after James Withers, the chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, announced he is stepping down.

On Tuesday morning, Withers announced that he would be leaving the role after 11 years, saying it “feels right”. He is expected to step down in August, following a transition period.

The CEO has been a prominent critic of Brexit, telling the BBC earlier this year that the UK Government had failed to point to even one benefit of exiting the EU.

Scotland Food and Drink said Withers would “remain with the organisation over the coming months to support the search for his successor and … to manage a successful transition”.

READ MORE: No Brexit benefits, Scotland Food and Drink chief tells UK Government

Commenting, he said: “It has been a huge privilege to be in this role for over a decade. That it has gone in a flash must be a good sign. It has been a very difficult decision to step down; I still consider it one of the best jobs in the country. However, it is exciting that someone else will soon have the opportunity to embrace it.

“All that has been successful in food and drink in Scotland has come from collaboration and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Board, our partners and the wider industry that have supported me in the job. So many in government and business have been willing to work in partnership with the SF&D team and I to try and build Scotland’s reputation for food and drink, both here and internationally.

“It’s never easy to know when the right time is to step down. But ahead of the development of a new industry strategy towards the end of the year, and with a strong foundation in place, this feels right. My successor will inherit an incredibly talented group of staff and committed partners across the private and public sector. I am sure a change will bring new opportunities for the organisation as well as me personally.”

READ MORE: Brexit shortages solutions 'being blocked by dogmatic UK Government'

Withers added that, while he had no firm plans about where to go next, he hoped to continue to play a role in the development of Scotland’s economy, saying he was “hugely passionate” about the area.

Tributes to Withers and praise for his time in the role came in from key political figures on social media.

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon wrote: “Wishing you all the very best for the future James, you’ll be leaving some big shoes to fill!

“It’s been an absolute pleasure working with you through my time in this post, your leadership has been pivotal in navigating industry through the many challenges faced.”

And deputy first minister John Swinney added: “All good wishes James. You have made a phenomenal contribution to strengthening and promoting Scotland’s food and drink. Warmest thanks.”

MPs, MSPs, and representatives from the food and drink industry were among the others wishing Withers well.

Celebrity chef Gary Maclean said: “Big shoes to fill James, you have achieved so much over the years for Scotland's food and drink industry. Wishing you the very best.”

READ MORE: Scottish shellfish firm blames Brexit as it's forced to shut down

Scotland Food and Drink chair Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne said: “James has made a transformational contribution to our organisation and his impact has been felt across the food and drink sector in Scotland.

“When James joined us in 2011, Scotland Food and Drink was still in its infancy and the industry wasn’t always spoken of as a Scottish success story. Later this year when James departs, his successor will inherit a strong, well-established organisation, a talented staff body and a sector critical to the future of Scotland’s economy and communities.

“The board and staff will be very sad to see James depart, but we understand his decision and are very pleased he has agreed to stay and work closely with myself and the board to manage the transition.”

The recruitment process for Withers’ replacement is expected to begin in the next few weeks.