THERESA May’s Government is telling EU nationals living in Britain that they are “not welcome here”, according to Nicola Sturgeon.

The First Minister’s damning comments at the annual Aberdeen Asset Management conference in London, came hours after the Scottish Parliament heard from worried farmers that Brexit would lead to severe staff shortages, leaving Scotland’s soft fruit industry decimated.

During a speech at the annual Aberdeen Asset Management conference in London, Sturgeon said Scotland wanted to send out an opposite message to that of the Tory Government in Westminster. “Scotland voted very strongly to remain in the European Union – by 62 per cent to 38 per cent,” she said. “Every local authority area in Scotland voted to retain EU membership. “It is my job, and the job of the whole Scottish Government, to protect our vital national interests. We are exploring all options that will enable us to do that.

“More than anything else, our long-term economic success will depend on nurturing the talent of those already in Scotland and of those who believe ours is the kind of welcoming country that allows ambition to flourish.”

Sturgeon added: “The position of the UK Government and some others is very different. From the refusal to guarantee the status of fellow EU nationals living in Scotland and the UK, to the threat to draw up lists of foreign workers, the UK Government seems intent on sending out a ‘not welcome here’ message.

“I am determined that we send out a different message: one that says to all those living, working and studying in Scotland that they are most definitely welcome.”

Sturgeon, who also met EU ambassadors at a lunch hosted by Slovakia’s ambassador to the UK, said Scotland wanted “to trade as freely as possible with our EU partners” and “to continue to welcome people from across the EU and around the world, to maintain ties which have enhanced our prosperity and enriched our society”. According to a recent Fraser of Allander report, EU nationals play an important role in the Scottish economy. Some 80,000 EU nationals (aged 16-plus) live in Scotland, a number expected to fall as economic prospects decline, putting some economic sectors in Scotland under particular strain.

Holyrood’s economy committee heard a warning from Scottish fruit producers that Brexit could see the industry scale back or move overseas.

James Porter, from Angus Soft Fruits, which accounts for 60 per cent of Scottish soft fruit production, told the committee it employed around 4,000 seasonal workers from EU countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Baltic states, and that they have struggled to hire local workers.

He cited one occasion where the company had gone to the local Job Centre to recruit 20 workers to help with storm damage.

“Two weeks later we didn’t have 20,” he said. “To be fair to them, it’s pretty tough work, it’s not for everyone, but we have tried and... if someone comes and asks for work locally I’ll certainly give them a go.”

MSPs also heard from Dr Donald Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, which represents around 97,000 workers in social care.

He said EU nationals make up an estimated 12.5 per cent to 25 per cent of the care home workforce in Scotland.

He said: “We are already hearing on an anecdotal basis that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from Europe post the Brexit decision, and even though the technicalities and the niceties of the process of withdrawal have not been determined, individuals are already voting with their feet in Europe by presuming that a country which has voted in UK terms not to remain in Europe does not want me as a nurse or me as a social carer. So the impact in general we are deeply concerned about.”

Free movement of people also dominated Tory Brexit Minister David Davis’s day of meetings at the European Parliament.

Speaking after meeting Davis, Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP, the largest grouping in the European Parliament, said free movement of people was non-negotiable.

He said: “We need to take into account the interests of 450 million European citizens ... what we really expect are clear proposals.

“In my talk with David Davis, unfortunately I haven’t really heard anything new. I haven’t really heard how the British Government wants to tackle Brexit or what Brexit really means.”

But Davis said: “Our view is that we can get an outcome which will be in the interests of the EU and in the interests of Britain and which will meet the requirements of the referendum. All of those are possible. That’s what the negotiations are about.”