IN the fields outside my home is one of my favourite spring sights: wee gangs of piglets gaun radge as they race about, their contented mothers catching a bit of sun, or snuffling about in the earth.

But this idyllic scene hides a stark reality: Scotland’s pig farmers are being pummelled by circumstances outwith their control.

Brexit is the major villain of the piece. Farmers’ pleas for visa exemptions for vets and butchers from the European Union have fallen on obstinate ears and many thousands of skilled slaughterhouse workers have left.

The loss of these critical posts has the industry reeling. An outbreak of coronavirus in the Brechin abattoir – the only major pig processing site in Scotland – saw the facility close to comply with Covid regulations, but this meant they fell outwith the terms of their export licence to China, and that crucial market was closed to them. Farmers now have thousands of pigs they had not expected to keep.

Pig farmers don’t receive any subsidies. The Scottish Government has taken action, introducing The Pig Producers Hardship Support Scheme last August.

It has been extended twice since, with a third and final tranche of payments announced this month. Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon is keenly aware of the issues facing pig farmers – the Brechin processing plant is in her constituency.

“The last year has been particularly challenging for our pig industry. We are providing them with cash flow security by extending the scheme once again to cover deductions that were not previously compensated for,” she says. “I would encourage all eligible producers to submit their applications and benefit from this additional financial support.”

Andy McGowan is the managing director of the Scottish Pig Producers, a co-operative representing many of Scotland’s pig farmers.

“We’re struggling,” he admits. “The Pig Producers Hardship Fund has been a great help. I can’t fault the Cabinet Secretary and the Scottish Government’s interest in the pig sector. We are very proud of working without support but the issues we’ve faced this last year have been extremely hard and the cost of producing pigs has risen 50% since Putin invaded Ukraine.”

The news that the Brechin plant has been taken over by Browns Food Group is good news, Andy says.

“They are very good at using Scotland’s brand as their unique selling point so we are very excited that this could see our farmers getting their competitive edge back. UK labelling laws allow some companies to imply produce is Scottish but it only is being processed and packaged here, not reared. We would like to see labelling laws changed so customers can see where the pork products come from,” Mr McGowan says, adding, “In recent years, the best supermarkets for clearly supporting Scottish pork have been Aldi and Lidl. They have been steadfast.”

Our high street is, traditionally, the place where it is easy to find Scotland’s unique farm assured Specially Selected Pork. A+I Butchers is a long-standing business in the heart of Culloden. Owner Ali Paul is a master butcher with over 40 years of experience, and a list of awards to attest to the quality of his produce. He puts his success down to two things: a terrific team and the outstanding quality of the pork he buys from local farmers. There is a big difference in flavour between pigs kept in sheds, and those that get out into fields, he says.

“The pigs we buy are from Ross-shire. They are out in fields, getting dirty, grubbing about happily. Farming with good welfare and ethics makes such a difference to the animals’ wellbeing and that comes through on the plate. We’re winning awards because the farmers take such good care of their animals.”

Ali knows how difficult these testing times are. He thinks local butchers are well placed to help people make their food go further.

“The cheaper cuts are often the best,” Ali explains. “Many people have a slow cooker which is ideal for shoulder steak, it will give you an amazing flavour. If you buy a bigger piece with the bone in it, you can get a stock to use for soup, then make a stew, then stovies, then use the leftover meat to make patties. If in doubt, ask your butcher – we have loads of recipe ideas!”

We all know the cost-of-living crisis will take more than a few good cookery tips to help people get through but, as the saying goes, mony a mickle maks a muckle.

Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign