UK dairy farmers have criticised the government’s migration adviser for ignoring its and other agricultural sectors’ need for European labour as UK staff are not available.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC)’s final report into migration from the European Economic Area concluded that the loss of horticultural businesses through a lack of seasonal labour “would not be catastrophic” for the UK economy.

The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) says the report “lets down the myriad of UK industries which rely on skilled manual EU workers, of which dairy farming is one”. The RABDF made a comprehensive submission to the MAC’s call for evidence, as did the NFU, among over 400 responses.

But RABDF policy director Tim Brigstocke says the key role played by stockpeople, herd managers and dairy farm managers from the EU, who fit between manual and highly skilled levels in their training and abilities, has been ignored by the MAC. Many EU nationals currently working in the UK fall into this skills ‘gap’, filling roles in many industries – including dairying – which British workers simply do not want to take up.

“The problem is particularly acute in England,” notes Mr Brigstocke. “While it is encouraging that the MAC recognises the need for a scheme for seasonal fruit pickers, for example, to avoid fruit sitting ‘unpicked and rotting on trees’, we believe there is failure to appreciate a much bigger and long term problem in other sectors.”

He voices concern that the MAC could be “banking on the fact that farmers won’t allow a lack of labour in the dairy sector to result in cows ‘going unmilked or unmanaged’ in the same way. But the more likely outcome is unbearable strain on those dairy farmers who are short of labour, leading to more farms ceasing production and possible mental health challenges for those remaining in business.”

Mr Brigstocke concludes: “This issue is a huge concern for our sector. Demand for milk and dairy products remains strong in the UK, so we risk undermining our own industry with its high standards and high productivity, and instead supplying our markets from abroad with milk produced under different regimes but using those very workers we have no access to.”

An RABDF survey in 2014 found 40% of farms having difficulty with staff recruitment, with the figure rising to 51% in a 2016 poll. A 2016 survey also found most British nationals unwilling to work in dairying for a range of reasons, so a lack of access to skilled migrant labour could be disastrous to many UK dairy farms.