Scots exporters: Swimming upstream

Whisky bottles Image copyright Scotch Whisky Association

Two of the big success stories of Scottish exporting have taken a dive.

While Britain's taste for a dram may be on the rise again, mostly thanks to higher-value single malts, that doesn't appear to be the case overseas.

And while salmon exports have recently been leaping ahead of other Scottish food and drink sales, they have taken a big dip in the past year.

Overall, new figures for Scottish exports of goods in 2015 saw them falling sharply, from £19.6bn to £17.5bn.

It can't all be down to the strength of sterling, as other food and drink exports are not taking anything like the same pounding, and nor is the UK

Food and drink

Scotland's total exports fell 11%, while the UK total was also down, but by less than 3%.

This is not just a one-year problem. The value of exports from England, Wales and Scotland decreased since 2012 by 4.8%, 8.3% and 12.9% respectively.

There is a lot of effort going into encouraging Scottish firms to get into exports. Yet the total numbers are going backwards. Scotland and the English Midlands are the only parts of the UK to see the number of exporters fall last year, according to the latest statistics.

Image copyright Getty Images

And amid referendum-linked discussion of the importance of the European Union as an export market, it's striking that goods exports from Scotland to the rest of the EU last year fell by 20%, while UK goods exports to the EU fell 9%.

A lot of that was because output from oil refining was of much lower value, down two-thirds in Scotland's export figures, or £1.1bn. But there's more to it than that.

According to HM Revenue and Customs - with its first take on full-year figures issued on Thursday - exports of "beverages" from Scotland (overwhelmingly whisky) were down 4.4%, or £205m.

More widely, Scottish exports of food and drink fell 5% last year, and 6% the year before, while the UK figure was 3.6% last year, and steady the year before.

Surging sales

Those two years have seen increasing problems hit the whisky market - just when everyone thought it had found a sweet spot and was poised for years of expansion.

Exports had been surging ahead with the growth of middle class demand in emerging economies, across Asia to Latin America.

Nine new distilleries have opened recently, and the big distillers have spent vast amounts on expanding capacity.

Whisky came to represent around a quarter of all Scotland's exports (a worrying over-dependence?), and also a quarter of all food and drink exports from the UK.

That demand has come off the boil. The HMRC figures for Scottish "beverage" exports point to a 13% drop since 2012.

It seems there has been some cutting back on stockpiles of whisky held overseas. Chinese authorities have frowned on conspicuous entertaining and gifts of prestigious foreign liquor.

And two important Latino markets, Brazil and Venezuela, have hit very hard economic times.

British bottle

That's why the British market has started to look a little more important. We learned on Wednesday that the number of Scotch whisky bottles released to the market in the UK was up from 83.3m to 84.9m bottles.

That goes against a trend of decline. British sales are down from 107m bottles a decade ago, and 111m back in 1995, when British tippling accounted for a tenth of output.

With rapid exports growth in the past decade, that share has fallen to around 7%.

Britain wasn't seen as the place to be lavishing marketing budgets, when Asia to Latin America were growing so rapidly and offered the promise of so much more.

More malt

These figures may get the marketing teams thinking again. The growth in British demand, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, is at the premium end of distilling, with single malts.

In 2005, distillers released 96m bottles of blended (lower-value) whisky to the UK market. In 2009 - the worst of the recession - demand dropped 10%, and it didn't come back. Last year, demand was down to 72m bottles.

There was also a sharp drop in demand for single malts in 2009, down 14%. But it bounced back the next year.

In the decade to 2015, the number of single malt bottles sold into the UK market has risen from 11.5m bottle to 12.3m - up 4% and then 8% in the past two years.

Similar trends can be seen in the United States. In mature markets, where the single malt used to be a profitable sideline, it is fast becoming vital to the industry's prospects.

Sea change

And what of salmon? Scottish salmon also benefited from the growth in export markets. When China wanted to punish Norway for the Nobel peace prize going to a Chinese dissident, Scotland was given official trade approval and picked up the opportunity (it's mostly Norwegian owned, of course).

Chile, the world's other big salmon producer, suffered a hit to production due to fish disease, and again, Scottish fish farming was able to benefit.

Image copyright PA

But with Chile recovering, sterling strong, and Russia embargoed, there is tougher competition out there in the salmon cages.

According to the UK Food and Drink Federation, issuing its annual figures this week, salmon exports (and they are almost all farmed in Scottish lochs) were down a whacking £139m to £496m. That's a 21% drop in value. By volume, there was a big, but lesser, decline, of 8.6%.

That helps explain why Marine Harvest, one of the industry's biggest producers, has been laying off staff this week.

Chunky choc

There is only one category that exports more food and non-alcoholic drink from the UK than salmon: chocolate.

The weakening of demand and strengthening of sterling helps explain a 1.7% drop in value last year, and 2.2% by volume. But at £580m, chocolate exports remain quite chunky.

If you're the kind who has to know, the Food and Drink Association tells us the next biggest British export categories that sell to foreigners are: cheese, beef, sweet biscuits, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, vegetables, chicken and sauces.

Only the biscuits, cereals and veg were on the rise last year. Overseas sales of chicken went down nearly as sharply as salmon.

Weapons

If not whisky and salmon, and if the European Union is becoming less important, where are the growth areas for Scottish exports?

The latest HMRC trade figures show that the US remains the dominant export market. However, the fastest-growing export market is Saudi Arabia, up 35% or £127m.

And the fastest-growing export category, up eight-fold or £103m, is "military arms and ammunition".

The weapons aren't all destined for Saudi use, of course. But it's an odd combination, and not the image you might expect of Scotland the Brand.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites