FRUIT-PICKING robots could replace agricultural migrant workers after Brexit, according to regional business development leaders.

Marches Local Enterprise Partnership directors explained last week that big local food producers were facing recruitment challenges which could be turned around into positive opportunities.

One of their key aspirations is for the region to become a global centre of excellence for the next phase of technology development in agriculture and food production.

LEP director Gill Hamer presented the region’s draft strategic economic plan at Herefordshire Council’s general scrutiny committee meeting.

Councillor Trish Marsh said the draft plan did not seem to identify any risks and highlighted the county’s reliance on agricultural workers from Europe.

Ms Hamer said: “Producers were saying their employment challenges were happening already before Brexit was announced, there are less people coming. That’s why we wanted to start the debate about mechanisation, but we will have to bring that out as a challenge rather than a risk.

“We need to tackle it and support them with trying to introduce new technologies and different ways of operating.

“The Chinn family were speaking actively about it and Eric Drummond and a few others of the big producers in the area were very concerned about that and how it would affect their productivity and efficiency to produce the volumes that they already do.”

Nick Webster, economic development manager, said developing new agricultural technology could benefit the local economy.

“With things like the issue about migrant labour, if we view those as opportunities to increase mechanisation and technology in local companies by increasing the average wage for local people, that is a positive message to government,” he said.

Committee chairman Sebastian Bowen said: “So we are going to have robotic strawberry pickers, are we?

“It does seem rather complicated to go from manual labour to something more artificial intelligence directed robotic labour.

“But we’ve got to be positive, haven’t we?”