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Crofting delivers important social, economic and biodiversity value say Highland and Islands’ SAC Consultants

11 April 2020

Scotland’s crofting community has spoken out about the social, economic and biodiversity value of small-scale, and almost invariably part-time, way of life to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.

Crofts can range from a single farm animal and less than 1ha to more than 50ha, with the average holding around 5ha.

On the Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris crofting is the predominant form of land use, entailing managing some of the most difficult agricultural terrain, soil quality and climate in the UK.

Contrary to some expectations, the last few years has seen an increase in the number of female and younger crofters entering the sector, according to SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). Crofting has a strong tradition of diversification, and the advisory services are there to support.

“The young people are doing things differently and bringing diversification to our crofts. Crofters will need support in the future, because their fear is that without it, it will become a desert out here – people will leave,” said Iain MacMillan, agricultural consultant at SAC Consulting in Stornoway.

Hebridean crofters Kenny MacKay, Karen MacLeod and Donald MacSween have been speaking about their experiences in the sector.

Donald MacSween, aged 36, is a crofter based on the North West of the Isle of Lewis with a mixed livestock enterprise, including pigs, poultry, sheep and cattle.

Donald doesn’t generate enough turnover to afford the cost of agricultural sheds, so utilises polyunits, e.g. polytunnels or Polycrubs, as a cheaper and more diverse means of housing stock. The units were funded by grants, which he obtained with the support of SAC Consulting Stornoway. “It’s in the mindset of people to work together and I think that comes from the crofting history – we’ve always had to work together in order to make a living. It’s not about the economic benefit, the social benefit is key to keeping communities alive.”

Kenny MacKay, aged 29, is a joiner by trade but runs 280 ewes on South Harris.

Kenny is looking to build a croft house with support from the Croft House Grant scheme, which will enable him to stay near his croft and to maintain the vibrancy in this rural community. “Crofting is a way of life. Once it goes, there is no going back. I’m a joiner to trade. If I could croft every day and make a living, I would but there is no money in crofting. All the money coming in, goes back into the croft,”

Karen MacLeod

Karen MacLeod and her husband John have a croft on the outskirts of Stornoway.

Karen has shied away from a conventional approach to crofting. She takes an organic approach to her horticultural setup and used a Polycrub – a polytunnel designed to withstand high wind speeds and harsh climates – to grow a range of crops, including grapes and a lemon tree. “I was born in the wrong generation and I want to grow and produce my own food like the original crofters did here. I can confidently send my young children out to the Polycrub to get coriander or chives and know they will come back with it. It’s just second nature to them.”

Crofting Advice and Support

Kenny, Donald and Karen have all received advisory support from SAC Consulting, through the Scottish Farm Advisory Service (FAS) Croft and Small Farm subscription. This provides Scottish-government subsidised advice through SAC Consulting’s local offices to crofters, with advisors often crofters themselves and living within the local community.

The value of a locally-sited advisory service and advisor was made clear in the results of a survey of crofters conducted by SAC Consulting last year. The results found that for two-thirds of crofters the preferred method of advice was either face-to-face or in a local office. The three most commonly used areas of advice were; livestock and grassland, crofting regulation and grants information.

Niall Campbell, SAC Consulting, Regional Development Manager North West, and who is also a crofter with 10ha and 20 sheep near Oban, said:

“Crofters and smallholders face different challenges to larger farming businesses. The small scale of their operation means that they are not able to take advantage of economies of scale and the cost of production is generally much higher for a croft than a farm. Economics aside, crofters and small holders offer huge benefits to Scotland. Crofting has had a key influence over the landscape over the West Highlands for generations. As crofts are generally low input / low output systems, they often support excellent biodiversity. Crofting is also hugely important in keeping local economies going, such as feed merchants and in supplying breeding livestock to the rest of Scottish agriculture.

“Crofting will always need some kind of small business support to keep the crofting going with its positive impact on the landscape and biodiversity. With our relatively low food prices in this country, I can’t see crofting being rewarded for the quality of food and biodiversity through sales of food, so the marketplace won’t support crofting activity.

“SAC Consulting supports crofters and small holders through the FAS Croft and Small Farmer subscription service. This is one of our key services, enabling the crofter to speak to an advisor from their local office who is often, like me, a crofter or small holder themselves. We know the land, the challenges of crofting and can give them a bespoke service. They can ask us anything – from breeding advice to grassland, business, new regulations or grants. We are particularly useful to those starting up in crofting as there are a myriad of items to think about as you get started. But the subscription is also useful to ensure ongoing improvement in running and developing the croft over time, so most subscribers have been working with SAC Consulting for years.

“There are many great crofters out there who are dedicated to their land and livestock. One of our key roles is to simplify the system and advise crofters on their many-faceted businesses to make the business-side of things easier for them.”

Support for crofters includes subsidies paid via the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as additional support mechanisms, including the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme for crofters for capital items (80% grant under 41yrs and within the first five years of the tenancy, 60% grant for any other crofter, up to £25k for two years), and for Common Grazings (up to £125k for collaborative investment e.g. new sheep handling facilities); and the Croft House Grant scheme (up to £38k, towards 40% of the costs to renovate or new build).

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