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12 Sept 2018

Supporting tomorrow’s crofters

Written by Diarmid Hearns, Head of Policy
Highland cows graze on some short grass in front of a white croft house, with a hill behind.
Our Head of Policy Diarmid Hearns highlights how the Trust is helping tomorrow’s crofters, and what action others need to take.

Look at an Ordnance Survey map of the Highlands and Islands and you can see the enduring impact crofting has had on the area. This unique form of farming has underpinned the continued presence of people in some of our most remote and demanding environments, while shaping the scale and nature of many rural settlements. To this day, it remains an important and valuable form of property tenure.

Yet, despite its significance, the foundations upon which crofting have been built are crumbling. Over years of change to the Scottish economy and society, the laws and regulations that govern this way of life have become unclear, inconsistent and unworkable.

It’s in that spirit that we welcome the Crofting Commission’s report on Support for Crofting. The document sets out proposals for improving the support available to crofting agriculture, retention of cattle, help for new crofters, and the freeing up of under-used land.

“In our view, crofting needs to be brought into the 21st century.”
Diarmid Hearns, Head of Policy

As the owner of 200 crofts, we’ve been making many of these arguments for some time. In our view, crofting needs to be brought into the 21st century. While the last set of material changes to legislation had good intentions, they introduced further inconsistencies and errors which have rendered crofting law difficult to understand and apply.

To take an example, legislation originally brought into effect in 1976 regarding the right to buy croft land is being used for speculative purposes. Rather than being used for crofting, it can be sold on as housing sites or holiday homes to the highest bidder – a clear contradiction of its initial intentions.

A close-up of an Iona meadow
Crofting is an important part of the landscape and culture.

But we acknowledge that for crofting to be economically viable regulations must remain flexible. Many crofters legitimately pursue other sources of income and they should be allowed to do so. In fact, it should be recognised that resident crofters who don’t tend their land could be more damaging than those who work elsewhere during the week.

There are ways of tackling this issue without endangering livelihoods. We could cap the amount of time away, enforce the duty to cultivate the croft and put it to purposeful use, or measure the 32km limitation by travel distance rather than ‘as the crow flies’.

Equally, there should be a cap on the number of crofts of which an individual can be a tenant, to prevent holdings accumulating with one person. This could help bring new entrants into crofting, support a diverse and resilient tenancy pattern, and encourage croft activity.

We also need genuine government support, not just revised regulation and new entrants. The Scottish Rural Development Programme has singularly failed to be attractive to most crofters and whatever replaces it needs to take account of the special nature of crofting.

A view of Plockton village from high in the hills
We’re working with young people in Plockton to pass crofting skills on.

We’ve used some of these tenets as the basis of our work on Balmacara Estate, where we created eight crofts in 2000. Our Traditional Croft Management Scheme has provided direct payments for growing small areas of crops on a rotational basis – with enhanced payments for hay and for late-cut management – and support for cattle retention. We’ve also introduced a Crofting Education Programme at Plockton High School to encourage students to learn more about crofting, with nine students taking part in the next academic year.

If crofting is to survive, it must rest on three planks: simplified legislation; regulation that is applied consistently and effectively; and a greater focus on investment in, and education for, young crofters. That means giving crofting a clean slate – keeping the few pieces of law that make sense, streamlining them, and starting afresh elsewhere.

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