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Rural Affairs Secretary stresses importance of crofting to Highlands and Islands


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From the Croft by Russell Smith

Mairi Gougeon, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, gave an address at the Scottish Crofting Federation’s online AGM last week and answered questions afterwards.

As always with these presentations, there were lots of good words about government support for crofting and how much crofting resilience is appreciated and the contribution of crofters in keeping the supply chain going during the pandemic.

Russell Smith.
Russell Smith.

Mrs Gougeon stressed the number of new entrants into crofting and the work of the Crofting Commission in encouraging occupancy and bringing common grazings back into use. The Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID) is tasked with looking at the government owned estates to make sure that crofts there are occupied and worked.

The government plans to set up a steering group to monitor progress on the National Development Plan for Crofting, published before the election and which has not had any focus since. There is an emphasis on a crofting food network which may incorporate the Scottish Crofting Produce mark developed by the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF).

They are looking to widen the Crofting Agricultural Grant Scheme (CAGS) to encourage diversification and bring more opportunities (beekeeping was mentioned). The Croft Housing Scheme will continue to support housing in crofting areas so young people can work their croft and create a base for their future.

Increased woodlands and peatland restoration were two areas where crofting could benefit from investment in the climate change agenda. Some increase in tree cover would be beneficial but not at the expense of scarce good grazing land.

There was no mention in this year’s Programme for Government of the Crofting Law Bill promised in the last parliament. It is not clear whether it will be the short bill envisaged before to clear up some of the agreed changes or a more comprehensive bill which will look at a range of issues identified several years ago but not yet resolved.

Other support comes through the Bull Hire Scheme, the support for Highland Vet practices and the Farm Advisory Service. Discussion on the future of agricultural support continues with pilot schemes proposed but very little in the way of concrete proposals to my mind. The SCF has a presence on the oversight committee.

“Crofting is crucial to the Highlands and Islands”, said the Cabinet Secretary in conclusion.

The question session brought up several issues. Local abattoirs are vital to support local food chains. Increased geese numbers (and deer) are a real threat in some areas and are suffering from the withdrawal of the little aid that was received from NatureScot: the Cabinet Secretary offered to convene a meeting on this.

Finally, there was discussion on the market in crofts and how we have a regulated land tenure system where a major aspect (the value of owner occupied crofts and the assignation of tenancies) isn’t regulated at all.

There is a difficult balance to be struck between the need to allow young people to afford to access crofts and the rights of the outgoing crofter to realise the value of the assets they have spent their life building up.

Russell Smith is a Bonar Bridge crofter and a director of the Scottish Crofting Federation.


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