The responsibility of a crofter is not to do as you please

The new chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Donald MacKinnon, has identified the need to address a lack of access to crofts for new entrants as one of the key issues going forward.

It is far from a new problem and one that very much sits hand in hand with a long-standing wider issue in relation to crofting development and productivity – lack of use and neglect.

You don’t need to go far to come across overgrown and rank crofts, where fences have rotted away and the ground has been covered in a blanket of coarse, dead vegetation. It is a depressingly all-too familiar sight.

“Stagnation” was the term Mr MacKinnon used, and he was spot on.

As lives become ever more disconnected from the land, it’s quite understandable why people no longer have the inclination, or time, particularly when there is no great financial return. But how it must frustrate those desperate to work the land to see all these crofts going to waste.

Survey after survey has demonstrated a huge interest from people wanting to get a foot on the ladder, but they can’t because the traditional avenue of family inheritance is not open to them.

The croft tenancies that do come on the market go for astronomical sums, way beyond the reach of young families and completely out of kilter with agricultural potential.

And this is the problem, the reason that so many people hold onto non-working crofts is because they can see the pound signs; they can see what it might fetch in terms of its housing potential, with estate agents only too happy to downplay the fact that every croft tenancy sale and every de-crofting application has to be approved by the Crofting Commission. It’s not proved too much of an impediment in the past.

In fairness to the commission, they have made improvements. As much as the law enables, they do now try and prevent housing speculation – although one recent case in Lochalsh suggests there may be still some way to go. And they have at least made the right noises about dealing with neglect, which has prompted an increase in formal sub-leases and tenancy transfers.

But as Mr MacKinnon noted, it is difficult for them to really stamp their authority without the proper resources.

So an impasse remains, young families are unable to get access to land while countless crofts go to waste.

But there is a solution, even if it will make for an uncomfortable journey: remove the ability to trade tenancies on the open market and at the same time get rid of the right to buy a croft. At a stroke, those motivated purely for monetary return will disappear; their incentive gone. Then arm the commission with the necessary resources to properly tackle neglect —rather than the current practice of gentle encouragement without force — and those who have crofts but can’t do the work will have to quickly find a solution. Step forward new entrants.

Granted, the opposition to such an approach will likely be significant.

Denying people the opportunity to do with an asset what they please will be seen as anti-libertarian, a curb on personal freedom, and you can easily predict the outrage.

But the responsibility of a crofter is not to do as you please. You are part of a unique system of land tenure which was established nearly 150 years ago to keep people and communities alive. That is still very much of relevance today. Denying those fortunate enough to have crofts from lining their own pockets and ensuring everyone lives up to their duties doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation in that context.

It is expected that, Covid recovery depending, the new term of the Scottish Parliament will return to the matter of crofting reform (it was shelved due to time constraints) and there is an opportunity here for a proper radical approach which addresses the needs of crofting today but, crucially, with the principles of old at its heart.

It will require politicians and leaders of strength and conviction who are able to make a compelling case in the face of undoubted opposition, who can the see the vision that a new, radical approach will bring and who can reject pressure from all sorts of vested interests. The trouble is: there is precious little evidence of that calibre of individual in Scotland’s political landscape of today.

IT SEEMS like only yesterday I was talking about preparing for the winter and here we are with spring on the horizon. Soon the digital clock in the van will be at the right time again. (I keep it on summertime in the utterly futile belief that it will hasten the passing of the dark days.)

I have more reason than usual to hope for a good lambing. The scanning results were on the disappointing side, 10 empty out of 70 and 15 sets of twins giving an overall percentage of around 110. Not a disaster by any means, particularly in this part of the world, but my own lowest tally ever, as usually I’m looking at somewhere around the 125 to 130 per cent mark.

I suspect an underlying issue with fluke at tupping time. Fasciola hepatica (I’m glad I don’t have to say that out loud) is a tiny mud snail which is ingested through grazing and attacks the liver. It thrives in wet conditions and is rife in Scotland.

There are routine treatments, but it’s now recognised that the parasite is developing a resistance to some of the products on the market. As a result of that, the advice is to constantly use different ones and I probably wasn’t as meticulous in this as I should have been, although I know that others too have had increased problems with fluke in the early part of the winter – and it was horrendously wet in November through to December.

So the dry, hard frost of a couple of weeks ago was a godsend and it was on such a bracing but beautiful morning that we gathered for the scanning, the ground underfoot like uneven concrete. You could have gotten away with your trainers.

Once the work was complete (it doesn’t take long at all) I linked up my iPhone with the scanner and a detailed breakdown of the results popped up on the screen. A couple of pings later and it was out in the ether, all the way out to the North Sea where it was downloaded by someone not able to be in attendance to view his own results almost instantaneously.

It was a lovely symbiosis of tradition and technology, though goodness knows what the bodachs of yesteryear would have made of it all.