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Crofting and farming

Written by Tom Wills

April 29, 2021

Crofting and farming are central to the Shetland economy and the Shetland way of life.  For many folk, agriculture is their main source of income.  For many more (including my own family), tending a small croft and helping your neighbours out with theirs is part of what makes life here so special.  Just a few days ago, I was helping plant a tattie rig and watching my son have his first go at dropping in the seed tatties, remembering when I used to do the same — and my delight at pulling new growth out of the ground later in the year. Bairns are great for renewing your capacity to wonder at a humble tattie.

Crofting and farming are also crucial to our local efforts to protect the environment and tackle the climate crisis.  In the past, crofters and farmers were paid for the number of sheep they had on the land, a system which contributed to overgrazing and the peatland degradation that we see in some areas.  Land area-based payments have worked better and the payments system is now changing again, to support peatland restoration, tree planting and biodiversity measures aimed at encouraging, for example, more ground-nesting birds or wildflowers. Such ‘agri-environmental’ schemes are welcome and needed, but they should to take into account the realities on the ground in Shetland.  This means we need more direct input from communities into policy formulation.

Shetland’s peatland areas store a huge amount of carbon: supporting local folk to keep this carbon in the ground and restoring Shetland peatland so that it can continue to absorb carbon should be a priority for support payments in the future.  Shetland’s contribution will largely be in peatland restoration and payments for careful future management.  We are well-placed to lead on such work, through our Grazings Committees and local expertise.

Shetland does have significant areas of high-quality agricultural land, but many areas are classed as “Region 3” and only really suitable for rough grazing of smaller, hardier sheep. These isles can and should be far more self-sufficient in vegetables than at present and we need to look at ways to support this on a personal and community level, but livestock rearing will always be a big part of agriculture here.  Local breeds are often the most efficient and sustainable means of production and these should be protected. Shetland has an exemplary record of animal health due to decisions taken at local level to preserve the integrity of local flocks and herds.

I would work to ensure that we bring in less meat from industrial farms from mainland UK or overseas and support and promote healthy local produce, including meat from our own local breeds.  A renewed local food plan involving all agencies should encourage local production, leading to local health and financial benefits.  A critical component in a Local Food Plan would be to ensure SIC/NHS procurement strategies support locally produced food. The SNP Government supports more locally produced food in procurement contracts and our manifesto includes a £10 million ‘Scotland Loves Local’ fund as well as proposals for local and national customer loyalty schemes that will help promote local products.  Quality local produce can be more expensive at the checkout, but the local economic and long-term health benefits are significant.  For too long the UK has been driven by an obsession with high GDP and how to make the fastest buck: the big picture here is that we need to take a long-term view and build an economy that puts wellbeing of people (and animals) first.

Local efforts, supported by vital grant funding, meant that this community was able to build an abattoir and to keep it and the Mart as community assets. These are the envy of many other communities and area tremendous foundations to build upon, along with the Shetland Animal Health Scheme. The cost of transport does however remain a significant challenge.

If elected as Shetland’s MSP I would work on the following priorities, which have been set out by our local Shetland branch of the NFUS (National Farmers Union Scotland), from the moment I enter Holyrood:

  • That all future agricultural consultations are properly evidence based and considered in relation to the Islands (Scotland) Bill;
  • Any future agri-environment scheme should be suitable for Shetland to allow as many local crofters and farmers to benefit. This is largely a question of creating budgets which recognise the importance of climate change and biodiversity;
  • Support the improvement of the Lerwick freight pier by building a roofed area to improve animal welfare in poor weather conditions;
  • Support retention of the IACS (Integrated Administration And Control System) budget, and its use in way which better addresses local circumstances;
  • Push for local supermarkets to source and sell local produce, e.g. milk, bakeries etc.

The SNP national manifesto includes a commitment to reform land and crofting laws, in order to support those who work the land.  The joke that crofts are pieces of land surrounded by legislation remains true enough and to keep folk working the land in Shetland, we should make the process of de-crofting easier so that families working the land are able to use it to its full potential. More flexibility to recognise local circumstances is critical.  Application of crofting regulation can be too stifling and rigid at the moment.

I understand that crofting and farming in Shetland are challenging enough at the best of times.  As we look to reform land use to better protect our environment, we should learn from local experience and ensure that Shetland crofters and farmers views are taken onboard at every level of the decision-making processes that affect them. If elected, I will work to ensure that this happens.