By Patrick Krause 

Following on from the crofting consultation at the back-end of last year, Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing put forward his plans for proceeding with the reform of crofting law at a specially convened meeting of the Cross Party Group on Crofting organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF). 

He promised that we will have a Bill in this parliamentary session which corrects the main anomalies in the current law and so enables it to work appropriately for crofters.  This is the essential course of action needed and will pave the way to a consolidation bill in the next session.  It is exactly what SCF, the Crofting Commission and crofting lawyers asked for and is very good news for crofting.  This ensures that crofters’ rights are protected whilst a fundamental review runs in parallel that may enable more far-reaching changes to crofting law in the future.‎ 

Meanwhile, the paper on the NFUS vision for agricultural support post-Brexit ‘Steps to Change’, published recently, seems to ignore crofting.  It is a considerable piece of work and, granted, it must be very challenging trying to write policy that will satisfy crofters on marginal land in the North West whilst playing to the tune of the Region One farmers in the East. 

There are some aspirations that crofters would support to be sure, such as food production thriving whilst providing positive environmental outcomes and public goods, but, unfortunately, the paper comes across as a thesis on the shoring-up of the industrial agriculture model.  There is no mention of the provision of crofting-specific support measures, environmentally-sound extensive grazing or the capping of support payments; perhaps no surprises there.  But it is striking that a document which claims to be a vision for the future of Scottish agricultural support doesn’t seem to have considered new entrants. 

Scottish Government recently extended the retention period for the Scottish Upland Sheep Support Scheme (SUSSS).  That is OK in terms of trying to address effects of bad weather on gathering in hill areas, as we asked, but it doesn’t address the core fault of the scheme.  It has been misused, with some large producers claiming not only on their replacements but on any number of ewe hoggs, the surplus then being sold off.  When it is large farms doing this it rapidly uses up the limited budget, depriving others, especially smaller producers, of benefitting from it.  This was not the intention of the scheme; it was designed to offer a chance to those on rough grazing to make up for their distressingly low basic payments. 

The objective could be achieved most effectively by paying on ewe hoggs retained as breeding replacements, or on the number of gimmers taken into the breeding flock by putting to tup in November.  This would allow for maintaining flock numbers in regular ages, or for growing the flock size.  But it is unlikely that the Scottish Government would take such a bold step. 

At this stage in the scheme, the proposal by SCF to limit the payment to 30% replacement is a step in the right direction at least, and will increase the payment per hogg.  And to facilitate those with small numbers or those building up their flocks, such as new entrants, for those claiming 50 or fewer hoggs the percentage criteria should not apply.  These initiatives would be relatively easy to accommodate administratively, less complicated for the claimant and get the support to where it was intended.