Results from Workshop 1 for Uist
Conservation Status of the site
Monitoring has shown most of the terrestrial Natura interest to be in favourable conservation status. The exceptions are the cereal and fallow elements of the system
Factors contributing to the unfavourable status of arable/fallow:
This covers a variety of changes undertaken for a range of motives, some being forced on crofters and some at the other extreme being purely personal choices. Crofters with no access to local seed (see below) have no option but to use non-native varieties, with a concomitant rise in the use of herbicide and fertiliser. In most of the circumstances where crofters appeared to be exercising a personal choice, the option they choose is in fact probably economically rational, at least in the short term – undersowing rather than leaving ground fallow; using fertiliser rather than spending hours bringing seaweed from the beach. However it was also felt by some that there was a general trend to aspiring to or respecting ‘mainland’ ways of doing things – larger, faster machinery and the like – and that this was at least a contributory factor in perceived problems such as deep ploughing etc.
- Simplification (fewer crofters, larger parcels, apportionment, etc.)
This is a complex set of factors. In its least severe manifestation, the old pattern of strips remains but fall de facto into fewer and fewer hands (through croft assignation, subletting and informal arrangements) resulting in a simpler pattern of cropping choices, dates of arable operations etc.. Even a shift from using one’s own machinery to using contractors results in simplification. Some townships have an arrangement whereby a contiguous half the arable is cropped and the other half fallow – this arrangement is seen as less desirable than the greater mosaic offered by the more ‘traditional’ system (fewer edge effects, for example). Apportionment of the machair opens up the possibility of very significant changes (a move away from township rules on grazing and cultivation dates, increased stocking pressure overall or at certain times of year, even the abandonment of cropping altogether).
- Availability of seed & machinery
There was some debate on the significance of the undoubted move to larger and more efficient machinery. Early in the event, there was much talk of increased machine speeds, weight of machinery etc. However by the end of the meeting the general feeling seemed to be that as long as appropriate equipment was used, damage by machinery should not increase over what was caused in the past. There was a more consistent message on seeds. Primarily apparently as a result of geese, supplies of native seed are declining to a dangerously low level. The response is to buy commercial seed, which results in an increased use of fertiliser, seed treatments and herbicides.
- Administrative/legal questions (right to control geese, technical issues with e.g. agri-environment rules)
For reasons which were not clearly explained, crofters are not allowed to control geese, even ‘marauders’ on their own crops. There was a real perception of conflict with the local landowning estates on this issue. It was felt that their objection to goose shooting was not necessarily because they themselves had sporting clients willing to pay for the privilege, but because they objected to disturbance of the more lucrative snipe shooting. All the parties present in the workshop felt that without a solution to the goose issue there could be no progress on the other questions. It was felt that the authorities and environmental NGOs centrally had little interest in a solution (despite the apparent requirements of the Habitats Directive), with Edinburgh being apparently afraid of a precedent being set in Uist for goose problems in other areas. One deficiency in the agri-environment rules was that undersowing is allowed, thus disrupting the fallow part of the system (although banning it would be agriculturally costly and would necessitate a substantial increase in the payment rate).
Threats to favourable status of rest of machair system:
- Loss of viability: decline in livestock
This was the most significant change of recent years. Gross margins from the agricultural side of crofting post-decoupling are small. Contactors and/or machinery costs make net margins negligible or negative. While complete abandonment by all producers cannot happen without an infringement of GAEC, substantial reductions are possible, particularly in townships where other active individuals remain to carry the GAEC can, as it were. A worrying possibility is that both agri-environment and Single Farm Payments can now be paid to a completely inactive crofter as long as he finds someone else to do the work, and the remaining production incentive – LFA – may well yet be decoupled in 2007. A reduction in activity can therefore of itself result in a substantial increase in net farm income, while also allowing the crofter to pursue other more profitable employment.
- Continued social decline: ageing crofters, fewer young entrants
It was accepted by all that the effects of decoupling would not be felt as quickly as the bare figures suggest, since crofters have a number of non-economic motivations – love of the lifestyle, a sense of tradition, and so on. However, it was equally obvious that the potential for catastrophic changes on the transfer of crofts between generations is great. The issue is not so much the low net income but the poor return on labour expended, making almost every alternative to working on the croft more economically attractive.
As returns decline, so paperwork and regulation increases. ‘Hobby’ or even semi-subsistence activity alongside other employment could still survive a downturn crofting returns (although most crofters want to see the croft ‘wash its face’), but bureaucracy makes it an increasingly unattractive lifestyle choice.
- Inappropriate modernisation & lack of perceived alternatives
A part of the ‘lifestyle’ side of crofting, even amongst ‘traditional’ crofters, is self-image and having respect within the community. Particularly amongst younger crofters, positive role-models are often derived from Scotland’s ‘commercial’ farming sector, and the market report in the local paper may be very important (more important than the ‘bottom line’ in some cases). Large tractors, Continental cattle and ‘farm-like’ scale derive partly from a drive to efficiency and partly from such ‘economically irrational’ aspirations. Information and advice not offer any realistic alternative, but this is not a deficiency of communication but of any positive message which can truly reward the crofter for appropriate management.
- Control of geese
This issue is covered above, but as with most of the factors in this section, the effects are two-fold. First is the economic loss and the accompanying obvious message to what are generally risk-averse crofters. Second is the clear impression that no-one cares enough to address the issue, despite the Natura designation, the high regard in which the machair is held in the ‘conservation’ world, the much-proclaimed benefits of crofting, and so on. At an economically unrewarding time, this feeling of a lack of appreciation and that things can only get harder as goose numbers increase is bound to have a negative effect.