The process of nominating candidates opened this week, with Scotland’s 16,000 crofters able to put forward candidates or stand themselves for election to the Crofting Commission’s board as commissioners.
The Commission regulates and promotes the interests of crofting. March’s postal election is to elect commissioners from the six crofting constituencies: East Highlands, Orkney and Caithness, Shetland, South West Highlands, West Highlands and Western Isles.
Crofter Joyce Campbell, 46, from the north coast of Sutherland, went into partnership with her mother, Emily Campbell, a history teacher at the local school, to run their family croft as a full-time business a the age of 20.
Joyce and her team run a flock of around 830 pure-bred North Country Cheviot Hill Ewes, around 50 tups, 255 ewe hog replacements, 25 suckler cows and some free-range outdoor hens; whose eggs are sold locally. Most of the year the sheep are out on the hills, grazing on the heather, being gathered in every few months for health checks or for lambing in the spring. During lambing they are kept on the in-bye grassy pastures so that it is easier to keep an eye on them.
Armadale has a core team of workers who work alongside Joyce, including a pack of 11 dogs, and employs various people from the local community to work with them on the farm at busy times of the year.
“Crofting is an important way of sustaining communities and economies in remoter parts of the country. What we produce and the jobs we create help give people a reason to keep living here, to keep the shops and schools open, and support wider parts of the Scottish economy such as tourism. Despite the cold, hard winters and often long hours, we feel blessed to be here are incredibly lucky. The crofting way of life is keeping the lights on in many crofting townships and glens, without it many of these communities would simply not exist,” she says.
Mairi MacKenzie, became a crofter in 1987 after her father gifted her a croft when she got married. Along with the croft, Mairi’s father gave her some sheep, with which Mairi built her flock. Mairi is now both tenant and owner-occupier of croft land amounting to fifty hectares. Mairi runs a flock of 100 North Country Cheviot ewes and 6 pedigree Luing cows. In 1990 Mairi and her husband, Kenny built their home from which Mairi runs a four star B & B in conjunction with working the croft.
In Mairi’s township, there are ten crofts and three active crofters who work hand in hand to ensure their smooth running. Managing the land and the grazing is key to the maintenance of Mairi’s crofts, this entails moving the sheep out onto the common grazing at various times throughout the year. Mairi said: “I’m very thankful for what I have. There’s no better place to bring up a family and I take great pride in what I’m producing, it’s great to see the livestock being born and bringing them through. I’ve spent the past 26 years building up the croft and restoring the land, with help from my family. The croft is vital for preserving not only the natural habitat here, but also the heritage of the area and our way of life. As custodians of the land it’s a crofter’s responsibility to maintain the land for the next generation.
“We also can’t ignore that crofts make up a quarter of agricultural land in the Highlands and Islands, a large proportion of which will be arable land. Therefore, we cannot dismiss the contribution crofters make in producing scotch beef & lamb, which is recognised worldwide as being a quality product.
“The Crofting Commissioners are a good way to have our voice heard, especially in changes of policy, and so it’s important to have people who are working the system involved. For that reason, I think whoever is elected should come from a crofting background and should have seen for themselves the highs and lows of crofting. We need an articulate person, who would be a strong voice on the behalf of crofters.”
The Macdonald family croft has been in the family for nearly a hundred years, with the tenancy being taken on by Donald Macdonald’s grandfather, Donald Macdonald in 1924. The croft was worked by Donald’s father until 2000, before being passed to him to work and maintain full-time in 2001.
Alongside his wife, Caroline who he married in 2001, and his two children Rachel, 14, and Andrew, 12, Donald farms a mixture of livestock throughout the year, including 43 Simmental and Limousin cows and 200 Cheviot sheep, and 475 acres of land. Both of Donald’s children enjoy working on the croft – Rachel has now lambed 20 ewes.
The family calf and lamb in the spring, and rear the animals through the summer before selling the majority of them come October. The season then restarts in November. Lack of space means that Donald only keeps a few young animals back each year. Despite being on the Western Isles where the growing season is short, the croft is largely self-sustaining, producing the majority of its own silages with little extra feed having to be bought in. In total, there are 16 crofts in the area, 9 north of Clachan Sands and 8 in Newton, all of whom know each other and often work together.
“Working together with neighbouring crofts is an important part of how we farm. At calving time, for example, we always phone each other if there’s any trouble and try our best to look out for each other when out and about.
“Crofting is important to Scotland for a number of reasons. We produce a lot of stock that mainland farms rely on. This creates a network of other job types, all of which are underpinned by this relationship, helping to strengthen employment and support the local economy.
“At the same time, crofting has a significant bearing on maintaining the local population, communities, and townships by giving people a place to live and work. Further, what a lot of people often don’t realise is the positive impact that crofting has on the local ecology; grazing, ploughing, and our livestock play an important role in maintaining the habitats of a lot of wildlife, so any decisions we aren’t able to influence will have a knock-on effect.
“The Crofting Commission plays a vital role in regulating our industry, providing impartial oversight and independent monitoring. It gives crofters a voice and platform through which we can stand up for ourselves, raise any concerns and make sure our interests are not overlooked, which is why the Crofting Commission elections are so important to us. Crofting is evolving so it is important that we are able to influence any changes to the way we are regulated from above, particularly with all the uncertainty and concern around Brexit and CAP reform.
“My hope is that we will develop a vibrant network of townships and thriving crofting. But to make that happen we have to be able to guarantee an income for crofters and help the next generation continue to work that land and develop larger crofts more suited to the economic demands of modern times. Crofting is not just about livestock, many people have crofts for forestry and tourism, making the most of the land they have, so helping crofters be innovative about the way they grow is important”.