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Caithness News Bulletins April 2004

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Arkleton Institute Castle Of Mey Trust    
A future for farming and crofting

Sweeping proposals were published on 19th April 2004 which could help safeguard the future of farming and crofting communities in one of the most remote parts of Great Britain.

The conclusions are contained in an extensive report commissioned by The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust to examine the decline of farming and crofting in Caithness.

Uncertainty hanging over the future of sustainable farming and crofting, the fall in farm incomes over the years and the changes taking place across the agricultural industry prompted the Trust to initiate the study which was carried out by the Arkleton Institute for Rural Development Research at the University of Aberdeen, North Highland College, Thurso and Sahbal Mor Ostaig, Skye.

Ashe Windham, Chairman of The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust, said: “The Queen Mother established the Trust for the benefit of the community and personally approved this initiative. We hope that the findings of this study will aid the people of Caithness, for whom Her Majesty had such a high regard. The Trustees hope that the proposals will help address the problems remote farming and crofting communities are experiencing and will go some way towards helping to keep these communities alive.”

The research was designed to be a means of listening to the views of people living on farms and crofts in Caithness to gauge the current situation and to develop ideas which might better enable these families to survive and evolve in the future.

This information was supplemented by interviews with staff from key agencies which included the Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department (SERAD), the Crofters Commission, Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise (CASE) and North Highland College.

Professor John Bryden, Arkleton Institute for Rural Development Research, University of Aberdeen, said: “We found farming and crofting families going through a fairly intensive process of adjustment of agricultural practice, non-farming activities, work and family life. But, the communities identified a number of areas where change is still required.

“We heard complaints about the lack of co-operation between farmers and crofters and the failure to brand, promote and market Caithness produce, such as beef and archaeology, in the same way Orkney does.”

He added: “There was concern over the bureaucracy of grant and subsidy schemes, the number of such schemes and lack of co-ordination and co-operation between them as well as the frequent changes in them, and the attitudes of some Agency staff towards crofters and farmers, or towards small schemes in general.

“There is little doubt that farm and croft families will continue to adjust in future as a result of changes in their own circumstances, needs and expectations, and in policies, programmes and schemes.

“But the obvious question to ask is how those adjustment processes can be made easier in future than they have been in the past. For if this could be done, it would clearly benefit farm and croft families as well as Caithness and indeed the Highlands and Islands.”

Coutts & Co helped sponsor the report. Their chairman Lord Home said: "We were delighted to help fund this report, which is vital to understanding the issues faced by the farming and crofting communities in the region.

“As a bank with large number of landowner clients, we are committed to supporting and understanding the many issues faced by farmers and crofters, in order to help ensure their survival in an ever changing agricultural world," he said.

The study was also partly sponsored by The Arkleton Trust. Lady Higgs, Chairman of the Trust, said: “The Trust was set up to find new approaches to rural development and education, and we hope that this study, reflecting the voices of farming and crofting families, will help to assure a better future for Caithness.”

Some of the findings and conclusions:

  • Farmers, crofters and agencies should be encouraged to work together more for their own good and for the good of Caithness.

  • Caithness was compared unfavourably with Orkney in that it had not developed relevant tourism niche markets or a Caithness brand or identity – there was widespread support for Caithness branding and stronger marketing of Caithness as a distinct region to boost local confidence and economic success. It was also thought that Caithness should be better promoted as a tourist location.

  • There is a need to promote the status of farming and crofting as activities which involve high levels of valuable and transferable skills and have lifestyles which are generally healthy and desirable.

  • Despite the number of farms which have diversified, diversification is still viewed by some as difficult in Caithness because of perceived remoteness. More could be done to inform people about diversification and there could be simplification and streamlining of the agencies which aid the process.

  • To help counter some local antipathy to in-migrants who apply for rented crofts or who buy crofts, Crofters Commission, CASE and the SAC might consider how to encourage communities to be mutually supportive and to recognise the worth of new people and new ideas.

  • Steps could be taken to improve social conditions in farming and crofting.

  • “Can do” approaches should be encouraged.

Background To The Report
The title of the report is Farming and Crofting in Caithness – A contemporary account of life, work, adjustments to changing conditions, problems, and potential solutions. The authors are Professor John Bryden, Arkleton Institute for Rural Development Research, University of Aberdeen, Gillian Munro, Sabhal Mor Ostaig (Gaelic College), Skye and Jasmine Grant, North Highland College, Thurso.

The fieldwork for the report was carried out between April 2002 and June 2003. Interviews were conducted – and the report largely written – before the announcement of agricultural policy changes following the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The draft report of this study was prepared in July 2003 and discussed with The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust President, HRH The Prince of Wales, Duke of Rothesay, and Trustees in August of the same year.

The purpose of the report is to lay the groundwork for action.

The Arkleton Institute for Rural Development Research at the University of Aberdeen was established by Professor John Bryden and Professor Mark Shucksmith in 1995. It is dedicated to inter-disciplinary research on rural development issues. The Centre is regarded as one of the leading research centres in its field in Europe. For further details visit: www.abdn.ac.uk/arkleton

The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust was established in 1996 for charitable purposes within the UK and particularly in Scotland. For further details visit: www.castleofmey.org.uk

Funding for the report came from The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust, The Arkleton Trust and Coutts & Co Bank.

SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands has welcomed the findings from the Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust, which calls on farmers and Crofters in Caithness to work together and suggests that the County should be branded along the same lines as Orkney.  Mr. Gibson said...."I welcome the focus of the report given to branding Caithness produce, it's definitely the way forward to sustaining farming and Crofting in the local economy." He continued..."I will be looking for the Scottish Executive to support and also back up the findings of the report."