Article for Landwise, Shetland Times 15th May 2015

Chris was helping a dopey cross lamb work out where breakfast comes from. Robert was moving twins with the quad and David was checking ewes in the shed.

 The lambing is in full swing.There seem to be more ravens around this year. 20 or more could be seen hopping around the lambing parks. There is nothing worse than moving healthy sets of twins into a park and checking later to find they have been attacked by a raven. But full marks to the Department of Agriculture office for granting a licence quickly and efficiently when needed. I know its not called the “Department” now. But the government change the name so often that the Department will just have to do.

The new Common Agricultural Policy is being implemented. That explains the extension to the deadline for crofters and farmers to submit their annual return with maps of their land and what stocking the area is carrying. Crofters now have until 15th June. This reflects the new computer system that the government have installed to map agriculture across Scotland with all the cows, sheep and crops that are bred and grown. This computer was meant to cost £120 million or so. The new budget is now touching £180 million. That is some price tag. No only that but it is slow. Very slow. Graham Fraser who completes more than a hundred annual returns for Shetland crofters says that the system in 2014 would take an average of an hour to complete. This year it is taking 3 hours per application. His very sensible advice is that if a crofter has a paper return then keep it that way.

The government want everyone to file their maps and figures online. But this extraordinarily expensive computer needs to be rapidly improved. Crofters who are lucky enough to live right next to their telephone exchange and therefore have good broadband speeds are no better off. Even in Lerwick with superfast internet connections the new computer is no better. The government must work very hard to ensure crofters can make their application in time. And they must ensure that payments to crofters under the new CAP arrive at the usual time in December.

Lambs being born just now that end up at the show rings in August may be viewed by the new Crofting Minister Aileen Macleod. My Orkney colleague Liam McArthur and I met with the Minister in recent weeks. We presented the findings of the crofters survey we conducted last year. That showed that there is an overwhelming desire for a change to the way that crofting is regulated in the Northern Isles. Crofters asked us to make the case for either a regulatory policy that is appropriate to Shetland and its agricultural needs, including full croft decrofting and a simplification of the bureaucratic processes employed by the Crofting Commission. Some argued for the Crofting Commission to be abolished altogether. Liam and I were encouraged that the Minister was open to a full discussion about the options. So I have invited her to Shetland. This discussion is long overdue.

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