Enviroment: Crofters face threat from `bureaucratic eco-warriors'

There are plans to set up Britain's first shrimp farm on the Hebridean island of Harris. But as Stephen Goodwin discovered, there are tensions between people struggling to make a living in the far north-west of Scotland and conservationists.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Roger Crofts, chief executive of the quango Scottish Natural Heritage, believes the idea that conservationists are making people an endangered species in the Highlands and Islands is a "tired myth".

He told the annual conference of the Scottish Crofters' Union (SCU) on Skye that the portrayal of environmentalists as outsiders driving around in new Land-Rovers concerned only for the barnacle goose or the corncrake was simply a "caricature".

But the crofters remain deeply sceptical. The Edinburgh-based public servant may be "Croft" by name but community leaders remain to be convinced his organisation has turned crofter-friendly. "SNH are becoming intolerable in the way they are operating. They are becoming like bureaucratic eco- warriors," said Angus Graham, vice-convener of the Western Isles Council and the SCU representative for the islands.

"It doesn't go down well that these people come out of university with their PhDs and come here and tell us what to do," Mr Graham said. The crofters maintain their ability to make even a partial living from the land is hit when areas are designated as of special scientific interest or scenic value. With the plethora of protectionist labels comes a list of "don't do's", according to the SCU. These might curtail the number of sheep on a croft, the use of fertilisers, drainage work and other agricultural operations. However, Scottish National Heritage denied the existence of a list of prohibitions, claiming normal crofting activity could continue unhindered.

The controversy over a proposed shrimp farm on Harris illustrates just how easy it is to see SNH as hostile to economic development. Hebridean Shrimp Farms wants to build a facility for harvesting local and tropical shrimps. Europe offers a lucrative market for shrimps, currently supplied by Asia. The project would create 20 permanent jobs - some would be the type of jobs taken on by crofters to supplement their income.

The couple behind the idea, marine biologist Duncan May and chemist Joanne Murday, said the shrimp rearing method had been in use elsewhere since the 1970s and was accepted as environmentally friendly. SNH's initial concern is not over pollution but the visual impact.

David Maclennan, Western Isles manager for SNH, insisted the agency was not opposed to a shrimp farm but wanted to make sure it was in the right place. The company had been vague about its plans, he said.

One site mentioned in informal discussions, Northton, is in a national scenic area. It is prime "machair", a type of dune grassland, recognised as internationally important and virtually confined in Europe to NW Scotland and parts of Ireland. The farm could cover some five acres of machair with pools and sheds, according to Mr Maclennan. "The loss of prime machair habitat on that scale would be significant," he said. It is home to birds such as redshank, dunlin and oyster catchers. But to job-starved Harris, shrimp production could offer a similar lifeline to salmon farming.

Mr Graham finds SNH's priorities mind-boggling. "To object to a shrimp farm on Harris and to allow a bloody funicular railway up Cairn Gorm is unbelievable," he said. Islanders say that if SNH keeps trying to stop development and regulate crofting, Harris will become "a wilderness".

Over on the mainland at Inverasdale in Wester Ross, crofters are opposing a proposal to designate 3,000 acres of their hill grazing as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

The heritage quango wants to safeguard the mosses and lichens of what is a rare blanket bog. But crofters fear there will be restrictions on stock numbers making it difficult for young people to build up a holding. "This type of thing could drive even more people to work away," said grazings clerk Hamish MacDonald.

Typically a croft is about 10 acres of land around a cottage with a much larger area of common grazing beyond. There are some 11,000 crofting households in North-west Scotland of whom less than 8,000 are active. That leaves about one-third of crofts not being worked.

Wildlife tourism seemed to be the biggest opportunity the SNH chief foresaw, with novel ideas such as charging for access to bird hides. But the crofters themselves plainly prefer the farmer's basic satisfaction of livestock rearing and harvest - shrimps included.