The council made the move because it feels any compensation payments from the Scottish Office will take too long. Malcolm Green, the chief executive, said: 'If we don't act we feel there will be hardship.'
Already farmers at the southern end of the island near the wreck are starting to move their sheep
to pastures further from the sea. The oil is toxic, and if sheep and cattle ingest too much they will fall sick and possibly have to be condemned.
The southern end, near Sumburgh, has Shetland's best pasture and horticultural land. In all, 21,000 sheep could be at risk. One farmer who had just begun harvesting his cabbages had them condemned by the council's environmental health department and cannot take them to market in the capital, Lerwick.
Willie Mainland reported the contamination himself to the department after noticing an oily film in puddles on his field and on the vegetables. 'You could see it and smell it on them,' he said.
He farms at Noss, three miles north of the wreck. The sea lies within a few hundred yards of the cabbage field, behind a steep hill. 'It's going to be a great financial loss,' he said. 'Hopefully we'll be compensated.' Mr Mainland has one of Shetland's larger farms, employing three men. He also has 500 ewes which he has had to move from oil-exposed fields, but fortunately his cattle are under cover at this time of year.
Mr Green said the council planned to claim back any compensation it paid from whoever was found to be to blame for the pollution.
A delegation from the Scottish NFU consisting of two representatives from Shetland and one from the union's Edinburgh headquarters met civil servants at the Scottish Office yesterday. The union delegation pressed hard for early compensation. The civil servants agreed to pass on their concerns to Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is soon to visit Shetland. However, a spokeswoman for the Scottish Office said it was 'early days' to be talking about compensation.
Richard Hinton, the headquarters official from the Scottish NFU, welcomed the council's emergency scheme.
'We had a sympathetic hearing from the Scottish Office but they gave no commitment,' he said. 'The last thing we want is farmers and crofters having to spend years claiming compensation from oil companies and ship owners and insurance companies in other countries.'
It seems unlikely that sheep and cattle will be moved off the islands altogether but if much of their pasture is denied to them they may need extra hay to be shipped in. Farming and crofting employs more than 1,100 islanders.
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