Double threat fears raised over future of the marts
A two-pronged threat is hanging over the marts in Lerwick, opening up the unwanted spectre of possible closure.
Chief among the fears is a planning application for a so-called landfill site on council-owned ground close to the marts, which is used for livestock lairage.
Another key concern is the reclassification of land by the Scottish government, which is behind subsidy cuts. It is thought that the marts could become unviable if a resulting downturn in livestock production materialises as producers struggle to make a business case to keep sheep and kye.
Chairman of Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG), Ronnie Eunson, has spoken following a planning application by EMN Plant Ltd to bring in “inert” surplus material from construction projects to the Staney Hill site.
“The mart requires its lairage fields in order to operate. It cannot operate without them. If weather, transport breakdowns or disease outbreaks affect shipments, up to 6,000 sheep could require grazing immediately on any weekend during the sales season,” Mr Eunson said.
“SLMG will not stand by waiting until a severe animal welfare situation occurs with subsequent prosecutions.
“The mart is inspected regularly by government animal health vets, SIC environmental health officers and Quality Meat Scotland to ensure it possesses appropriate facilities both inside and out.
“These are statutory requirements and cannot be dismissed. If the lairage is removed then the mart must close.”
The proposed development has also caused consternation among members of Lerwick Community Council, with concerns raised last week that it was too close to nearby residential areas, and over what impact it would have on a flood risk management system in the area.
These are statutory requirements and cannot be dismissed. If the lairage is removed then the mart must close. RONNIE EUNSON
But EMN Plant director, Ellis Nicolson, said the company met SLMG representatives last week to discuss the proposals.
He said he was eager to mitigate against any disruption, adding two thirds of the land would be reseeded and would go back to agricultural use.
Mr Nicolson was also uncomfortable with the term “landfill”, adding the project was not for domestic waste, and was classed by Sepa as for “agricultural improvement”.
“We had a meeting with SLMG about the work, outlining our proposals and what is involved in it, and how we were looking to phase it to minimise disruption,” he said.
“We offered wider assistance to them, with drainage of other pieces of land outwith our development, to try to improve that land. We had a very amicable meeting.”
He believed discussions would need to take place between the SIC, as land-owner, and the marts.
Meanwhile, farmers and crofters fear the resultant effects of swingeing subsidy cuts following land reclassification. Good quality, or so-called Region One land, commands almost 200 euros per hectare in subsidy.
But Mr Eunson has described as “colossal” the drop to rough grazing grounds in Region Two to just 20 euros per hectare, while the less actively managed Region Three land fetches a mere 10 euros per hectare.
Some producers have been unhappy about how their land had been reclassified.
“Clearly we’re at a situation where we can’t lose any more livestock that potentially would go through the marts. The marts survive on the commission accrued from the sale of livestock, and if there’s going to be less livestock going through the ring it’s going to present us with significant issues,” said Mr Eunson.
“Most small marts throughout the country will be considering the same position because they also might be experiencing drops in livestock numbers, depending on where they are.”
Farming leaders have also highlighted delays in getting agricultural payments, which should have been through by the end of December, into farmers’ bank accounts.
Local NFU chairman, Jim Nicolson, said it was a worrying situation, especially as it came after a difficult year for the industry, with last summer’s poor weather providing hardships for those struggling to grow adequate crop supplies.
“Income would have been expected, but some payments are not in the banks yet.”
Mr Nicolson said complications had arisen over changes to the payment scheme, which had seemingly proved difficult for the Scottish government’s rural payments inspection department to get on top of.
“People can be very stoical with the situation, but I think there was an expectation from the Scottish government that the majority of payments would be made by the end of January. We’re getting close to that now.
“If apportionments had been classified as Region One it would have been fairly satisfactory, but it’s causing a lot of disappointment. If a lot of those apportionments are at a low level it will cause doubt about what people are going to be doing.”
However, the Scottish government insists farmers and crofters were given fair notice and had ample opportunity to make their feelings clear.
A statement attributed only to a Scottish government spokeswoman said: “Dividing farmland into payment regions in 2015 for the purpose of Basic Greening Payments is a key part of the new Common Agricultural Policy in Scotland, which has been well publicised and strongly-supported by the farming industry.
“This change is aimed at supporting genuine active farming activity, and our modelling indicates it will lead to an overall increase in CAP funding for the crofting counties, including Shetland, over this CAP period.
“We informed every farmer and crofter last year how their land had been allocated into payment regions using long-standing definitions, and offered the opportunity to seek a review if they believed the allocation was incorrect and could provide supporting evidence of their claim.”
Isles MSP, Tavish Scott, said the issue also threatened dairy produce in the isles.
He met Mr Eunson and the managers of Shetland Dairies on Monday.
Afterwards, Mr Scott said: “Every part of Shetland agriculture is affected by these new CAP payments. Shetland Dairy is an essential part of the local industry.
“Local milk is a high quality product that people want to buy. But Shetland’s milk producers also have sheep and cattle. So their business depends on these new CAP payments.
“The marts chairman has illustrated that the cut to area payments for crofters devalues land across Shetland. That reduces the overall value of the Shetland agriculture industry.
“It is also very worrying that Shetland crofters have had their expected payments cut by a Scottish government U-turn. How are croft businesses meant to judge cash flow when the government tell them one thing and do another?”
He said crofting was the “backbone of Shetland life” and he would raise worries over land reclassification with government ministers.
“The islands traditional industries matter. So for crofting to prosper we need a government who is on our side. Many Shetland crofters doubt that is the case.”