By JOHN ROBERTSON
A PROMINENT farmer and livestock dealer says Shetland needs to invest in a future for its agriculture by encouraging the rearing of more top quality sheep.
Brian Anderson says there is a crying need for public support to improve large areas of land, much of it reseeded in the past, to provide better grazing so keen stock breeders can produce the size of sheep wanted by the market.
Mr Anderson said this week that a new assistance scheme could help pull the local industry out of depression, provide full-time jobs and strengthen some of Shetland’s remotest communities. He hopes there can be some debate about what might be done before it is too late.
“The industry has taken a bad knock for a lot of years,” he says. “Now I think there’s the first sight of a light at the end of the tunnel after a long period of very bad prices. This whole period has been so demoralising.”
The end of subsidy paid for producing quantity has seen some Shetland hills stripped of sheep.
Mr Anderson says only about 70,000 lambs will be shipped out in the coming season compared to twice that amount a decade ago. Unfortunately for the producer, the price is about the same as in the 1990s in the lingering aftermath of BSE and foot and mouth disease.
One West Side crofter who Mr Anderson spoke to recently got £43 for his Suffolk-cross lambs 11 years ago. Last year he didn’t even get £30.
“I can detect from speaking to folk they’ve just had enough now. The price will be better this year but I hope it’s not too late. I would like to encourage them to hang in there and the council to look at ways of helping this industry.”
Despite the uphill struggle, he says there are still expert stockmen producing the types of sheep that there is a good market for but few can afford to make a full-time job of it without some help to improve their land.
“I go around the country areas a fair bit and you can see good stockmen from Fair Isle to Flugga, as they say. But there is a lot of land now that’s very scarce of stock.”
A positive side of the downturn in numbers is the extra areas of grazing conserved now which crofters could stick cross-bred sheep on later in the tougher times of year.
Mr Anderson admits it is no bad thing that the hills are no longer crammed with sheep nobody wanted to buy.
“I’m not wanting to go back to that at all. I want to go back to quality, to increase the size of the Shetland native sheep.”
Once the Shetland breed is crossed with Cheviots or Texels then on to Suffolks the result should be a bigger animal favoured by the market but still with the hardiness required to endure the harsh seven-month winters.
He says: “The cross ewes can produce something to sell, whether it be slaughtered at home or be sold for slaughter or for finishing further away.”
This quality of stock will be needed in big volumes to keep a new slaughterhouse going, he says, if such a development does ever take place. He doesn’t see how it could work on just small Shetland native lambs.
Of course the SIC has been prevented from providing the help to local industries that it would like to give, thanks to a raft of anonymous complaints to the European Commission alleging unfair state aid. Mr Anderson hopes that problem can be overcome, believing that the likes of the Italians and French would find a way to help their farmers.
“This would be a sustainable investment if some way can be found in investing in this industry again.”
He mentions Fair Isle again, saying it could probably double its stock after a bit of liming and slagging, and the same goes with Fetlar, Unst, Eshaness, the West Side and other places which are suitable for hill improvements, bringing improved prospects for people trying to work the land.
Among the examples of the direction he thinks Shetland should be heading in is John Abernethy at Clousta where the land has been reseeded over several generations and now supports a full-time job producing quality sheep such as Suffolk crosses (pictured). “He’s doing a tremendous job with what he’s producing. But he’s not alone. There are a lot of those guys around [who would do it] if they could just see that it could work and give them a little income out of it. I think they need support. The council or the government needs to look at this. We can’t continue this deterioration in numbers everywhere.”
Another example he cites is at Isbister, North Roe, where Douglas Murray and Brydon Anderson produce Texel-cross sheep (pictured) near Fethaland. People like that need encouragement and incentives to produce more, he says.
“There’s thousands of acres of land that’s been reseeded that needs helping again and areas that’s needing to be improved, very much in the remote areas.”
To breathe new life into the land he wants to start with some assistance in having the ground analysed to see what it needs.
Mr Anderson thinks crofters should also be encouraged to put tracks in which could be used by four-wheel drive vehicles, opening up hills and remote parts to the public for recreation which have not been accessible by vehicle before.
“I think we’re at a time when we need to be producing as much as we can at home. We’re not trying to do it to the detriment of the countryside. There are still a lot of hills that are never going to be touched.”