By RYAN TAYLOR
A WEIGHTY report into the future of Scotland’s hill and island communities was described this week as “a breath of fresh air” by one of Shetland’s leading agricultural figures.
Farmer Ronnie Eunson said the recommendations by the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s report into the future of Scotland’s hills and islands were more relevant than many of the current rural development policies, which he describes as being in a “shambles”.
The committee, led by Professor Gavin McCrone, warns of a bleak future for many of Scotland’s rural areas if its long list of over 60 recommendations are not swiftly adopted.
“The rural development policy for Scotland appears to be in a terrible shambles,” said Mr Eunson. “It’s simply not addressing the problems facing places like Shetland at the moment. At least the Royal Society has paid attention to folk when they’ve gone to speak to them.”
Specifically, Mr Eunson welcomed the report’s recommendation that the government look into the wider provision of abattoirs in local areas.
“There’s a lot about abattoir provision in it, and it’s a hell of a relevant topic. It’s striking that the Royal Society is entirely in agreement with what we’re trying to do here in Shetland.
“Communities and individual businesses should be able to take advantage of the means of process to add value. There’s too much centralised doctrine and too little acknowledgement of diversity in Scotland at the moment.
“It’s far too dogmatic in its approach, and it’s not taking into consideration issues of differing regions.”
Adding that “regional relevance” was a key issue at hand, he said the report seemed to recognise the issues faced by individual areas.
“What applies in Orkney doesn’t necessarily apply here, but at the moment I think we’re failing in that miserably.”
Convener of the Crofters Commission and former SIC councillor Drew Ratter was one of the 11 strong team of experts who brought the report to fruition.
He said Shetland would gain better recognition following the report’s release.
“I think it’s a very good moment for this. There are lots of issues and we had to cover as much as we could. The pressing thing is, it’s very difficult to make a living off the Highlands and Islands and support needs to be there to help us do that.
“A lot of the measures proposed will be very good for Shetland. I thought it a real privilege to be on the committee, working with Gavin McCrone and Jeff Maxwell (former director of the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute).
“I think I learned a lot, and I think the government will pay attention to it. It has been presented to rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead, and we’ll be presenting it to the UK ministers and to Brussels.
“It’s a weighty, credible report, and where rural policy is being considered, I hope it gets taken seriously.”
The report warns the future of agriculture is facing a grim future, with rising costs and an expected deterioration of net incomes.
Describing prices as “highly volatile”, it warns continuing financial support to maintain viable businesses is essential – flying in the face of UK government recommendations to end agricultural subsidies following a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in the next five years.
Instead, European officials in Brussels should adopt a wide ranging policy that takes into account major factors like climate change and biodiversity.
The number of livestock in the area has declined “significantly” and some land has already been abandoned.
The report warns both of these trends are likely to continue, even with the current levels of financial support made available to those working in hills and islands, and will accelerate if they are removed.
The findings also point to a decline in Scotland’s breeding sheep flock of just over five per cent, from 3.27 million to 3.10 million in 2007.
Sheep numbers have declined in Shetland by 29 per cent.
Away from the croft or farm, the committee has called for tourism body VisitScotland to be scrapped.
Recognising aims by VisitScotland to increase tourism revenues by 50 per cent by 2015, the report criticises the approach taken to increase visitor numbers.
“We are not convinced that the current strategy, funding and organisation of tourism in the public sector will result in growth in either Scotland or specifically in the hills and islands anywhere near the level set by Government,” it says.
Instead, the team call for a national tourism organisation to be implemented, which will be supported by regional bodies with increased funding from the government.
The team has also called for a rethink on how transmission charges are set for renewable companies like Viking Energy.
Currently, transmission charges for electricity are set higher for rural areas to reflect the extra distance the energy has to travel.
Mr Ratter said the committee was “unable to understand” how charges could be set higher for hills and islands, particularly as those areas best lend themselves to the transmission of renewable energy.
The charges ferry passengers pay also came under scrutiny, with the committee calling for the road equivalent tariff scheme to be extended beyond the Western Isles.
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FROM agriculture to climate change, tourism to forestry, the inquiry into the future of Scotland’s hills and islands is wide ranging and diverse.
The panel of 11 experts suggested no less than 66 recommendations.
These include calls to: • Recognise a continuing decline in agriculture has implications for biodiversity, landscape management and food security • Develop a strategic land use policy framework to provide a more integrated basis for decision making • Recognise the importance of tourism and stimulating growth, and radically reform the support structures for tourism • Halt the closure of rural post offices • Recognise that halting climate change now needs to be a major factor • Implement substantial shifts in decision-making and delivery of public resources from centrally-based agencies to regionally-based structures.