By RYAN TAYLOR
Farmers and crofters have been left “up in arms” by the Scottish Government’s decision to suspend the next round of its Rural Priorities grants amid fears cash for agricultural projects could be drying up.
Concerns have been raised after ministers said a meeting to determine the outcome of a fresh batch of funding applications, due to be held in June, was being put off.
Over £67 million was committed across Scotland in the February application round to Rural Priorities, which falls under the umbrella of the Scottish Rural Development Programme. In total, £124 million has been allocated since the scheme was first introduced. Around 80 per cent of that has gone towards business development and agri-environment projects.
Although the scheme is open to rural businesses – and not just farmers and crofters – the Scottish Government maintains that a sizeable amount does go to the agricultural sector. However farmers have been put off by the complicated on-line application procedure.
They prefer the traditional Environmental Area Scheme (ESA), which is currently being phased out, claiming it was much simpler to follow.
With ESA on the way out, many farmers and crofters fear being left in limbo, as they had been preparing to submit proposals for Rural Priorities ahead of the previously advertised April 14th deadline.
One of those is crofter Agnes Leask, who runs a small-holding at Cott in Weisdale. She said she had been relying on the rural priorities scheme to help maintain fences surrounding her croft, helping keep her stock under control.
She said ESA which, together with the equally popular Rural Stewardship Scheme, helped raise £2 million for Shetland, was much better.
“Because my husband is now poorly, we employ a contractor to help maintain our fences every year,” she said. “ESA was one of the mainstays of our income. It was a sum of money we were sure of each year.
“If the fence is down then sheep just walk into the adjoining property, and sheep from neighbouring properties can just walk onto our land.”
She said money from ESA was used to pay the contractor, and she did not know what would happen if Rural Priorities funding could not be secured.
She said poor market conditions meant the uncertainty was increasingly difficult to come to terms with.
“With the poor livestock values there have been, you couldn’t rely on any profits on your Shetland sheep. Prices have been fairly good recently for cross-breeds, but Shetland sheep is still a bit of a disaster.”
Mrs Leask said she had recently put “14 good quality” Shetland ewes to the marts in Lerwick, for which she received a cheque for £25 once all expenses at the marts had been deducted.
However the cost of transporting the sheep to the marts in the first place came to £23, leaving her with just £2 for 14 ewes.
She said many crofters were still baffled by the complicated application procedure for Rural Priorities, which can only be carried out on-line.
East Voe farmer Ronnie Eunson said Shetland stood to lose a considerable amount without ESA.
“ESA was worth £2.4 million a year to Shetland and it looks like only a fraction of that is going to be retrievable. You’re looking at Shetland losing £2 million a year, so it’s serious stuff.
“In equivalent terms it’s on a par with all the Less Favoured Area payments Shetland gets. It’s massive.”
The SIC’s head of business development Douglas Irvine, who sits on Shetland’s Regional Proposal Assessment Committee which views applications to Rural Priorities before they are submitted to the Scottish Government, said the funding scheme had proved too popular for its own good in recent weeks.
Last week The Shetland Times reported on a £2 million allocation to the Fair Isle Observatory, while a further £400,000 has gone to the new museum in Scalloway.
“The February round was the fourth round of the Rural Priorities system, which was introduced last year,” Mr Irvine said.
“The government was encouraging applications from the agri-environment schemes, and people with projects were being invited to put them forward for the February rounds so they could benefit from support this financial year.
“When the round came in February there was an enormous uptake, and the budget couldn’t stand it. They [the government] have had to allocate money from this financial year to use in the February round, and now we’re expecting a ministerial announcement to tell us what’s happening next year.
“The agricultural sector is up in arms about this. It doesn’t appear to be working and it’s a very difficult scheme to apply for.”
Chairwoman of the Shetland branch of NFUS, Hazel Mackenzie, said a new scoring system under Rural Priorities meant many crofters had to go without.
“Obviously it’s fairly worrying because at the last round there was only 50 per cent of Shetland applications that got in. They increased the scoring points system from 10 to 12, which made things difficult for some people.
“They have the same land – the same habitat – but they have to have more points. We’re very concerned about it, because we were told it would work as well as ESA and RSS.
“We tried to keep those two schemes, but were told we would easily get into Rural Priorities, which isn’t happening.”
However Rural Affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said further assessments would still go ahead this year.
“With a significant proportion of 2009 funding already allocated, we are currently considering the timing of future rounds for this year, hence the extension of the imminent 14th April deadline for the next round.
“We need to strike the right balance between the amount of funding available, the intensity of the effort needed by applicants and advisers, and the immediate work that the Scottish Government must undertake to ensure that the earlier rounds are fully implemented.
“We appreciate that potential applicants may have already put in some work in seeking approval of their projects.
“I can assure everyone that there will be further assessments this year, the deadline date for which we hope to announce shortly, and that all applicants will be considered in full.”
- The Labour MSPs for the Highlands and Islands, Peter Peacock, Rhoda Grant and David Stewart, have accused the Scottish Government of “fiddling with bureaucracy while crofting in Shetland burns”.
In a letter to rural affairs minister Roseanna Cunningham, they argue the government’s priorities for crofting for the coming period should be to address the economic challenges facing crofting which is seeing a collapse of cattle and sheep numbers and a threat to the services which support crofting.
The MSPs are also asking her to defer what they claim will be very controversial proposed legislation which could add delay and cost into decision making at a time of economic crises for the industry.