Crofters in the Outer Isles are making investments in their farming enterprises, with an eye firmly on the future.
Crofters in the Outer Isles rarely make a full-time living from farming. Indeed many crofts, especially the smaller ones are either not worked at all or let out to neighbours.
There are some however, such as Angus Mackay at Scaristavore in West Harris who are investing in their farming enterprises.
He rents 28 hectares (70 acres) from the West Harris Trust and has shares in three areas of common grazings totalling 5,000ha (12,350 acres).
Mr Mackay’s confidence to invest was partly triggered by his son Jonathan’s decision to come home to Harris to join his father. Jonathan, 25, is to partly make his living from agricultural contracting using some recently purchased machinery but he is also helping his father to build a new cattle wintering shed to house a recently established pedigree Aberdeen- Angus herd.
Mr Mackay senior says: “We had not had cattle here since 1995. They were not paying at the time but I have always had a notion to start again, this time with pedigree stock. We now have nine breeding cows, eight female calves and four stots. I do not mean to go above 10 cows.”
The herd was founded three years ago with the purchase of a Blelack cow and the most recent addition is a Tonley bull bought at Stirling in February. Mr Mackay makes enough silage to feed his herd overwinter and this is supplemented by draff which can be collected at no cost from the Isle of Harris Distillery in nearby Tarbet. The cows are all spring calving.
Climate change and the wetter winters which go with it have dictated a move to in-wintering for the Mackays and to that end they are currently self -building a steel kit bought from a manufacturer on the mainland. The open fronted 18.4 metres by 24.6m (60ft by 80ft) shed will be straw bedded despite imported straw costing £30 per bale delivered.
“SAC Consulting staff from Stornoway helped me with the grant application and they are very important people to our business in many ways. The kit for the shed cost £20,000 but we have been awarded a 60 per cent crofting grant on the whole project,” says Mr MacKay.
His sheep enterprise has been cut back as the cattle have been introduced. For many years he rented 1,416ha (3,500 acres) on the nearby island of Taransay which allowed him to keep around 1,000 ewes in total.
Having given up the lease he now concentrates on a 350 strong flock of mostly Blackfaces. He explains: “I had more Cheviots but found them too high maintenance. I do, however, cross the Blackfaces with either Cheviots or Texels.
The ewes on the hill have no feed but the in-bye flock has some ewe rolls. Feed here is a good £20/t more here than it is on the mainland.”
He sees the Scottish Upland Sheep Support Scheme, which encourages ewe hogg retention and the Scottish Beef Calf Scheme as being very important. “Thanks to them we now have younger and fitter stock on the islands,” he adds.
Lambs are sold store, mostly in Dingwall although it costs £3.50 per head for haulage. Mr Mackay was able to sell 250 wethers last year although lambing percentage only rarely rises above 100 per cent.
“Sea eagles give us a lot of trouble and could be responsible for us losing 30 per cent of our lambs. Taransay alone has two resident pairs”, he says.
Like most crofters in Harris and Lewis, Mr Mackay has a diversified income. In his case it comes from two self-catering holiday lets. Set on one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the Western Isles these have a very high occupancy rate.
Crofting is in many ways not an easy life but it can provide a good enough living to encourage younger people like Jonathan to return to it.
Ian MacMillan, of SAC Consulting, is based in Stornoway, the centre of population in the twin crofting counties of Harris and Lewis.
He says: “We are seeing more young people coming back home to the crofts. People under 41 years of age qualify for improvement grants at 80 per cent and there is similar support for community projects such as community sheep handling systems up to a total cost of £125,000.”
Although he proudly proclaims to be a ‘crofter, not a farmer’ Donald Macsween does, in fact, make most of his living from the three crofts he rents near Ness on the northern tip of Lewis.
The 23 crofts which make up the township of North Dell are unusual in that many are only 25 yards wide but up to almost a mile long.
There is a logic behind the layout however because it means that each croft has a share of the fertile and light machair land on the coast and then of the other soil types leading up to the peat moorland which makes up much of Lewis.
Mr Macsween, 36, has three such crofts, each of 2.8ha (seven acres) and a share of the 14,568ha (36,000 acres) of common grazing which lies inland.
He says: “People have to work together here. There are a lot of community owned projects including three wind turbines, which between them power up to 3,000 homes on the estate.”
In fact, he makes very little use of the common grazing keeping only 100 ewes and three cows and their followers on the moor. Instead he relies on more intensive livestock for much of his income. He keeps a flock of between 500 and 600 laying hens with the eggs are all sold through local shops at a current price of £1.65 per half dozen.
He also keeps four Gloucester Old Spot sows and a boar to produce pork for meat box sales locally and as far afield as Glasgow and Edinburgh. The island slaughterhouse in Stornoway is only open for business in August and September, so for most of the year finished pigs have to be taken to Dingwall.
Most of the lamb crop is sold either retail in boxes or through local butchers. Of his 100 ewes, 40 are Hebridean, 25 are Shetland and the balance Texels and Beltex crosses. There is a local market for the native breed wool for spinning and making Harris Tweed. Craft tourism is an important source of income throughout Lewis and Harris.
Until now, Mr Macsween has made little use of the Crofting Sgricultural Grant Scheme but he is now using it to help pay for a general purpose 12m by 4m polycrub currently under construction.
Made in Shetland by a community-owned business, polycrubs use recycled materials from the fish farming industry. To suit island conditions they are designed to withstand wind speeds of up 120mph. Most are used for growing fruit and vegetables but Mr Macsween will use his for livestock accommodation, mostly for his pigs and as a feed store.
In due course he may have another identical polycrub and a 18.2m by 24.3m (60ft by 80ft) general purpose store.
These improvements would make a radical difference to a croft which has been occupied by his family for 200 years.
Although he is very nearly a full-time crofter, he does have another occupation. He was a journalist for two years and then a local council youth development worker until 2014. Now he is a Gaelic broadcaster and programme producer with his own website, airanlot.com, dedicated to celebrating the crofting lifestyle.