The number of sheep kept in the Western Isles has fallen by over 100,000 in the last ten years according to new figures.
Calls have now been made for an economic study of the value of crofting to the islands to be carried out.
In 2003 there were 268,442 sheep in 2,835 holdings across the islands – a ratio of ten sheep per person living in the islands - but in the most recent Agricultural Census carried out by the Scottish Government it was found that in 2013 there are only 165,574 sheep in 2,283 holdings.
The figures are in line with the rest of Scotland where sheep numbers have fallen from more than eight million in 2003 to just over 6.5million this year.
Although these shocking figures seem to paint a dark picture for the future of crofting, the Western Isles Commissioner on the Crofting Commission – the body responsible for the regulation of crofting in Scotland – believes there has been a shift of focus to quality rather than quantity.
Murdo Maclennan, himself a crofter with more than 35 years experience, said: “Although the numbers have fallen there has been a distinct improvement in quality levels in the islands and the value accrued to the crofter is getting much better.”
He said changes in the subsidies available had meant more focus onproducing quality rather than receiving grant per head.Further reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are also on the way.
Prices for sheep at the sales has increased significantly over the last few years and crofters are getting £40 to £50 per sheep compared to the dark days of just a few years ago when they were getting less than half that.
Mr Maclennan added: “The issue of quality has been addressed but there is still the issue of not enough young people staying at home and getting involved in crofting. I think in general terms it is an older group who are involved in crofting.”
One local crofter who is doesn’t fit that description is 29 year old Donald Macsween from Ness ( airanlot.wordpress.com)
Having grown up in a crofting family, he felt it was a natural step for him to get involved.
He said: “To a certain extent crofting, and in Lewis this generally means sheep, has been seen as an old man’s pastime, but so many young people have an interest in the area and just need a little encouragement.
“Obviously they are never going to earn enough from crofting on its own, but I think it could be important for the future sustainability of life in these islands.”
He crofting coudl be used to supplement an individual’s income but added: “More enterprising mindsets are required though. We should be adding more value to our produce within the islands, to really earn the benefit from things like sheep.“
Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, who is also a crofter, said the reduction in sheep numbers was worrying as this equated to around £5million in assets if each animal is worth around £50.
He said it was time a study was undertaken on the economic value of crofting to the Western Isles – a view echoed by Crofting Commissioner Murdo Maclennan.
Mr MacNeil said: “Highlands and Islands Enterprise or some body has to do a study into the value of crofting. The Scottish Government must also come up with some crofting legislation to promote agriculture as I can’t see how the last Crofting Bill did that with register of crofts. Really from an agricultural point of view the last Bill was a failure we need a Bill focused on promoting land use.”
Interestingly the number of cattle in the islands has also dropped but by a much less radical level following in increase just a few years ago.
Cattle numbers were at 7,301 in 2008 with 525 holdings but this has now fallen to 6,487 with 459 holdings.
Mr Maclennan said a previous initiative by the Rural Stewardship Scheme (RSS) had encouraged the introduction of more cattle but this had now been taken over by the Scottish Rural Development Scheme (SRDS) and the question must be asked why it had not been so successful.
There have been increases in the number of pigs kept by islanders but Mr Maclennan added that although this is beneficial to people in that they are producing their own food, it does not make a big contribution in terms of income for the islands.