The Crofters Commission say there is demand for crofts in the Western Isles even though there are currently around 40 croft tenancies for sale through local estate agents.
The Commision are trying to address the issue of absenteeism with a view to making sure crofts are occupied and used and have so far written to 202 people who have croft tenancies who have been absent for more than ten years.
They say they are initially focusing on those who have been absent for that period of time and are also making every effort to find contact details for those absentee crofters who have not provided an address other than the croft itself.
There has been a suggestion that crofters who have been honest enough to provide contact details are being targeted first.
Betty Mackenzie, Communications Officer for the Crofters Commission said there was only one tenant in the Western Isles who they had been unable to contact after writing to the address recorded in the Register of Crofts and the croft address.
She said: “Initially the Commission writes to the address recorded in our Register of Crofts (ROC), the letter is sent by Recorded Delivery. If no response is obtained a list of crofters who we have been unable to contact is placed on our website.
“We contact the local Assessor and Grazings Committee and failing that an advert is placed in the local press seeking contact details for the tenant. The Commission is initially focusing on those whom our records show have been absent for more than ten years.”
She said they understood that overall there was a demand for crofts but this could vary in different areas and upon the asking price being sought for crofts. She added that a truer reflection of demand may be available where there was a vacant croft offered for let.
Donnie MacDonald of Croitearan nan Eilean said use of crofts by ‘property speculators’ had stopped young people getting crofts.
He said: “Over a short number of years this unacceptable practise has resulted in a dramatic and disproportionate increase in the price of croft tenancies. This in turn, has prevented many well-meaning young locals from acquiring a croft for genuine reasons. It is not what was envisaged in the 1886 Act which was hard fought for.”
He added that there had been a sharp decline in sheep numbers in the islands over the past few years which he said was due to poor prices at auction and continual, bureaucratic interference.
He added: “Every cloud has a silver lining and the lack of supply together with increased demand has seen a very welcome rise in prices over the past three years.”
He further pointed out that a lack of animals grazing was not good for the quality of the land.
The Crofters Commission say they are committed to ensuring that crofts are not only occupied but are also used by those occupying them. Ms Mackenzie pointed out that from 2012/13 the new Crofting Commision will have a duty to issue an annual notice to every crofter requiring them to confirm that they comply with the duty of occupancy, cultivation of the croft and that there is no neglect.
“We are required to enforce all these duties within the same legislative context,” she said responding to the criticism by some quarters that the Commission should be dealing with the issue of misuse or neglect of crofts as a priority over absenteeism.
“In exercising our duties, the Commission also must have regard to the desirability of supporting population retention in the crofting areas. Ensuring that crofters reside within the required 32 km of their croft is seen as an important means of supporting population retention in crofting areas. However the legislation does put a lot of emphasis on the communities alerting the Commision to problems of misuse and neglect.”
She stated that the Commision had issued two notices in the Western Isles to crofters found to be in breach of their duty not to neglect or misuse their croft and an investigation is ongoing into one other case.
Mr Macdonald of Croitearan nan Ealan said they believed firmly in a common sense approach to securing the future of crofting and that those with an genuine interest should be encouraged in every way. “They should not be hampered by mountains of paperwork and threats of punishment, a lot more carrot and a lot less stick!”
He added:“With a little imagination, vision and co-operation there can be an exciting future for crofting. As just one example, CNE would encourage all Grazings Committees to investigate the opportunities in Renewables and the possible use of their grazing areas for this purpose. By working together as a crofting community and by seeking expert advice there is little reason to suppose why such communities could not be in charge of their own destinities.”
For those wishing to find out more about Croitearan nan Eilean, email firstname.lastname@example.org