Crofters call £50k to control geese ‘window-dressing’

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The Scottish Crofting Federation has welcomed Holyrood funding for geese control, after concerted lobbying, but says it will barely keep numbers static, let alone reduce them to a sustainable figure.

Financial support will be made available to help crofters and farmers, including those in Uist, Lewis and Harris and Tiree and Coll, manage local populations of greylag geese, the Scottish Government announced on February 16.

An increase in numbers of geese, it says, has caused significant agricultural damage to barley crops and improved pasture, from cropping (being eaten) and trampled. On Orkney, for example, the estimated population rose from 1,500 birds in 2001, to 26,500 birds 2021.

These island projects, established by NatureScot in 2012, help communities to control goose populations and reduce their impacts on agricultural activity and unique habitats, while retaining their conservation interest.

Environment and Land Reform Minister Mairi McAllan said: ‘I have listened to the concerns of farmers and crofters on Orkney, Lewis and Harris, Uist, Tiree and Coll about the difficulties they have had in controlling resident greylag populations.

‘I understand how serious the impacts can be for crofting communities and for the unique machair habitat and biodiversity their traditional form of agriculture supports.

‘That’s why we are contributing up to £50,000 towards resident greylag goose control on these islands over the next two years to mitigate the impact on agriculture and support unique and important habitats.’

Welcoming the announcement, the National Farmers Union in Scotland explained: ‘Growing resident populations of greylag geese on many Scottish islands continue to have a devastating impact on farming and crofting businesses, with numbers increasing due to Covid pandemic restrictions limiting sporting activity, contractor and volunteer shooting on the islands and the ability to meet bag targets.’

The Scottish Crofting Federation’s chairman Donald MacKinnon also welcomed the ‘acknowledgement of the threat to crofting and to biodiversity and the promise of some funding’.

‘However, realistically the amounts we are being offered for the islands that support this biodiversity are derisory. It will barely keep the present numbers static, let alone reduce them. There are far too many birds to be sustainable so, whilst being a step in the right direction, the amount needed to reduce the goose population is far higher than that offered. And this funding is only for two years so what happens after that?

‘For example, let’s look at Uist, where crofting agriculture is High Nature Value and the resulting biodiversity world-renowned. The adaptive management scheme on Uist used to have a budget of £40,000 per year. This was reduced until it tottered along with about £10,000 per year. Then this was cut to zero.

‘Crofters have agreed they can live with about 2,500 birds and occasional rises to 4,000 may be tolerated for short periods. We now have more than 8,000 birds grazing, trampling and polluting the crops. Crofters in Lewis, Harris, Coll and Tiree face a similar situation. It’s sad that the unique biodiversity of these islands is not valued by Holyrood more highly.

‘So, yes, an annual £6,000 promise for each of these crofting areas is something,’ concluded Mr MacKinnon, ‘but it has a bitter-sweet taste. Is it really a genuine attempt to help or is it window-dressing?’