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Carry on Crofting! [Article for Living Earth]
Posted: 05/05/2010

Set against the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil, crofting with its low carbon principles, and strong cultural identity, has a unique role to play in getting today’s younger generation interested in planet-friendly food and farming. Crofting Connections is a groundbreaking education project being led by Soil Association Scotland and the Scottish Crofting Foundation, which aims to do just exactly that.

Crofting is Scotland’s indigenous system of small-scale, mainly part time, subsistence farming that has supported families in some of the wildest and remotest areas of the Highlands and Islands for centuries. Crofting did not change significantly for most communities until the 1950s, when new economic and social conditions triggered a wave of dramatic change. Today, there are less than 18,000 active crofting households, and the average age of a crofter is over 50. If crofting is to survive into the 21st century, young people need to be encouraged to carry on crofting.

So far, 30 schools throughout the Highlands and Islands have signed up to participate in Crofting Connections. Activities are designed to be hands-on, fun and linked to the Curriculum for Excellence. Budding crofters will learn from experienced crofters how to cultivate the land and grow traditional crops, cook traditional recipes, and why crofting is still very relevant in today’s age. They will also gain a deeper understanding of the connections between crofting and the environment. In all, Crofting Connections will involve over 1,000 young people, aged five to sixteen, over the next three years.

Why crofting matters

Crofting’s sensitive form of land management has a significant and positive impact on the environment.

Crofting is critical to storing carbon and mitigating climate change, because large tracts of peatland are under its management. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has calculated that Scotland’s peatlands store 2735 Mt (million tones) of carbon. Put into perspective, Scotland’s total emissions from energy use in 2005 were equivalent to 49 Mt of carbon. It is estimated that if less than one per cent of the carbon stored in the peatlands were to be released through inappropriate management, it would double Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Sensitive management techniques practiced by crofting are therefore vital for protecting the peatlands, and locking in carbon.

Wildlife also benefits. For example, two thirds of the world’s Machair - colourful swathes of wildflower-rich grassland, which is protected by EU law - is restricted to Scotland’s crofting counties. Machair, which is maintained by low intensity grazing practiced by crofting, also supports nationally and internationally important numbers of birds, including the rare and secretive corncrake.

As agricultural policy evolves from support for production to support for the protection and enhancement of the environment, crofting is ideally placed to respond to and profit from the growing interest in low carbon food with total traceability.

Find out more about Crofting Connections on the Scotland section of www.soilassociation.org.


A brief history of crofting

Typically, the crofting counties have very poor land, and experience extremely harsh weather conditions. However, crofters did not inhabit these areas by accident, rather through a series of events that culminated in the infamous “Highland Clearances” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

To make way for sheep, tens of thousands of men, women and children were evicted, often with brutal force, from their small holdings in the Highland glens. Though some people emigrated, most were cleared to the coast where landlords provided small plots of marginal land - crofts - in return for an annual rent.

Producing food for the family was at the heart of crofting. Most households, living in thatched stone cottages, shared grazing land and formed communal ‘townships’ based on co-operation between neighbours in the keeping of livestock. They kept a cow or two, chickens and sometimes a few sheep, pigs, and horses for ploughing and carting. The livestock provided milk, butter, cheese, eggs, bacon and meat. Crofters also grew oats, potatoes and root vegetables on parallel banks of ridge and furrow dug by spade, and used kelp and cow dung for fertiliser.

But life was hard. Crofters lacked security. Rent could be increased at any time, and they could be evicted without notice. A potato famine in the 1840s exacerbated their plight, and crofters began to protest and press for legal rights to the land. As a consequence, The Crofters’ Act was introduced in 1886, which gave crofters security of tenure, and a fairer deal on rents.