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Policy interventions for enhancing natural assets – are they compatible with crofting communities?

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Blog picture: Policy interventions for enhancing natural assets – are they compatible with crofting communities?
Assynt crofting landscape (image Katrin Prager)

Land ownership and management arrangements across Scotland today are complex and multi-layered. These structures must be taken into account if we seek to influence the management of natural assets to support sustainable land-based industries and vibrant communities. Two key questions are ‘how do we design policies and corresponding delivery mechanisms, and what are appropriate governance structures?’

Incentive schemes offered through the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) have been identified as appropriate  financial mechanisms to encourage implementation of a diverse set of strategies and policies aspiring to promote sustainable land management. The SRDP should thus be a key component in the arrangements shaping land management.  However, at a recent visit to Assynt in North West Scotland as part of 'HUELDG', the realities of crofting and land management in remote areas made me question how policy interventions need to be designed and delivered to be effective in such places.

The Assynt peninsula is characterised by communities living in small townships or on crofts dispersed across the landscape. Much of the land is managed by crofters and used for common grazing. This type of management is associated with ‘naturalness’, high nature value farming, and has often produced features of scientific interest (with associated designations). Assynt has been associated with community land ownership since the Assynt Crofters Trust bought the 9,000 ha North Assynt Estate in 1993. More recently, the Assynt Foundation was established to allow the community of Assynt to buy 18,000 ha of the Glencanisp and Drumrunie Estates (in 2005). In addition to the Assynt Crofters Trust, other smaller associations and trusts such as the Culag Community Woodland Trust are involved in launching large projects , e.g. the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape. The scale of these land-owning bodies and projects suggests there is potential for joined-up landscape scale management, but to achieve this, it would be sensible to make use of the human resource and knowledge assembled in these organisations.

The views of community land owners in the area may differ considerably, for example, with regard to whom they represent, what they mean by ‘community’, and their stance on managing natural resources. For example, the Assynt Foundation refers to its assets as ‘beautiful natural land’, whereas the Crofters Trust objects to the label ‘wild land’ (one of the four physical attributes used to identify wild land is ‘perceived naturalness’) given that people have lived on and used the land for centuries. The Foundation aims to ensure the sustainability of the community, recognising serious socio-economic problems, and to safeguard the natural and cultural heritage of the land. Only a very small part of their land is crofting land although they have plans to establish woodland crofts. The Foundation views itself as a business, and utilises grant funding to ensure their activities are profitable. The Crofters Trust, on the other hand, aims to enable the ordinary people who live and work on the land to have some control over their own economic future, and to allow them to make the decisions on how to manage the land. This sentiment is very strong, and goes against taking any public funds because they are seen to come ‘with strings attached’. The Trust is proud to have no debt, and is reluctant to make use of grant aid or project funding. Funding from agri-environment schemes is of no interest; owning the land is all that is needed to create opportunities for delivering different benefits from land. An unresolved problem, however, are absentee crofters, and those people who live on crofts but actually do not engage in crofting activities (such as growing food or keeping livestock). Such organisations might not naturally find it easy or necessary to work together.

Current policy interventions are targeted at individual rather than community landownership, but given the structures we find in Assynt today, how appropriate is such an approach? Even in places where funding from the SRDP has been met with interest, e.g. by crofters on Skye, the administration of these schemes proves extremely difficult on common grazings. If policies are to reach areas under community landownership, there must be provisions to recognise the multi-faceted property rights and management structures. The delivery mechanisms must be able to engage landowning organisations with different values and ideals that underlie how they pursue their objectives. Ultimately, we may also need to accept that the (individual and collective) land managers in some parts of Scotland value their independence so highly that none of the incentive-based delivery mechanisms will be effective because they are simply not acceptable.

Walkers on land owned by the Assynt Foundation (image: Marcel Bernhardt)


Thanks to the Hill Land Use and Ecology Discussion Group (HLUEDG) which allowed me to learn about the specific context of Assynt during the field trip 25-27 April 2017’


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blogs/policy-interventions-enhancing-natural-assets-%E2%80%93-are-they-compatible-crofting-communities on 24/04/24 12:24:06 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.