Following the Chairman's welcome to over 100 delegates at the Argyllshire gathering Halls in Oban, the main speaker Professor Roger Crofts CBE FRSE former Chief Executive of SNH, delivered a summary of the Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Scotland's Hills and Islands Report that was issued in September 2008.
The report made sixty six recommendations and Professor Croft expanded on many - noting particularly that the UK Government intends to link single farm payments to environmental benefit and move to an area based system after 2013. The report called for special provision for sheep farming and said that the number and bureaucracy of farming schemes should be reduced. The report also calls for changes to forestry policy and to combat climate change. Prof Croft pointed out the importance of tourism and the good facilities that exist in Argyll. He described Visit Scotland as 'not perfect' and said that there would be no chance of meeting the target of a 50% increase by 2015 as this is not achievable at the present low growth rate.
He drew attention to the push for renewable energy development through wave generation, wind farms and tidal schemes and said they need a more strategic approach. The report highlights the importance of food production local processing and branded products. Rural communities in Highlands and Islands communities have an ageing population with high level of housing deprivation which results in young people leaving the islands because of a lack of affordable housing in some areas. Those involved in planning will have to alter their mind set. He also referred to the high fuel costs and the very poor roads in parts of Argyll and the urgent need to retain local shops and post offices.
Following Prof Croft's summary of the report the meeting was thrown open to comment and questions from the floor.
Cllr Marshall thought that the report was a fair one and that Roger Croft had done a good job in raising the salient points. He claimed that hill sheep farming is in terminal decline and there are few young people coming in to the industry which must make a strong enough plea for alteration to single farm payments.
Cllr Robert McIntyre said that more money must be moved to the hills and that there must be better distribution of finance to LFA's (Less Favoured Areas) Sheep need subsidy he said.
Mr McFadzean said that he thought that better marketing and adding value to local produce would help. Food produced in Argyll should be used in Argyll. There was a lack of marketing to boost products but when this did happen the results were encouraging. Food miles to be reduced. A local hill farmer said that active production was needed as a landscape full of rushes and bracken was of no benefit. He said that we must look at the productivity of hill land and also said that the single farm payment should not be paid if farming is not taking place. Food must be produced from hill areas. He is a store lamb producer, an industry that has suffered from poor prices over many years. Food production is now more important than ever. There used to be more birds in the past than there are now.
Marina Curran-Colthart said that the biodiversity of hill and island areas is in decline due to lack of grazing on the hills and lamented the lack of training for youth to learn about sheep farming. 124 young people had expressed an interest in training but there were no funds to take this forward. Other speakers from the floor pointed out that Highland and Islands Enterprise has had its legs legs cut off with regard to funding and that there no affordable houses. Skills training is very difficult and the transport infrastructure of the area is not up to standard. The shortage of abattoirs was also raised.
One speaker claimed that if free lime was given to all farmers in Argyll no subsidy would be necessary and if roads were done up it would make life a lot easier for all and reduce costs. He said that our infrastructure does not compare with that of Norway and the Scottish Exec only looks at trunk roads which themselves are not up to standard.
Andrew Campbell of SNH spoke of the difficulties of convincing Edinburgh Westminster politicians and said that there is a huge political hill to climb to attract funding for any of the sixty six recommendations. A great deal of care needs to be taken in preparing a case and it is essential to get the people out of Victoria Quays in Leith to come and look at the problems in the country first hand.
Cllr Rory Colville of Kintyre said that the report must not be forgotten. Best use should be made of the Agricultural Forum as the appropriate body for addressing these issues. Much of the funding stream that used to go via HIE has now gone to Argyll and Bute Council so the Council must put the case, take the lead and pull all relevant parties together. There must be clear objectives.
Lucy Sumison of FWAG asked what response could be expected from the Scottish Government. She pointed out that the report was not commissioned by Government but there had been a very positive reaction from the minister Richard Lochhead and discussion with civil servants in Edinburgh is ongoing. She was not aware of any reaction to the report from Westminster.
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