The agriculture of crofting

In the 19th century crofts were made deliberately too small to support a family so that the crofter would have to go and work at fishing or on the landlord’s farm.

Lairg Sale August 2019. © Craig Smith

In the previous articles on crofting, we have looked at the history and the law. This time we will look a little at the agriculture of crofting and how it differs from farming.

The key points to remember are that when the crofting system was laid out in the 19th century crofts were made deliberately too small to support a family so that the crofter would have to go and work at fishing or on the landlord’s farm. Generally, croft land is poor quality with a harsh cool and wet climate so raising sheep and cattle is the primary activity. Most crofts have a small area of in-bye land which can be cropped due to the hard graft put in by our forebears putting lime and seaweed on the fields to improve the fertility. They would have removed cartloads of stones, built walls and dug field drains by hand. Crofters would also have a share in hill grazing which is unimproved, rough grass and heather but could support livestock over the summer months whilst hay or oats or potatoes were grown on the in-bye. These common grazings would be run by all the crofters in the township working together and with the numbers of stock (the souming) for each croft being tightly controlled and policed.

Many of these features have survived to the present day.

Cropping is much less common than it used to be and the main output are store lambs and cattle that are bred here but then shipped south to be fattened ready for market. There isn’t the forage on the hills to bring young animals on over the winter without buying lots of expensive feed so they are sold in the autumn. The Lairg sale earlier this month saw over 14,000 lambs sold, most from Sutherland, many from crofters. Older cast ewes also go south where they can produce lambs for another couple of years on easier ground and better grass. And ewe lambs from the Highlands are prized for their hardiness and good mothering.

Common grazings are less used than they used to be and this has led to a decrease in communal working in some areas. Sheep stock clubs still thrive though and whole townships with dogs and quads can get together to gather sheep off huge areas of hill ground – a “wildlife” spectacle to rival anything the African savannah can offer!

Some crofts will specialise in forestry or horticulture and crofts have kept hens from time immemorial. Holiday cottages and glamping pods are the latest “crop” for enterprising crofters. Crofters will still have jobs off the croft as a main or alternative source of income but crofting isn’t hobby farming: it is a commercial enterprise just on a small scale. And crofters are skilled and knowledgeable stock keepers.

The result of all this is good quality livestock which is grass fed, naturally reared, disease free and is a vital part of the UK livestock system. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the focus on locally produced food and short supply chains so maybe crofting’s future is bright.

by Russell Smith, Scottish Crofting Federation Director and Airdens Crofter


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