Crofters on Raasay win back sporting rights

Paul Wheelhouse has reversed the controversial decision made by civil servants under executive powers last week. Picture: Neil Hanna
Paul Wheelhouse has reversed the controversial decision made by civil servants under executive powers last week. Picture: Neil Hanna
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CROFTERS on Raasay have won back the sporting rights on the island after a U-turn by the Scottish Government.

• Crofting Minister Paul Wheelhouse reversed the decision made last week

• Ministers will now be involved in future decisions

Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse has reversed the controversial decision made by civil servants under executive powers last week.

The move has overjoyed islanders, with Anne Gillies, secretary of Raasay Crofters Association saying: “Common sense has prevailed at last.

“I was delighted to speak to the minister this morning when he informed me of his decision which we strongly welcome.

“It is important to us that these sporting rights remain in local control and we look forward to meeting the minister tomorrow to discuss community management of the sporting rights on Raasay.”

The lease to sporting rights, including shooting deer and fishing, had been held by crofters on Raasay – which in Gaelic translates as ‘roe deer island’ – for 18 years, but went out to tender last November.

Their bid of £1150 failed to win back the lease, which went to the highest of five bidders, South Ayrshire Stalking, for £3000.

At the time Mr Wheelhouse said the Government had to get the “best value” for its assets, but they were accused of “acting like a modern-day absentee landlord”.

The turnaround was announced by Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions.

It followed the withdrawal, by mutual consent, of the new leaseholder, who will receive £9,000 towards expenses incurred.

Mrs Gillies said: “It should not have happened in the first place, but thankfully the decision has been rightly overturned.

“We had no quarrel with South Ayrshire, but with the way it was all handled. When they won the lease we were completely surprised, but thought they had offered tens of thousands of pounds. We were gobsmacked it was only £3000.

“We had turned it around into a successful self-funding enterprise which trained people, invested in equipment and was then able to provide a service for the community and contribute funds to community projects.

“Our success brought attention to the Sporting Lease and gave it a value. We felt very badly let down by the original decision.”

Support for the association, which represents 11 crofters on the island, which has a population of around 240, came from across the globe.

Mrs Gillies said: “We were overwhelmed by the support we got. We got letters from around the world, including the likes of Canada.”

The contract has now been extended to the crofters for one year, and ministers will now be involved in any future decisions.

Mr Wheelhouse said: “It’s regrettable that the original decision to award the sporting rights contract was made without ministerial involvement.

“Raasay is a fragile island community and Ministers recognise the sporting rights are very important to the islanders.

“I share the concerns expressed locally about the way in which the contract was awarded and will ensure, as I have indicated previously that in future, appropriate ministerial consideration is given when such decisions are being made.

“That is why I have taken steps to resolve the situation and I hope the Raasay islanders will be content with this solution. Effectively this will extend the islanders’ existing lease by a year and will allow us to work with crofters and the wider community to find a satisfactory long-term solution.

Chris Dalton of South Ayrshire Stalking said: “As a small family business, we fully appreciate the importance of sustainability and are supportive of the crofting way of life.

“We were not aware we were bidding against the crofters when we tendered for these sporting rights in good faith. However, because of the strength of feeling expressed we feel it is now appropriate to withdraw from the contract.

“Should the islanders require any support or assistance in making the most of their sporting rights we would be happy to discuss with them how we could help.”

Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, said: “The decision by local officials and the Scottish Government Rural Payments Inspectorate Division was contrary to the spirit of the SNP Government’s policies to empower local communities and maintain these assets such as deer shooting rights in local hands.

“This is an excellent move to return the deer shooting lease into local hands and develop a new lease arrangement for the future.

“I do hope that the crofters of Raasay will get a better deal than the old lease to manage their deer resource in the best interests of the islanders, the environment and their local economy.”

Dave Thompson, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said: ““I am satisfied that this situation has been totally rectified and am pleased that this Scottish Government has listened to what the people of Raasay want.

“Raasay is a fantastic but fragile island community. The sporting rights and land ownership are vitally important to the islanders.”

A Free Church of Scotland spokesman said: “We are delighted that common sense has prevailed and hope a longer-term solution will be forthcoming.

“The Raasay locals have been doing a great work in trying to support their own community in the face of really challenging circumstances and we are pleased that the Scottish Government has acted on the concerns of rural people.

“We are also pleased at the assurance of ministerial involvement in future decisions, and it beggars belief that such an important issue was laid solely at the door of civil servants in the first place.”

Scottish Crofters Federation chairman Derek Flyn said, “We are delighted that the Scottish Government has accepted that a serious error was made and has taken the necessary action to restore these rights to the crofters’ co-operative that has managed them so well for the last 18 years. We are sure that lessons will be learned from this and that decisions of such gravity affecting remote and fragile communities will in future be taken at ministerial level.”