ON A recent trip to Orkney, NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick was given an insight into just how reliant the farming community is on the sometimes unpredictable island transport system.

Mr McCornick saw both sides of the livestock movement coin on the trip; witnessing both the slick operation of Northlink Ferries, who transport livestock from Orkney to the mainland, and experiencing the less predictable inter-island ferries, which are used to move stock between mainland Orkney and the surrounding islands.

On Northlink Ferries, livestock is loaded into purpose built livestock containers which are then shuttled on to the freighter and lashed down. Each container has facilities for feeding, watering and inspecting the stock and dealing with manure.

The inter-island services are not at the same level as their North Sea crossing counterparts, with most using roll-on-roll-off systems (ro-ro) for trailers and lorries to take livestock on and off.

Three islands, however, still resort to a lift-on-lift-off (crane) system, which adds an extra dimension to transporting cattle and sheep.

NFUS Orkney branch secretary Kenny Slater said: “Livestock shipping to Aberdeen is generally working well, but there have been some concerns lately that capacity on the ro-ro freight and passenger vessels could be an issue following the decision by Streamline Shipping to cease operating their containerised lift-on-lift-off service and transfer that traffic onto Northlink’s Ro-ro service.

"This was brought up when we met with Northlink with Andrew this week, and assurances were given that the livestock volumes had been factored into the load plans and would continue to take priority."

The internal ferries in Orkney are provided by Orkney Ferries, who run a fleet of nine ferries serving 13 islands. These vessels are all getting well through or near the end of their service life and there is growing concern on how a replacement programme will be funded.

At the same time as announcing the proposed introduction of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) for cars and passengers on the external ferries, Scotland's Transport Minister made it clear the reduced fares would not apply to the internal ferries. That leaves some of the most fragile communities in the country facing the highest ferry fares in Scotland.

Following his trip to Orkney, Mr McCornick said: “Ferries are important and need to be sailing but they don't always. Weather and reliability are king. Modernisation and updating can improve reliability but that requires capital investment.

“The weather is the weather and even this week, while travelling around Orkney, I got an appreciation that there is little that can be done when sailing conditions are not right. What can be done for our members is making sure that modernisation brings improvements to routes for transporting livestock to and from the islands to Orkney mainland.”