ORGANISERS were overwhelmed at the turnout for the first meeting called by a group of crofters and farmers in the Spey catchment area of the Cairngorms National Park on Thursday, January 4, in Kingussie.

A spokesperson said: “We were astounded as almost 50 people representing crofting and farming and a small number of other rural activities turned up to a meeting called for those concerned they are not being heard in an increasingly authoritarian neighbourhood. This was double what had been optimistically expected.

“The group came together as a result of some very significant concerns caused by the rushed introduction of Beavers by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) that took place in December 2023 without proper consultation with the agricultural sector and land managers on the impacts that could result to food-producing fields and farming livelihoods.

"While the group recognise the positive impact beavers can have in the right place, any burrowing into the 200-year-old floodbanks of the River Spey could be devastating for farms under flood conditions, both physically and economically as already demonstrated along the River Tay.

Calls made by 10 representative farmers and crofters to the CNPA between September and December to improve the Beaver Mitigation Plan did help the process to a large degree ahead of animals being released and although timescale issues remain unresolved within the Plan the principle of having a farmer-led group reaches far wider than just this one issue."

The discussion was wide-ranging covering amongst other subjects:

• protection of crofts, farms, rural activities and communities;

• engagement with local and national agencies on local issues (CNPA, NatureScot, SGRPID, SEPA, SF, etc);

• promotion of public goods provided by local agriculture (food production, biodiversity enhancement, carbon sequestration, landscape);

• mutual support and collaboration for members;

• practical projects (engagement with the public, farm open days, training); and

• exploring natural capital.

The spokesperson continued: “Although the group was stirred into action by some quite negative events and realisations, the individuals were unanimous that the group needs to be much more positive than that and to look to the future of our industry and families.”

“One of the main aims of the group is that we will be a united voice with which the CNPA and others can communicate on crofting, farming, and rural activities as we believe this has been missed in recent years.

"Other key objectives are supporting local farmers and crofters on the new policies ahead and demonstrating how local agriculture and land management delivers on biodiversity and carbon, which in turn deliver on CNPA, NatureScot, and Scottish Government targets, however, the group is keen to ensure the practicalities of real life on the ground, including the provision and maintenance of sustainable agriculture are recognised and fully understood by policymakers and agencies. It is hoped that the group will be a recognised and respected voice to all concerned.”

"While local farmers and crofters are not against such initiatives, these simply have to be practical, and where justified must be done in the right place and at the right time. Without early communication with those working the land, pragmatic approaches seem to be altogether missed,” the group spokesperson commented.

“We are realising that over the 20 years of the Park’s existence, we have not been engaged nearly enough and see that CNPA policy has been steered in a direction that is not often in our favour.”

There was much discussion about how rural voices are not listened to anymore (locally and nationally) and the group felt a severe lack of confidence in agency Boards and politicians to champion local issues. However, there was also positive discussion on building resilience, improving communication, demonstrating responsibility to the environment, and finding solutions rather than breaking down relationships, however, the group agreed the last point can only be time limited and expectations are high for improved engagement.

It was agreed to appoint a steering group with a significant proportion of younger farmers and crofters to represent the future. The steering group will initially be chaired by Robert MacDonald of Grantown-on-Spey and have facilitation support from Ali McKnight of Agroecosystems Ltd. (formerly of FWAG) and will complete the set-up of the group including getting the name and structure finalised.

The group will continue to work closely with NFUS Highland and will engage with the Scottish Crofting Federation and Scottish Land and Estates as relevant. Currently, the group has evolved from ‘Spey Crofters and Farmers’ to ‘Cairngorms Crofters and Farmers’ to include members from Tomintoul and Glenlivet, however, this is still an unfolding process as currently the group effectively only covers the west and north side of the Cairngorms.