WITH the energy price cap rise almost upon us, soaring bills are heaping pressure on the businesses that are the lifeblood of rural Scotland.

One of those small firms at the heart of its community is Westray Processors Ltd (WPL), in the far reaches of the Orkney Islands.

WPL operates a crab processing factory and takes fresh-caught produce and then packages and ships it to customers as far south as Perth.

The firm has been operating on Westray since 1965 as a pillar of the island’s economy – it has long been a source of employment for locals and a point of business for Orkney’s fishermen.

Having overcome the myriad obstacles it has faced over the last half-century, there are now real concerns for survival in the face of the ongoing energy crisis.

One of the firm's senior managers, Jacob Bilner, spoke to The National to share WPL's experience of its skyrocketing costs.

The National: Foreign firms are now offering local fishermen prices that Westray processors Ltd can't affordForeign firms are now offering local fishermen prices that Westray processors Ltd can't afford (Image: unknown)

Bilner says that a combination of rising electricity bills and increased foreign competition has put a major squeeze on the business's output, producing between 500 and 600 tonnes in 2013 to somewhere between 100 and 200 tonnes annually now.

He points to rising energy costs as one of the key issues the firm is facing. 

“Electricity costs have gone through the roof. We've got freezers and fridges and it's just crazy money. It really is crippling us," Bilner says.

“We're on a fixed-rate contract through next year until November, we know where we’re at until then. It’s helped us in some ways but even as it is, it’s crazy money. I don’t think we can carry on for long – we really are in a bad way at the moment.”

With monthly electricity bills now running to £10,000 a month, for a small firm that employs 13 people, it is understandable there are concerns.

And it's not just rising costs that are strangling business operations.

Extremely high demand for crab from global markets has led Chinese firms to Orkney’s shores in search of supply. According to Bilner, foreign competitors can offer local fisherman prices that WPL just can’t afford.

He says: “We use to get every brown crab that was landed on the pier here but the last three or four years there have been huge prices from China.

“They can pay a lot more than we can afford and it’s putting a lot of processing factories out of business. The cost of producing the white meat is very labour intensive. It’s all hand-picked and it takes time.

“And as you know, time costs money.”

The National: Processing the white meat in the crab is a labour intensive processProcessing the white meat in the crab is a labour intensive process (Image: unknown)

Without the supply of crab, the scale of the business is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. With diminishing output, there are worries the business’s presence in the local community will not be felt in the same way that it always has.

“Speak to anyone on the island, most have some kind of tie to it, whether they’ve worked here at some point in their life or what have you. It’s always been here and everyone has always known the factory to be in Westray," Bilner says.

“It’s thinking along the lines of ‘well surely it will manage to keep going because we always have in the past’ but it feels like we’re in different times now. We’re going to struggle with fuel costs, the wages and everything.”

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As far as support from government is concerned, it could be a case of too little, too late.

Bilner says the firm’s committee had been hopeful of funding to help support the business but that hopes were now dwindling: “There’s such a lack of product, there’s a worry that we wouldn’t be able to prove that we can keep up supply and so no one will give us any money to help.

“I don’t know if we are too far gone for that now.”