EVERY crofter I know has more than one long-range forecast in their head. There’s the weather one, the sale price one, and the feed-buying one, to name only a few.

The future is something which ­preoccupies most of us in crofting. You are always thinking seasons ahead of yourself. Putting the tups out in the ­autumn means that your spring is already mapped out.

A bad harvest means that you hope the weather will be kind for as long as possible through the winter. How good your homebred breeding animals are takes years to find out. Changing a calving ­pattern also takes years – as I am finding out the hard way.

A preoccupation that is particularly ­relevant to many is the future of their own holding. If my nephew or nieces don’t have an interest in the croft, then that bit of our family history will end with me. For some, the only way for their children to live at home is to subdivide a croft to allow them to build. Each croft will be smaller, but their family can remain on their home turf.

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In some cases, there is no obvious ­successor – so what then?

Some wouldn’t touch a croft with a barge pole. After all, at the same time as people were told that Gaelic wouldn’t get them anywhere, they were also encouraged to seek a different way of making a living. Working the small patches of ground we were bestowed was hard then, and it remains so now.

Crofting, by its very nature, is ­challenging. Just when you think you have solved a problem or found an answer, the problem changes and the answer eludes you. Animals find new and inventive ways to die and fences always require mending.

Today’s challenges are not just ­practical, but increasingly existential. The future of land, of culture and of resident ­populations are all at risk in the ­Highlands and Islands of 2024.

So, it was thrilling to hear the Crofting Commission announcing good news this week. “New crofters hit five-year high,” they report. Five hundred and ten new crofters, 46% of whom are women.

On the face of it, that is brilliant. If 510 new crofters have been supported to start their agricultural businesses and begin ­using their ground in a way which is ­additive in their communities, then ­fantastic – the future is bright.

This paper reported the news ­directly from the press release, and comments were favourable – delighted to see that crofting is being pulled back from the brink.

The question is whether the numbers bear any scrutiny at all. The detail in the release is scant, and at this stage in ­proceedings, sandbagging ourselves will be of very little help.

What is a new entrant?

We’re going to start with the ­definition of a new entrant. The New Entrants Scheme is a government-supported scheme designed to get New Entrants on their feet. It supports them to develop a ­viable business on their croft. Offering mentorship, funding and advice, it’s a great scheme. If there are 510 new warm bodies in the New Entrants Scheme, ­super!

The percentage of “new crofters” under 41 is 29%, we are told. It’s framed as a good thing. Frankly, I think that is deeply worrying. It means that more than 60% of “new crofters” are over 41. I’m 41. My back is already gone, both my knees creak and I am scrutinising my pension situation in vain hope. All you need to know about the dire state of succession in crofting is that if you are under 41, you are classed as “young”. Gratifying, but troubling.

Further, a New Entrant, in capital ­letters, has to be under 40. Over that, and you don’t qualify for the scheme. So we can safely assume that these numbers do not relate to the official New Entrants Scheme.

Now, a new entrant (lower case), as ­defined by the Farm Advisory Service, is one that takes over financial and ­managerial control of a farm business (either in their own rights, or as ­majority shareholder in a partnership) for the first time.

And again, if 510 people took over or started a croft as a going concern between 2022 and 2023, that is great news.

Your agricultural Business ­Registration Number is linked to your status with “The Department”, as the Scottish ­Government Agriculture and Rural ­Economy ­Department – or whatever it’s calling itself today – is known. My flock marks are held by the Animal Health ­Department.

I have not yet given the Crofting ­Commission my Business Reference Number or flock marks. I’ve never been asked to prove I use it. Just asked whether or not I do. The Commission registered my ownership of the croft. Beyond that, they have little insight into my day-to-day life unless I give them cause to check. In fact, many would argue that that is at the root of the current crisis.

Are all 510 planning to actively croft?

I do hope so. Surely, it can’t simply be the first time that these 510 names have ­appeared in the Register of Crofts?

Registration can happen in a variety of ways. Sale, new tenancy or succession means a new name appears on the register. If you buy a croft to use as a large garden around your second home or retirement pad, you must also register the croft with the Commission.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that the 510 are not simply registrations of a croft – which are not much use as a gauge of anything – and are instead active and dynamic new entrants to our communities. Because that’s what we desperately need if we are to secure the future of our places.

It would be dreadful to think that ­numbers are being presented to make the Commission or the Government look good, while the feet of ­Highland and ­Island communities are being systematically taken out from them due to a failure to address equality of ­access to land, availability of property, or the ­draining of an economically active population.

We are fed a steady diet of soundbites about the value and importance of the rural economy. But they are not followed up with the radical action that is clearly needed.

Infuriatingly, some of the radical action needed has already been formally ­suggested. In 2008, headed by ­Professor Mark Shucksmith, a Committee Of ­Inquiry On Crofting published a report with a series of strong ­recommendations to ­address the worsening situation ­relating to land, housing and ­demographics in crofting communities.

The National:

The people involved knew what they were talking about. Maybe that was the issue. Brian Wilson revealed in the ­Stornoway Gazette last month that, while the minister at the time was in favour, the civil servants were not. Every one of the key recommendations – the ones with teeth – were watered down to the extent that they were of little substantive use.

Reading that report is enraging. Had those recommendations been ­implemented, there is a good chance we would be on a better footing today. But there was no appetite back then to cause short-term upset for long-term gain. Nor is there today. Photo calls for ministers in shiny new wellies and a series of ever-more ­desperate assertions that our communities matter are the order of the day.

Hopefully, though, the future is bright. The news about the new entrants has been welcomed by the Minister for ­Energy and the Environment, Gillian Martin MSP (above), who said: “I look forward to ­visiting new crofters and witnessing ­first-hand how crofting contributes to the economic and social fabric of the ­Highlands and ­Islands.”

I look forward to that too, and I do hope that some of them are present to meet her.