Community survey results evidence the strength of community feeling on the issue of deer

Bornish Community Council (BCC) has published the results of a deer impacts survey of all households between Drimsdale and Frobost carried out in October and November last year.

The Community Council said it was prompted to undertake the research by the large number of complaints it had received from community members.

The survey was delivered to 155 households in the BCC area, representing 92% of the local population. 115 surveys were returned, representing a response rate of 81%.

A spokesperson for BCC said that the high response rate indicated the community’s willingness to participate in and influence local issues.

The results showed that 55% of respondents believe that deer management has become worse or much worse in the past 10 years, with 74% of respondents saying they had experienced negative issues with deer in the past five years.

The majority of deer incidents related to damage to gardens, crops and crofts, with eight people reporting vehicle damage.

Fifty-nine of the 115 respondents had formally reported a deer incident, and of those, only 37 were satisfied with the way their issue was handled.

Asked whether they had noted any changes in the number of tick bites over the past ten years, 65% said the incidence had increased. Half of those responding said they had noticed a change in where tick bites occurred, citing ‘vegetable patch, garden, washing line, machair, hayfield and children’s play area’ as new hotspots.

Asked what action Stòras Uibhist and the Deer Management Group should undertake to improve deer management, 59 respondents said ‘reduce the herd’, 37 said ‘remove all deer’ and 23 said to ‘confine’ them. Forty-nine people asked for better management of deer complaints, with 46 respondents asking for wider community consultation on the issue.

The question ‘on balance, do you feel that deer are an asset or are detrimental to our community’ received 95 responses, with only 7% believing them to be an asset, 35% thinking they were both an asset and a detriment, and 47% clear that they were a detriment.

The survey report included a range of comments received from respondents, the vast majority of which were negative, citing the damage deer do to gardens – ‘many people have stopped growing plants and vegetables and reluctance and inability to grow crops or trees and have a garden’ and the cost of deer protection – ‘hundreds of ££s of plants and lawn ruined over the years and have now had to spend ££ on electric fence’.

Comments also highlighted community concerns regarding road safety – ‘constant fear when driving particularly at night and early morning = waiting for accident or fatality’.

The relationship deer have to ticks and Lyme disease was also raised – ‘Stòras should come to terms with the fact that Uist has by far the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the whole of Scotland and that it is spread by deer and can be serious to people’s health, that all deer should be culled. What is more important than people’s health?’.

A small number of positive comments were returned, referencing venison as a local, sustainable food source – ‘deer are very good on a plate’, highlighting that they were not the only problem beast – ‘rabbits and sheep cause more damage’ and recognising that they ‘look lovely’.

Stòras Uibhist cull update

Stòras Uibhist has published an update of herd numbers following the conclusion of its annual deer cull.
The Estate now reports that 163 hinds, 95 stags and 49 calves have been killed, a total of 307 beasts in all, saying that the figure is well ahead of cull targets set out at the last AGM.

Stòras Uibhist had previously set out an optimum herd number of 450, but amended this figure to 600 at its November AGM, saying: “We would like to see the positive impact of our new zero tolerance policy of shooting all beasts to the west of the main road and within village boundaries on the east side of the estate. It may well be that if the deer are staying out of the way and not causing any damage that we can maintain a herd of around 600 without negative impacts.”

An independent helicopter count carried out on the Estate in September last year confirmed that here were 1198 deer on the Estate. This year’s cull still leaves a herd of 891 beasts, almost double the previously agreed commitment to maintain herd numbers at around 450, and almost 300 more than its new target.

The Estate says its cull programme should bring the total deer herd down to just over 600 by 2028.
Stòras Uibhist said: “The estate’s keepers will continue to address problems of stags causing damage west of the main road and sightings/ complaints should continue to be addressed to the estate office on 01878 700101. When calling please have as much information to hand as possible including date and time of the complaint, the exact location and details of the damage caused.”

Community petition sparks Stòras Uibhist EGM

On Monday 13th February a petition signed by more than 200 Stòras Uibhist members was handed in to the Estate’s Daliburgh offices requesting in clear and bold terms that all deer be removed from the South Uist estate.

Stòras Uibhist member Ronald Mackenzie has been instrumental in setting up the petition, and told Am Pàipear what had driven him to action:

“For years, the community has tried and failed to make the Estate understand the strength of negative feeling there is about the deer. We felt that an EGM was the only route left open to us.

“The facts on deer are clear – the links with our outrageously high incidence of Lyme disease, the damage they wreak on crops and gardens – these are the issues our community lives with – this is the reality we face.

“It is heartbreaking to think that after 17 years of community ownership, we are no further on than we were a century ago; a landlord forcing its will on its own people.”

Stòras Uibhist’s Articles of Association state that a general meeting must be called within 28 days should it be requested by at least 10% of the membership, which currently equates to 86 members.
The Articles also state that a ‘quorum for a general meeting shall be the lesser of 40 Ordinary Members or 10% of the Ordinary Members present in person. No business shall be dealt with at any general meeting unless a quorum is present.’

Stòras Uibhist CEO Darren Taylor has confirmed that an Extraordinary General Meeting has been convened for Monday, 20th March with the single issue of focus being the removal of all deer from the South Uist Estate.

Mr Taylor told Am Pàipear: “It is important to be clear that there is only one issue on the agenda for the forthcoming EGM; whether or not to remove all deer form the Estate.

“Storas Uibhist will set out a robust defence of our position and make clear that we believe we can manage our deer herd in a way that adds value for the community and reduces the potential for negative impacts.

“Everyone will be given the opportunity to state their views, but to be clear, the focus will be tightly maintained on that single question.

“The opportunity to vote will be afforded to all members ahead of the EGM; these votes will be added to votes counted at the EGM and a simple majority will decide the way forward.”

Those who facilitated the petition have told Am Pàipear that they do not feel the EGM vote is being handled fairly or legally, as it does not follow the guidelines set out in Stòras Uibhist’s Articles of Association.

Ronnie MacKenzie summed up concerns by saying: “We feel that allowing voting to take place before the EGM is held leaves the process open to the risk of manipulation and directly undermines the rights of each person to vote according to their own inclination or conscience.”

“The Articles of Association clearly set out the rules for how a vote must be carried out. There is no provision in the Articles for voting in advance, only for proxy voting at the EGM itself; moreover, the Articles stipulate that a secret ballot must be held if requested at the meeting by two ordinary members. The voting forms sent out by Stòras include members’ names, rendering a secret ballot impossible to deliver.  Named ballot papers leave it open for Stòras to exert influence on members and staff to vote in a particular way; people have told me that they do not feel able to vote with their conscience because they are afraid of reprisals.”

Information was issued to Stòras Uibhist members by post, setting out the motion and the defence and including details of proxy voting arrangements.

New rules ring alarm bells for Uist drinks producers and retailers

Scottish Government appears to be pushing ahead with its controversial new Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), despite warnings that the Scheme will not be ready by the August launch date.

The new DRS will require all drinks producers and importers to introduce a 20p surcharge on every single-use drinks container sold in Scotland. The charge is passed on through the supply chain, through wholesalers, retailers and hospitality outlets, with consumers finally paying the 20p as a deposit, to be refunded when the drink is returned. This loop is designed to ensure that nobody is out of pocket.

The new rules apply whether or not the drink was manufactured in Scotland, and cover all containers made from PET plastic, glass, steel and aluminium.

With only five months before the scheme’s launch, producers, retailers and hospitality outlets have echoed the findings of the Scottish Government’s own Gateway Review, published in December last year, which stated in the strongest possible terms that the Scheme should be delayed: “The Review Team finds that a fully functioning and compliant DRS cannot be in operation for the revised August 2023 schedule.”

The DRS was subject to an Islands Impact Assessment in March 2020, which highlighted a number of island-specific impacts that would result form the new regulations.

The Assessment recognises the logistical difficulties in transporting waste/recyclables off the islands, but states: “Most islands are net importers of goods and therefore vehicles leaving the islands should have available capacity to back-haul materials to the mainland.” Concerns have been raised regarding ferry capacity, especially in the busy summer months.

The Assessment also noted a potential issue with ‘distance sales take-back’ and the requirement for producers, importers and wholesalers to be responsible for collecting returned containers, regardless of where they are sold. In practice, this means that those drinks sold in Uist are going to cost a lot more to return than those sold in Glasgow. The additional costs associated with distance sellers operating a take-back service, could result in a number of businesses choosing not to deliver to the islands.

With a resident population of less than 27,000 and annual visitor numbers well in excess of 200,000, the Assessment also recognised that ‘the number of containers likely to be returned to retailers would significantly exceed the volumes being sold, creating challenges around both storage of returned containers and cash-flow related to the paying out of deposits.’

The Assessment concludes: “We are confident that the policy does not only look to accommodate islands communities but is optimised for them. The overall impact will be significantly positive, supporting the development of a circular economy, acting to address the climate crisis, and preventing litter and plastic pollution escaping into our natural environment.”

The Scheme was developed by Zero Waste Scotland, is to be administered by Circulatory Scotland and will be regulated by SEPA.

Circularity Scotland is a membership organisation set up by industry stakeholders to manage the operation of the Scheme on their behalf. Its role is to take on producer responsibilities for the collection and recycling of returned materials and effectively ‘administer’ the Scheme. Under pressure from industry, Circulatory Scotland last month announced £22 million of cashflow support measures to help Scotland’s manufacturers prepare for the introduction of the Scheme.

SEPA is the regulator for the DRS, carrying out audits, inspections and enforcement activity.
Scottish Government says that 90% of containers included in the Scheme will be captured for recycling, resulting in 34,000 fewer plastic bottles littered every day, with 76,000 additional tonnes of containers recycled each year.

A spokesperson for the Comhairle said:

“Once the DRS system is fully up and running in the Western Isles, it should help our recycling rates and reduce what we have to collect, bale and pay to be shipped to the mainland.

“The Comhairle has been in contact with Biffa and have offered to assist where we can in making this scheme a success.

“Recycling plastic containers in an Island location is costly due to the haulage costs, so this scheme is welcomed.

“We would hope that all consumers of drinks included in DRS will return containers and get their deposit back.  It will still be counted towards the household recycling figures in the Western Isles and there is an expectation of a much higher capture rate which can only be a good thing for the environment.  We expect to have to review how we collect the remaining recyclable materials but will still provide kerbside collection services.”

Highlands & Islands MSP Ariane Burgess has welcomed the new Scheme, telling Am Pàipear: “I am very excited about the Deposit Return Scheme, which will be a major part of Scotland’s efforts to reduce litter, cut emissions and build a more sustainable economy.

“I understand that implementing DRS is a big change for small businesses to manage, which is why a range of measures have been put in place to support them. For example, there will be no registration fee for producers with an annual turnover of £85,000 or lower. A producer will be charged for each individual container placed upon the Scottish market, so their charges will be proportionate to the size of the business meaning a small producer like a small distiller will pay less than a larger producer.

“This will be the first scheme of its kind in the UK and one of the most environmentally ambitious and accessible in Europe. It will be good for people and planet and it will help us to improve recycling rates – even in areas like Na h-Eileanan an Iar already well known for their efficiency – as well as helping to tackle climate change.

“I am proud that the scheme is being led by Green minister Lorna Slater, who has taken a pragmatic and ambitious approach, supported by industry through Circularity Scotland, and am confident it will be launched in August.”

A spokesperson for the Co-op, said: “We are facing into a climate and environmental crisis and Co-op is committed to making it easier for our members, customers and colleagues to take action that makes a positive difference to our natural environment. As a business we are working hard so we will be ready for the introduction of the Scottish Government’s Deposit Return Scheme.” 

As Am Pàipear went to print, it was still unclear if the Scheme would launch as scheduled.

Uist recycling:
Household and commercial waste in Uist and Barra is collected at the premises and taken to the Market Stance Waste Transfer Station, in Benbecula.

Materials for recycling are compacted to reduce volume and loaded onto lorries for transportation direct to mainland recycling facilities.

Market Stance processes around five loads of glass each year, each weighing around 20 to 25 tonnes, and a similar volume of plastic and cans, each weighing around 20 tonnes.

Around 100 tonnes of non recyclable waste is compacted and taken to Stornoway for landfill, where it is subject to a £98 per tonne Landfill Tax charge.

All in all, more than 740 tonnes of materials were recycled through Market Stance last year.

Despite the islands’ logistical disadvantage, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s recycling rates for 2021 were 34.6%, placing us slightly below the Scottish average and well ahead of some bigger Authorities such as Glasgow City Council.

Cllr. Paul Steele – Leader, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar

This is my first New Year as Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and it was good to have some time over the festive period to reflect on what we’ve been kept busy with and to look forward to future opportunities and challenges.

I would like to thank my fellow Councillors for their support and contributions throughout the year as we try to do our best for our community.

I also thank all our Council officers who put in a power of work to provide services with ever decreasing resources and thanks too must go to our partner agencies as our joint working is the best way to improve the outcomes for us all.

But most of all, I want to thank our communities who in recent years and challenging times have shown their strength, resilience and compassion.

Reflecting on the last seven to eight months, I would say it’s been busy both within the Comhairle and regionally and nationally. Amongst my commitments, I chair the Regional Economic Partnership, attend Cosla, the Scottish and UK Islands Forum, as well as the Convention of the Highlands and Islands (CoHI).

We will be hosting the next CoHI in Uist which will be an exciting opportunity to meet Government Ministers and officials and encourage them to further invest in our Islands and to discuss initiatives such as the Uist Repopulation Zone.

I recently travelled to Orkney to sign the Island’s Growth Deal, an agreement with the Scottish and UK Governments to invest £100m across Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides with the aim of drawing a further £293m of investment to help secure 1300 new jobs.

The investment is split roughly three ways and will lead to green hydrogen opportunities being developed as well as support for the Spaceport project. Our St Kilda centres will also benefit from this funding, as will several other projects throughout the islands.

Funding for major projects isn’t easy to access so we’re rightly proud of the Islands Growth Deal but we weren’t successful in our bid to the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund, which would have helped us develop sections of the Spinal Route and supported our road infrastructure.

External funding for specific projects is good but the Comhairle’s Capital Investment program is not looking great (getting approximately £25m of the £127m we need) so we’re reliant on bidding for funds like the Levelling Up Fund, the Regeneration Capital Grant Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund to allow us to develop our infrastructure and we’ll be applying for them and others throughout the year but they have to be for specific projects, not just our day to day running costs.

The recent local government settlement is going to mean tough choices for us as we move towards setting Revenue and Capital Budgets.  A net increase of £700k in our revenue doesn’t go far enough to meet our predicted £7.2m deficit, so we need to use service savings and reserves to set a balanced budget.

That means putting more strain on the services we provide over the next year and a major concern is that we’re relying on the one-off use of reserves to get us through the year, with the situation looking even worse next year.

Our main income streams for revenue generation are from the Scottish Government and through Council Tax. Last term we had the largest percentage reduction in funding of any Local Authority in Scotland, this year we’ve had the second lowest increase, so it’s important that we look carefully at what we do with Council Tax within the whole revenue budget. Whilst this will be difficult, I and my Comhairle colleagues will do everything we can to protect vital services for our community as far as possible.

I was pleased just before Christmas that the Comhairle was able to launch its Cost of Living Crisis Fund and, not unexpectedly, we received considerable interest. Whilst we cannot meet all needs and aspirations, the Comhairle remains committed to protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. But we can only do so by working with our communities and it is gratifying to see the work that is being done to support individuals and families through these difficult times.

The year ahead will see the Scottish Government move forward with its plans for a National Care Service. The Comhairle welcomes aspects of a National Care Service but has significant questions, many of which are reflected across Local Government, particularly in rural and island Scotland, as to the consequences in terms of local democracy and accountability, and asking whether the same outcomes could be achieved through additional financial provision within the current structures or a version of these.

Public sector reform is back on the agenda and may provide a preferable way forward. A Single Islands Partnership consisting of the main public sector bodies has long been an aspiration of the Comhairle and we will be undertaking work to see how we can progress that. We already work closely with our partners, which has paved the way for major developments such as the soon to be opened Goathill care complex and the Barra and Vatersay hub. 

We face major challenges at a local, national and global level. Climate Change remains the biggest threat to our planet and may have particular consequences in coastal communities such as the Islands. So it was good to see the publication of climate change strategy plans by the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership. These clearly do not provide all the answers to what is a global issue but at least provide a framework for us to build on.

Related to climate change are the efforts to safeguard and develop our renewable energy resources. Towards the end of the year, we received the fantastic and long awaited news that an interconnector between Lewis and the mainland would go ahead, allowing the export of clean green electricity from the Islands as well as the replacement of the interconnector that serves Uist and Barra. Not only will this help in combating climate change but will allow the development of a major renewables industry in the islands, bringing major investment and employment opportunities. In turn this will help to reverse the threat of depopulation.

So, we are making progress during challenging times. The islands remain a great place to live and work with strong, vibrant communities, a unique environment, culture and heritage and an unsurpassed quality of life.

Am Pàipear’s festive edition

In our last paper of the year, we cover some of the most pressing issues facing the islands this winter, including flooding, ferries and energy security.

In cheerier news, we also have a comprehensive rundown of all the festive opportunities available in the run up to Christmas and some exciting award wins for sports stars and gin giants!

We also have the latest from our regular columns – Councillor Mustapha Hocine writes a heartfelt piece on child poverty and Stòras Uibhist’s Darren Taylor discusses the opportunities and responisbilities that come with community ownership.

Grid connection green light

The aged under sea cable connecting Uist to the national grid was thrown a lifeline at the end of November, when Ofgem softened its previous determination to reject replacement cable works.

The August issue of Am Pàipear detailed Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks’ (SSEN) plans to replace the current 31 year old, 46.1km Uist-Skye subsea cable with two shorter cables, running from Skye to Loch Carnan in the south and to Lochmaddy in the north. SSEN said the proposal would improve capacity resilience for the islands and reduce the risk of a catastrophic failure like the one that hit the Skye and Harris cable just two years ago.

Ofgem had made a draft determination to reject the cable proposals in June, a decision which SSEN and Uist community leaders strongly opposed.

Ofgem’s final determinations regarding country-wide energy infrastructure proposals were issued on Wednesday 30th November, and included a new way forward for the Uist cable works.

In its final determination, Ofgem concluded that proposals for the Uist cable replacement would now be subsumed into a broader project known as Hebrides and Orkney Whole systems (HOWS). Ofgem says it will allocate £20.6m in ex ante development funding to allow SSEN to undertake the required pre-construction investigative works.

SSEN will then be given a further opportunity to request the release of required funding to progress the Uist cable project within the next couple of years. At that point, and assuming that Ofgem supports the business case put forward, project funds to complete the cable replacement will go ahead.

An Ofgem spokesperson told Am Pàipear: “Our Final Determinations for Skye South-Uist has noted that while we accept the needs case, the engineering development is still required. We believe it is not in the consumers interest to provide funding in full at this stage.”

Cllr Paul Steele, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “We are pleased that OFGEM has responded to valid concerns raised by the Uist and Barra community. Through vigorous and sustained engagement with the Regulator, we are now in a position where OFGEM is prepared to support the provision of new cables for Uist and Barra following final approval of SSEN Distribution’s plans. This is a good outcome for the islands given the extremely challenging electricity network climate that OFGEM are currently operating within.”

As Am Pàipear went to press, it was still not clear how this change of position might impact the speed and ease of the project’s completion, but community leaders were clear that the subsea cable works must be made a priority.

The sub sea cable not only secures Uist’s own incoming electricity supply, but allows community wind generators to export the power they generate back to the national grid, maintaining a crucial source of community income.

As a result of the Harris failure, insurance companies are no longer prepared to cover business losses associated with undersea cable failures, which leaves local community companies unable to recover lost income should the Uist cable fail.

Storas Uibhist CEO Darren Taylor said: “It is essential this work is now carried out as soon as possible as the cable is already categorised under the worst possible health index rating and may fail at any moment, like the Harris-Skye cable did in 2020.  We welcome the replacement, but maintain our position that an increase in cable capacity is the optimal solution to allow for greater production of renewable energy and economic growth for the islands.”

Flood management plans set out ‘potentially vulnerable areas’ of concern

The recent bad weather and subsequent flooding has brought climate change impacts horribly close to home.

Throughout November, main roads were flooded well beyond safe levels, and across the islands, a good number of village roads were impassable for days. Emergency services were called to support people travelling to work and school and in Kildonan, the cut-off villagers even made the national news.

Once such area impacted by flooding was Snishival, where Lexie and Iain MacDonald had to travel on foot over fields and fences to reach their home.

Lexie, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, spoke to Am Pàipear about the difficulties they faced: “I was coming home from work around 4pm and as I approached the Snishival bridge, it was clear that the water was well over the road. Thankfully, it was still fairly light and I was able to see just how deep it was. My husband was also heading home from work and we parked our cars back by the main road and together we set off for the hour-long walk across the crofts to get home. There are fences to get over and no clear path through. It was hard-going and at times we were ankle deep in water. By the time I got to my door, I was exhausted to the point of collapse.”

The issue is causing considerable worry for those who live in flood-prone areas, and it isn’t just a question of inconvenience, as Lexie explains: “In bad weather, you can’t be sure you will get home at all, so you have to plan ahead. I can’t leave the slow-cooker on anymore, for example, and there are worries about animals needing fed. If the weather looks bad, I just won’t go out, and I certainly now don’t go out in the winter evenings, and that can be quite isolating.”

Managing flood risk is a shared responsibility between SEPA, Local Authorities and other agencies, and which body is responsible for which particular part of this complex problem is not always clear cut.

The process by which flood is managed here in the Western Isles is set out in the Outer Hebrides Flood Risk Management Plan, the latest draft of which was open for consultation for three months last year, and is now due to be published by the Comhairle before the end of this year.

The Local Flood Management Plan details five ‘nationally significant’ Potentially Vulnerable Areas, which it lists as: a small section of Stornoway near the Point road; a good portion of North Uist; and the vast majority of Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. The Plan goes on to quantify the Western Isles risk by stating: “Currently it is estimated that there are 980 people and 820 homes and businesses at risk from flooding. This is estimated to increase to 1,500 people and 1,200 homes and businesses by the 2080s, due to climate change. The annual cost of flooding is approximately £3.4 million. Note however that flooding from wave overtopping is not fully represented in the assessment of flood risk and the impact of coastal flooding may be underestimated.”

The actions set out in the Plan include awareness raising, data gathering, flood forecasting and warning, hazard mapping, land use planning and maintenance. Aside from an objective to design, procure and construct the elements of the South Ford Flood Protection Scheme, there are very few actual works listed for the period of the Plan.

A Comhairle spokesperson told Am Pàipear: “The drainage systems in Uist can be quite complex and dependent on a variety of structures and open channels to operate effectively.  Ownership and maintenance responsibilities for structures and channels can be; private landowner, community landowner, tenant, Scottish Government (Agriculture and Rural Economy) or Local Authority (Comhairle).

“The Comhairle recognises the vulnerabilities in Uist to surface and tidal flooding and a requirement to better understand the present and future impacts in relation to climate change.  This can be achieved through the mechanisms of the Flood Risk Management Plan, however funding for flood studies is restrictive (£30k pa). 

“In a more immediate timescale the convening of a meeting of major stakeholders in South Uist, including SEPA, Storas Uibhist, Scottish Government, Scottish Water and the Comhairle, is being considered. This would be to agree a common approach to maintenance and response to flooding events.”

Stòras Uibhst CEO Darren Taylor said: “It is increasingly apparent that the current infrastructure across the estate, whether that it is the responsibility of Stòras, the Comhairle or the government, is struggling to cope with the rainfall we are now experiencing. In addition to carrying out work on certain drains that Stòras has responsibility for, we have supported townships over the last couple of years to carry out work and we would encourage all township clerks to contact us to discuss projects that need funding in 2023.

“We are also planning to carry out major improvements to the bridge at Snishival in 2023.  We will also be working closely with townships on Benbecula in 2023 to develop a coordinated plan for improvements to the main drain there. Stòras will do its part but we cannot tackle the problem on our own. Specifically we will be pushing the government for improvements to the Roe Glas outlet, which are needed urgently.”

Cllr Uisdean Robertson, CNES Chair of Transportation & “I am acutely aware of the growing concerns within communities in Uist and Barra following recent flood events.  Intense and localised rainfall, when falling on already saturated ground, can very quickly inundate lochs and drainage channels, affecting low-lying sections of roads.  These events seen to be occurring more frequently.

“It is important that we all do all that we can to mitigate the impacts of these weather events, and this includes all landowners and responsible organisations, such as the Comhairle, SEPA and Scottish Government, working together to ensure that the existing drainage systems are operating as efficiently as possible.  There may still be times when the drainage infrastructure quite simply can’t cope and under these circumstances a proportionate and coordinated response will be required, potentially with the assistance of emergency services.  People should not put themselves at risk by attempting to cross flooded roads where the depth of water or road edge location are unknown.”

Fire crew shortages

The Scottish Fire & Rescue Service submitted its quarterly performance report to the Comhairle’s Community Safety Board in November, setting out the continued challenges the Service faces in maintaining adequate fire cover for the islands.

The Report details that the Uist service was running 15 short of the full complement of firefighters, compromising service availability across Uist’s four fire stations. The staffing shortfall meant that in the period July to September this year, Lochboisdale, Lochmaddy and Bayhead stations were without day time cover for around 25% of the time, with a similar picture for overnight cover in Lochboisdale and a reduced night time service in Lochmaddy.

The Report to the Community Safety Board states: “Recruitment and retention still remains a significant challenge across the Isles. These challenges vary depending on the location and size of the communities where our fire stations are located, the nature of full time employment undertaken and the flexibility and willingness of local employers to release staff for CPD training an emergency calls.

The Report also notes that: “HIAL personnel and appliance are now available to respond to emergencies out with the curtilage of the airport on both Barra and Benbecula. This demonstration of effective partnership working and mutual aid is being identified as a possible blueprint for other remote/rural areas in Scotland.”

Area Commander Iain Macleod, SFRS Local Senior Officer for Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland said: “We always maintain fire cover. At no point is there no cover for any area in Scotland. The nearest available appliance is mobilised to an incident to ensure every emergency is attended. This can involve the strategic movement of appliances and individual personnel from other stations within the area if required.

“In North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist we have approximately 40 Firefighters across four fire stations – these local, committed and dedicated firefighters have the flexibility to combine fire and rescue commitment to their communities with their everyday lives; that flexibility means we have to also have arrangements in place to monitor and maintain fire and rescue provision for all incidents, utilising, for example, our neighbouring stations to combine crews to allow appliances to attend incidents or deploying full time personnel to specific locations where needed.”

The Report to the Comhairle comes as the Fire Brigades Union prepares to ballot for strike action.

Highlands & Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said: “To see a large proportion of the Highlands and Islands not covered by Firefighter cover is terrifying. Rural communities feel isolated enough and this is a further example of urban approaches not working in rural areas and I wish to see it addressed urgently.”

Going forward together

The first time I ever visited South Uist two things above all else struck me. The first was the stunning natural beauty that surrounds us wherever we look. I couldn’t wait to return on holiday after that first visit before being lucky enough to move here to work for Stòras Uibhist, but this feeling of sheer joyous wonder at the landscape and the wildlife has never left me. Like everyone, daily life is busy, and things get in the way, but I always make a little time each day to stop and appreciate just how lucky I am. Samuel Johnson said: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Absolute nonsense of course but replace ‘London’ with ‘Uist’ and perhaps he might have been on to something.

The second thing that struck me on that first visit was that the whole island I was visiting is owned by the community. It’s difficult to put into words just what an incredible thing I found that to be. The community, not any one individual, owns the very land that they live and work on. Even now, having lived here for three years, I still find this remarkable. To an Englishman whose idea of ‘community ownership’ is a council-managed park with a duck pond and kiddies’ playground, I was absolutely blown away by the fact. And I still am.

But what does community ownership actually mean? What benefits does it bring, and what responsibilities does it mean for those of us who live here? As Chairperson of Community Land Outer Hebrides, I have spent a lot of time this year talking to other community land-owning groups in Lewis and Harris. Over 75% of all land in the Outer Hebrides is now community-owned, which is an amazing figure. One of the things that we all have in common is a desire to help our communities, whether they are in Ness or Eriskay. There are a huge variety of projects underway, from community-led housing developments to cafes and from community dancing lessons to large-scale economic regeneration plans.

I’m not a politician but it is obvious that government funding is going to reduce over the next few years. Whether we like it or not, this will most likely mean less money for the Comhairle and less for organisations like Highlands & Islands Enterprise, who play such an important role in supporting business development. So that, in turn, means Stòras Uibhist is going to have an even greater role in supporting the community, helping to develop businesses, creating jobs, helping our community to find affordable homes and more.

The Articles of Association that govern Stòras set out the purpose of the company and are clear that the purpose of the buyout was not simply to own the land, but to use that ownership to bring benefit to the community. To quote directly:‘The company is established to benefit the community by the promotion, for the public benefit, of rural regeneration’.

There are three major projects that we are currently developing at Stòras. Firstly, there is a real shortage of affordable housing across the estate. This is one of the reasons for declining population numbers and means it can be difficult, if not impossible, for employers to recruit staff. We are working with our partners at Rural Housing Scotland to develop our Smart Clachan project. The first development location will be on community-owned land at Rubha Bhuailt. These houses will be available to buy on a shared-equity basis, allowing young people and families to own their own home. It’s been a slow and sometimes torturous process, but we will continue to push, persuade and cajole the relevant funders and decision makers until we get the houses built.

Secondly, we are working on a project to build a community food production facility (what’s come to be known as a Food Hub). We have an abundance of great produce across Uist, but it’s not always easy for local producers to get their produce to market and it’s not always easy for those of us living here to buy it. The facility we’re planning will create units for producers to rent and space and opportunity for food producers to sell their produce. It will help with food resilience, cut down on food miles and make it much easier to put Uist produce on our plates.

The third major project is a major strategic visioning plan for Lochboisdale. In partnership with the Comhairle and HIE we are currently working on ideas that will focus on creating jobs and a better environment for those living, working and visiting Lochboisdale. Community engagement has been at the heart of the project and our Engagement Officer has spoken to many groups, businesses and individuals to get their feedback and ideas. You will be able to see further details of the plans on Sunday 4th December as part of the Lochboisdale Christmas market.

It might be a cliché that Rome wasn’t built in day but it’s also true. Stòras Uibhist has already achieved so much. Since the buyout, our community has transformed the economic landscape of where we live. The Loch Carnan windfarm has helped secure the financial future of the organisation and the causeway and development of Gasaigh has created not only a thriving marina but has opened up deep water access and the potential for large scale development alongside the new ferry terminal. Many other projects, large and small, have been delivered. So far, so good, but we must keep this momentum going, keep pushing ever more ambitiously. Everyone within the organisation, staff and directors alike, is ambitious and motivated and determined to continue to drive things forward. The work is never done and never will be.

A community-owned company cannot function without the support of the community it represents. That means every one of us has a responsibility to ‘do our bit’. The great privilege of land ownership also brings responsibilities. In addition to our development plans, Stòras has an obligation to manage the estate and its assets to the best of our ability. The income from the turbines and the other parts of the business can only do so much and budgets can only be spent once. Our directors must decide how this is done and decide on the priorities for the organisation. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but that’s the great thing about community ownership…everyone has the opportunity to get involved and to have their say.

Next year there will be four vacancies to join the board of Stòras and while it might seem a long way in the future, I really hope that some of you reading this will think about putting yourselves forward and bringing your skills and knowledge to help what is an important organisation and a key part of life in this beautiful place I fell in love with.

Cllr Mustapha Hocine – Elected member for Uibhist a Tuath, VC Education, Sport and Children’s Services Committee

This winter we need to reflect on the cost-of-living crisis and its impact on children’s lifestyles, wellbeing and ultimately, their human rights.

The huge increase in energy prices, rampant inflation and the subsequent general increase in the price of the most basic commodities will undoubtedly have very negative consequences on families’ budgets and living standards this winter. Without some sort of additional and urgent intervention from the government to protect the most vulnerable families, this looming crisis will have a damaging effect on children.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) enshrines the basic and universal human rights every child should have; the cost-of-living crisis we are currently experiencing threatens to infringe on these rights. The Convention states that all children have the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to an education and the right to have a happy life. If urgent action is not taken to support these families during this crisis, we will see more families falling well below the poverty line and more children having their education, standard of living and social lives affected.

In the recently published Living Without a Lifeline Report, One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS) carried out a survey of 260 single parents. The survey revealed that 97.9% of participants felt the impact of rising costs, while 61.1% were finding it either extremely difficult to afford or could no longer afford electricity, and 43.7% said they were struggling to always buy adequate food for their families. A single parent commented:

“I just feel that I’m totally on my own financially. We can’t claim free school meals or any grants because I’m not on benefits. Outgoings are increasing, I am as frugal as I can be, my pay was frozen for 3 years and now I have a 2% cost of living increase; better than nothing! Feel forgotten about. I cut my own hair, I skip meals, I scrimp on heating etc so I can pay the mortgage etc. There is no support for us from anyone.”

The most shocking thing about this survey is that 78% of the participants were in work.

A child’s standard of living is heavily tied not only to their education but to their social development. A survey conducted by the teachers’ union NASUWT shows that teachers in Scotland are regularly seeing how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting their pupils. 65% of NASUWT members stated that a rising number of children and young people were coming to school hungry, while 58% stated that more pupils did not have the equipment they needed for their lessons and 55% said that more of their pupils’ families were unable to afford school uniforms. While the UNCRC states that every child has the right to an education, it is my opinion that every child should also have the right to get the most of out of their education. If a child is hungry, their concentration is affected. Without extra packages of support, this cost-of-living crisis could see children from the most vulnerable families falling behind in their education as a direct result of the decline of living standards.

Mike Corbett, NASUWT National Official Scotland, said:

“There can be little doubt that the cost-of-living crisis is harming pupils’ education, learning and development. It is outrageous that we should be seeing more and more families who are struggling or unable to feed, clothe or keep a roof over their children’s heads. The financial worry and anxiety that many parents are already experiencing is also being felt by children and is likely to have a negative impact on their education. It’s vital that schools and wider children’s services are funded to provide more by way of support, advice and counselling for children, parents and carers who are struggling. An immediate step forward would be for the Scottish Government to commit to the introduction of universal free school meals for all pupils.”

The anxiety experienced by parents during this cost-of-living crisis will also very likely have a negative impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. Increased anxiety levels and poor mental health not only affect a child’s ability to concentrate in school but can also have a lasting effect on their social development.

Rising costs of food and energy are not the only financial headache families will face this winter. The difficulty in meeting the demands to pay for uniform, school trips, and the many other requirements that daily school life brings such as sponsored events, book fairs, Red Nose Day etc, can be an added anxiety for families who are already struggling. Children who are unable to participate in these social events are at risk of being socially excluded and bullied, which in turn could lead to low levels of self esteem and poor mental health. If children who are already struggling with anxiety are made to feel left out and different from their peers due to the not been able to afford a school trip for example, this could have devastating consequences.

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition has said that rising prices are replacing the Covid pandemic as the main cause of children and young people’s mental health problems, reporting that in the first three months of last year, 7,902 children and young people were referred to mental health services for treatment, compared to 9,672 this year – a 22.4% increase.

The current cost-of-living crisis affects almost everyone in Scotland. None more so than children already living in the grip of poverty. This is the time usually, when parents need to buy their children winter clothing and save for Christmas presents, however, the reality is that a lot of families will not be able to provide their children with many of the things they need.

A good and happy society is generally judged by the way it looks after its most vulnerable people, especially during difficult times. We have a collective responsibility to support and protect the children in our community from the long and lasting damage this crisis can inflict on them; we should do all we can to ensure they have a safe and happy childhood and help them develop and achieve their full potential, because the children are our future and the future of these Islands.

Scottish Government Wildlife Bill to ban all muirburning on peatland

New proposals put forward by Scottish Government will introduce a ban on all muirburning on peatland and require a licence for every muirburn carried out on other types of land. The ban will see the majority of Uist’s burns rendered illegal.

The proposals are part of a new Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill, due to be published in the 2022/23 parliamentary session and out for consultation until until 15th December.

The new Bill is based on the findings of an independent review of grouse moor management, known as the Werrity Report, and covers a range of measures including the introduction of new licensing requirements for grouse shooting and restrictions on snaring and trapping.

The current Muirburn Code sets out a range of stipulations about how and when land can be burned, prohibiting burns outside the agreed 1 October to 15 April season, restricting burns on certain areas, for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and encouraging those planning muirburns to alert the relevant landowners in advance. The Code is accompanied by common sense safety guidance, including the advice that burns should not be started between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise or within 30m of a public road and that fires should not be left unattended.

While the current Code advises against burning on peatland, there is currently no legal prohibition against it, unless on SSSIs.

The new legislation sets out a much more stringent approach, putting in place a statutory ban on all muirburning on peatland (currently defined as peat of a depth of 40cm or more) unless it is part of an approved habitat restoration programme, to protect public safety or for the purpose of research. The legislation will also introduce the requirement for a licence to be obtained for burning on a limited range of permitted areas, such as dry heath.

The Consultation document states: “The impacts of burning on carbon release and sequestration on moorland are disputed and there is conflicting scientific evidence. However, given the importance of peatland to Scotland’s net zero target, we have taken the view that a precautionary approach is required until there is more consensus on the impacts of muirburn.

“Peatland restoration is a key part of the Scottish Government’s goal of achieving a net-zero Scotland by 2045 as peat soils cover almost a quarter of Scotland, about 1.7 million hectares, storing some 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of an estimated 140 years of Scotland’s emissions. If we continue to allow unregulated muirburn on peatland, the progress that has been made restoring Scotland’s peatlands could be negated by damage caused by muirburn.”

Scottish Crofting Federation Chair Donald Mackinnon said: “Muirburn is an important tool that crofters should continue to have available to them for the management of hill grazing….While it is not crofters that are the target of this proposed legislation, it is clear that crofters will be affected. SCF does not oppose the principal of licensing but any scheme must be proportionate to the activity being carried out, a one size fits all approach will not work. Licenses should be easily obtainable for those already following best practice. We need to understand more about the implications of the proposal to ban burning on deep peat, we recognise the climate impact of this activity but there may still be specific areas where this practice is appropriate and exceptions should be possible.” 

The Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill consultation closes on December 15th.