The Tale of the Barra Bunnies.
By Donald Manford.
The Barra common grazings encompass a flat area of Machair ground. It is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and together with the hills to the North covers an area of approximately 400 hectares. We have a perimeter fence to allow the cattle to graze and roam the flat land and hill unimpeded. This allows the cattle to find shelter depending on the direction of the wind and rain.
But this area has a serious rabbit infestation problem. Under our wonderful new environmental managers, in the form of SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage), we were led to believe we would be allowed to control the rabbits sensibly. To us, the local crofters, who have for generations cared for the land, the obvious method was to initiate a gassing programme for the entire Machair and the hill areas, as the sandy terrain is ideal for rabbits. But not a bit of it.
We were instructed that assistance for eradication was only available for Machair rabbits not hill ones. I should explain that the area is made up of different designations. The South Machair is both an environmentally sensitive area and a SSSI, the in-bye an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) but not a SSSI. and the hill a SSSI but not an ESA. Scientific reasons underpin the bureaucratic designations that the crofters do not understand. Crucially neither do the rabbits.
We are supposed to deal with the rabbits, on the Machair but not the rabbits on the hill. But the same rabbits moved up the side of the hill as the water table rises in winter and back down again as the water table falls in the summer. These rascally rabbits refuse to respect the finer points of the clever SNH and SEERAD bureaucrats and their letter-soup of designations
So what were the local crofters required to do in order to receive the blessings of SNH? They were required to build a mile-long (rabbit-proof) fence across the middle of nowhere on the ESA/SSSI boundary. As the rabbits have chosen to defy SNH designations, we had to build a £5000 border, a frontier, a Barra Bunny Berlin Wall.
As with all frontiers, creatures develop a strategy to get round them and the wily bunnies were up to the task. They simply hopped on to the beach, round the end of the fence, and onto the ESA/SSSI on the Machair, then hopped back onto their enclave on the hill SSSI whenever the gas man visited the ESA/SSSI. What purpose does the £5,000 fence serve? Well the answer to that is simple. No useful one.
Let me turn to the cattle. They once roamed freely but now they were hindered by the fence. But they, like the rabbits, simply walked onto the beach and round the fence. That of course gave rise to problems with young calves who often found themselves on the opposite side of the fence to their mothers. Panic set in, the calves got distressed and in some cases were injured. (and the fence damaged)
Now, after all these problems and difficulties, it would seem sensible to remove this ridiculous fence. But were we crofters allowed to do that? No we were not. We were in a contract to be environmentally friendly. The fence had to stay for at least five years. It looks as if the Barra Bunny Berlin Wall will come down only when the contract ends, or when SNH or SEERAD apply some common sense.
That has not happened yet. Last year we found it necessary to replace a few hundred metres of boundary fence to prevent cattle straying onto the beach. The beach on Barra also serves as an airport, and it goes without saying that the mixture of cattle and aircraft can be a highly dangerous one.
SEERAD advised us that our fence repair did not require prior approval and that we could just get on with it. So we did. On completion, the township paid 45 percent of the cost and authorised SEERAD to pay the balance. This they refuse to do as there was no accompanying letter from SNH to sanction the fence replacement. We now find that we need SNH permission to replace our fence even though, under crofter commission regulations, we have a legal obligation to maintain our boundary. Delaying or preventing payment ensures that no more work takes place, further crippling an economy already accepted to be in crisis.
These kinds of bureaucratic games sap the energy and vitality of even the most doughty crofters who wish to stem and reverse the trend of depopulation and bring young people back to our communities. We have not only inherited the natural environment from our ancestors, it is also said we borrow it from our children. If we destroy it by capitulating the democratic environment to the SNH dictatorial environment we will not be able to return what we have borrowed. We must not leave our children that shameful legacy.
The beautiful and special island of Barra which I have the privilege to represent is an island fit for people. We want to play our part in keeping it is that way.
Donald Manford is a Local Authority councillor. He is an independent-minded man representing a community of independent-minded people. That is the origin of his clash with the bureaucrats of SNH. Originally in favour of the organisation because he rather naively assumed that it acted to protect nature, Donald was disillusioned by seeing SNH in action. At the first “People Too” conference in Perth in October 2001 he gave an example of the sort of experience which changed his mind and which left the meeting in uproar and turned SNH into a laughing stock on the island.
The subsequent treatment of Donald Manford by SNH was disgraceful. Instead of trying to disentangle the mess on the Machair, from the elegant vantage point of its headquarters in Hope Terrace, Edinburgh, SNH tried to discredit Donald by misquoting him and then accusing him of inaccuracy.
Those of us who have had the misfortune to deal with a Quango such as English Nature, SNH or CCW, will know this kind of behaviour to be typical, will have discovered that they can never admit to having made a mistake; no matter how obvious. We in England think that E.N. is pretty bad, but I’m told on good authority that CCW is far more draconian in the management of its affairs and that SNH is more profligate in its wasting of taxpayer’s money.