To the market

Fair Isle's lambs are on their way to market and prices are down again - bad news at the end of five


It is five months since they were born, since the early mornings and late nights of those few weeks, checking everything was going smoothly. But now it is time for the lambs to go.

The vast majority of the croft-reared lambs in Fair Isle will leave the island during the autumn. The first to be shipped left last week.

In the past, two or three livestock buyers and an auctioneer would come into the isle at the beginning of September, visiting each croft in turn, and buying up all of the lambs between them. These lambs would then be shipped out to them as quickly as possible, and would mostly then be shipped on to the Scottish mainland shortly afterwards for “finishing”, or fattening-up, prior to slaughter.

This year though the system has changed. The buyers are no longer going to visit us; we must send our lambs out to them, to be sold at the livestock marts in Lerwick. This has made the job somewhat more complicated and expensive for us, although access to a greater number of buyers could, in theory, work in our favour.

Traditionally Fair Isle lambs have been among the first in Shetland to be sold. The unreliability of the weather means that shipping lambs must be done reasonably early. The lambs are transported on the deck of the ferry, Good Shepherd IV, and it needs fairly good, calm conditions to make the journey tolerable and safe for the animals.

And so last week the first two shipments were made, taking lambs in to the first sale of the year in the marts, which was held on Saturday. A third run, on which our own lambs were supposed to go, was cancelled, because the weather deteriorated towards the weekend.


Early morning round-ups were done, collecting sheep and lambs into the pens, and then putting them into trailers to be taken to the boat. Some of the smaller lambs have been left behind to wait for a later sale, in the hope that they will grow enough in the next few weeks to earn a little more.

As had been predicted, the sale itself was something of a disappointment, with prices generally a few pounds a head lower than last year. This may in part be due to the lingering effects of the Foot and Mouth scare, or it may simply be a reflection of poor meat prices from last year.

Some producers in Shetland have turned to other methods of selling their lambs. Farms certified as organic can find it easier to sell directly to restaurants and specialist markets, and in the future that may well be the direction that some crofters take.

The majority of our own lambs will now go out this week, I hope, to be sold at the coming weekend’s sale. I am trying to remain optimistic that we can at least gain some small profit from this half-year’s work. It can be disheartening to see that both lives and livelihoods are worth so little to some.

Photographs by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.