An unprecedented exercise has been launched to gather information on what is happening on the ground at each of Scotland's 19,000 crofts and whether crofters are fulfilling their duties.

The Crofting Commission, which regulates the unique Scottish land-tenure system, now has a statutory duty to issue the Crofting Census to 12,000-plus crofters, tenants and owner-occupiers.

The commission says it will help to establish a clear picture of the current state of crofting, enabling it to advise Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Parliament and other agencies on the value of crofting and its contribution to life in Scotland.

The commission is promoting self-regulation and says the census will allow crofters to better understand their responsibilities in fulfilling their duties.

Those duties include being a resident on, or within 20 miles of their croft; not neglecting their croft; and cultivating and maintain their croft or to putting it to another purposeful use.

Any crofter who does not live within 20 miles of their croft and has not made arrangements for it to be worked by another party is deemed to be an absentee crofter.

The commission can impose a tenant on a croft owned or rented by an absentee.

The level of absenteeism at the moment is unclear as the commission is in the middle of changing its reporting and recording procedures, but two years ago there were thought to be about 1,700 absentees.

Catriona MacLean, chief executive of the Crofting Commission, said "As with any system, where there are over 18,000 crofts there is going to be a mix of people with some who do take their responsibilities very seriously and others who don't.

"One of the things the commission hopes to get out of this process is hard evidence of exactly what's happening on the ground.

"One of the difficulties there has been in the past has been that there is very little hard evidence about what is happening in crofting communities.

"I suspect there will be geographical differences and different communities where there are active people and inactive people."

Patrick Krause, chief executive of crofters' representative body the Scottish Crofting Federation, said: "We are being positive about the census because there has long been a need for detailed information.

"We need it. But we can't possibly expect a small agency like the commission to go out and gather it all themselves. Asking the crofters themselves to be involved and to help sort out crofting is to be welcomed as a form of empowerment."

Susan Walker, convener for the Crofting Commission, also stressed that, if crofters were in difficulty fulfilling their duties, the census could only help.

"Crofting is a form of land-tenure unique to Scotland and one we should be proud of, with the potential to be a major driver for economic, social and cultural growth," she said. "Regulation is there to protect this precious asset for present and future generations.

"The census will highlight various possibilities available to crofters in complying with their duties and the Commission will be on hand to advise on the options they may wish to consider."

She said the annual census would also help develop the case for crofting and create persuasive arguments on issues such as the Common Agricultural Policy reform.