THEY have long been part of the fabric of small-town life. But now the reassuring presence of Scotland’s rural police officers could be at risk as a result of the rising pressures facing the modern force.

Police representatives insist stretched resources mean officers are increasingly being drawn away from their beats and into urban areas.

This leaves some forced to travel huge distances to respond to calls – and threatens a style of community policing long treasured by those it serves.

The SNP recently hailed statistics showing officer numbers have risen by 1,025 to 17,259 since the party took power in 2007.

But Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, said such numbers have to be placed “in the context of where they are across Scotland”.

He said: “I’m aware Police Scotland say numbers are still at over 17,200 in Scotland, but that’s despite the fact that the Scottish Government provides inadequate funding to maintain these numbers, so maintaining these numbers comes at a significant detriment to the rest of the service.

“One of the ways that manifests itself is that police officers are increasingly being drawn to the more urban areas to the detriment of the rural areas.”

Mr Steele, who was previously a police officer on the Western Isles, used the example of Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. The village’s police station is now closed, with staff “routinely” working in Stornoway.

He said: “If you’re a member of the public in Tarbert and Harris and you’re aware of this, and you see someone drink driving and you know that the nearest police resource is 40 miles away, are you going to bother calling it in?”

Mr Steele said he was “absolutely certain that the service will say that they still have police presences in many of these areas”.

He added: “And ultimately that is true, on presentation levels. But the cold, hard facts are that while they have the presence, the officers are routinely, routinely drawn to larger towns and cities to police from and increasingly respond to incidents in their own beat area only when a crime or an incident has occurred – rather than the ever present community reassuring presence.”

He argued “hard financial realities” mean Police Scotland has to draw resources from rural areas to help shore up demand in cities and towns.

This “gets to very fundamental questions about what it is you want your police service for”, Mr Steele argued.

He added: “Do you want a police service in Scotland, and in Scotland’s communities, to be a service that only turns up when a crime has been committed?

“Or do you want to return, or do you want to maintain – depending on your point of view – the style of policing which has made Scottish police officers famous the world over – which is community-based, preventative activity, which can’t be done if you’re not in the beat area.”

Police Scotland previously identified 53 premises across the country for potential disposal. Meanwhile, police chiefs have flagged up the prospect of cutting more than 700 officers.

Eight regional constabularies were amalgamated into Police Scotland in 2013.

Norman MacLeod served as chair of the Northern Joint Police Board before its dissolution. The board brought together local councillors and senior officers in the Highlands and Islands to provide a strategic direction to the Northern Constabulary.

He said: “There was a reduction in funding and many of the senior officers at the time left the service because they were unhappy at how things were going and, unfortunately, we no longer see community policing in the way we used to in the Highlands and Islands, and indeed across rural Scotland.”

Deputy chief constable Will Kerr said: “Police numbers have remained consistently higher since the creation of Police Scotland including those working with and in our local communities.

"We are dedicated to keeping people safe and a cornerstone of this is our local community and response officers being supported by specialist national resources in their areas when required. This was evident earlier this month on Shetland, where local officers were able to call on the skills, expertise and resources of our National Major Incident Teams when dealing with the very unusual occurrence of a murder.

"We continue to outline publicly that significant investment is still required to enable Police Scotland to continue our transformation into a more efficient service."