Around the time of the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF – one of our partners in the Woodland Crofts Partnership) issued a call for the next Scottish Government – whoever it might be – to publish an Action Plan for crofting to meet various objectives. Amongst these was to establish 5,000 new woodland crofts by 2020.
At the time, eyebrows were quietly raised (and some not so quietly) in certain quarters but this remains SCF policy and one supported by its partners. Often people respond to such ambitions with knee-jerk responses, so it is worth examining critically whether such a policy is ambitious, realistic, or perhaps even a bit conservative.
Granted, meeting this timescale will be challenging but what about the scale – what would 5,000 woodland crofts actually mean on the ground? There are two useful ways to look at this: how much woodland would likely be required; and how the situation here would then compare with that in other countries, if we had 5,000 more woodland occupiers.
Assuming each new woodland croft was 10 ha in area on average (slightly larger in fact than those created in recent times), obviously 50,000 ha of woodland would be needed. To discover what percentage of the woodland area of the crofting counties this represents is harder than it might appear, as official statistics are fairly crude and not broken down beyond country level (in contrast the statistics available on Swedish forestry are incredibly detailed).
I eventually found a paper (on indicators for High Nature Value Farming & Forestry in Scotland) which yielded the required figures. Using them, one discovers that the proportion of existing woodland of all kinds required to create 5,000 woodland crofts as outlined above is slightly less than 9% of the total. In reality it could well be less, as many have pointed out that creating new woodland crofts by establishing new woodland on new crofts would be a useful way to contribute to government afforestation targets.
So much for being a radical proposition, then. What about the impact it might have in terms of opening up access to woodland to manage?
As there is currently a minimal rented woodland sector in this country, woodland occupation tends to be through ownership so I use this a proxy for occupation (hopefully in the future this simplification will no longer be valid!) No official statistics on woodland ownership are available – again in contrast to the Swedish stats mentioned earlier – but last year the Forest Policy Group (FPG) published a scoping study on the issue.
If you drill down into its results you come up with a national figure of around 2,700 for resident woodland owners – so 5,000 new woodland crofts would represent a near trebling of the number of resident woodland occupiers, and consequently a profound shift towards a woodland culture. I say towards, because despite this advance we would still be far from achieving the level of access to woodlands to manage enjoyed by most other countries.
Figures for this for a selection of countries are included in the FPG report mentioned above (which is well worth reading in full), but consider this: one in seven Finns owns a forest holding, and half of these live on it – isn’t that what we would call a woodland croft?
So the bottom line is that 5,000 new woodland crofts would require a minimal proportion of our existing woodland, dramatically improve access to woodland to manage, support the development of a woodland culture, and deliver a range of local benefits.
What’s not to like about that?