Kilfinan Breaks New Ground

Always keen on an eye-catching title for a blog post, I had initially thought of ‘Kilfinan in New First for Community Woodlands’ for this one – after all, the folk at Kilfinan Community Forest Company (KCFC) have been responsible for a string of firsts. But as I’m writing about woodland crofts, strictly speaking that honour – of creating the first community woodland crofts – goes to the North West Mull Community Woodland Company (which I’m going to refer to as ‘Mull’ to cut down on acronyms….).

However, KCFC are now on the cusp of creating woodland crofts themselves, and unlike Mull, they were always part of their plan from the very start, inspired in no small part by the example of David Blair on their doorstep. David set up the Dunbeag Project which to all intents and purposes is a woodland croft (though not legally so, as the project predates crofting reform legislation which enables the creation of crofts). David, now joined by Michaela and their son, Angus, is a perfect example of living and working in a woodland, combining forest management, food production and other business activities.

One might hope that woodland crofts could be established at the start of any project. However, experience has shown that more often than not, when a community takes on a woodland, immediate priorities (such as installing access, harvesting timber, generating income etc) take over and woodland crofts must wait their turn. In most cases, this is a matter of years.

Now, at Kilfinan at least, their time has come: planning approval for 3 woodland crofts with houses has been gained and KCFC are now inviting expressions of interest from prospective crofters. Readers should visit their website for further information but a couple of aspects are worth highlighting here.

Firstly, in common with Mull and other projects in development, crofters will be offered the tenancy of a clearfelled area which requires to be replanted.

Kilfinan woodland crofts site

Woodland crofts site at Kilfinan

Although the woodland crofts model works best with a continuous cover approach to forest management, the reality is that many of the sites that become available are conifer plantations which have never been thinned. Trying to convert these gradually to continuous cover woodland, particularly in the wet and windy west, can be a near impossible task given the threat of windblow and usually the approach is to clearfell them and start again from scratch. Eventually a more stable crop can usually be established through early and regular thinning.

It’s not ideal if you aspire to working with timber on a ‘little and often’ basis, but does have the advantage for crofters of being a blank canvas which they can shape to meet their own aspirations – and local timber can usually be bought in to supply their needs in the meantime. The ‘blank canvas’ can be remarkably broad as regards species and structure, subject to some basis constraints related to the need to retain woodland cover and also integrate with the community’s wider Forest Plan.

The second aspect is unique to Kilfinan: crofters will be required to build their houses to a standard design. On the face of it, this might seem an undesirable restriction to some, but in it practice brings a number of advantages for both crofter and landlord (ie KCFC).

Croft house

The houses have been designed to use timber from the community’s own forest and be simple to build. This means they will be very affordable, plus there will be others nearby familiar with the design and construction who can lend a hand. Having a standard design will save substantial time and money needed for the professional fees necessary to get planning approval/building warrant. The timber required will be available for purchase more or less on site, which is huge advantage for the builder – and will generate income for KCFC too.

The intention is that houses will be built on croft land and therefore tied to it without the need for further legal mechanisms. This means that technically the houses are ‘improvements’ to the crofts, and should the crofters ever move on, they will be entitled to compensation for any improvements – including the houses. Having a standard design will give greater certainty to both tenants and community landlord as to what the future value of the house will be.

So all in all, a fantastic chance for people to make new lives in the forest. Woodland crofts are still relatively rare opportunities, especially in relation to the considerable demand for them, so if this opportunity appeals get in touch with Rob Borruso at KCFC – but hurry! (Closing date for submissions of interest is 30 November)

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