Where are the woodland crofts?

Image: 'Woodland Croft', an etching by Kitty Watt Tolquon Gallery

Image: ‘Woodland Croft’, an etching by Kitty Watt Tolquhon Gallery

In recent days I have been given cause to ponder this question (not least because we’re looking to secure further funding for our work). And to be fair, it is a good question – 8 years now after it first became possible to create new woodland crofts, where are they?

Well, the answer is: 9 community-owned on Mull, 3 (imminent) community-owned at Kilfinan, and a handful of privately owned ones elsewhere – and that’s it.

Some people might consider this abject failure. Clearly a model that has no support, and no future, surely? I think though that would be a knee-jerk reaction and underneath the ‘headline’ there are real reasons why  progress has been so slow.

Firstly, look at who has created the new woodland crofts – communities and private individuals. Having been involved in a voluntary capacity in many community projects over the years, I know from personal experience how much of a challenge it is to get projects delivered, even if/when you have a paid development worker. In the case of a community woodland project, there are many immediate priorities to be tackled before you can think about crofts: funding & buying the woodland, improving access, harvesting to generate early income etc etc.

All of these require to be addressed for the wider community before attention can turn to the needs of a smaller number of potential woodland crofters, and that’s without considering any other local priorities that might be pressing.

(My own community illustrates this perfectly – available local woodland and a well-known resident woodland crofts activist (me!), and we haven’t even applied to purchase a woodland, far less create woodland crofts. Why not? Because we’re still dealing with construction snagging from our 100kW community hydro scheme, are now trying to build a community-owned school by October next year, and.…….you see my point).

Turning to individuals, whilst it’s great that those with the means to do so can buy woodland and create crofts for themselves, this represents a tiny fraction of the wider population: woodland is not cheap at the best of times, and is often presented in larger parcels which makes affordability even more challenging. Add to this the fact that the tax advantages of forestry mean some people can and will pay in excess of the ‘productive’ value of woodland, and it becomes harder still for your average woodland crofter to compete*.

So who else could be creating woodland crofts? Landowning NGOs for one, and this is an avenue we are keen to explore further, as there could be mutual benefits to both landlord and tenant – woodland management devolved to crofters rather than delivered by contractors at a cost. We suspect the main issue here is lack of awareness and understanding of the model.

But the elephant in the room is the state. Scottish Government (SG) is a major landowner, not least of woodlands – the National Forest Estate, managed by Forestry Commission Scotland on behalf of government, extends to over 650,000 ha. The SG also has land reform as a major plank of its policy agenda, and has stated its intention of putting its land at the heart of land reform on several occasions. Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) itself has played a key part of that agenda through its development of starter farms on FCS managed land. To date however, they have taken the view that it is not their role, but that of communities, to develop woodland crofts. Perhaps it is time to revisit that position, not least because of the challenges facing communities highlighted above.

One can anticipate a number of immediate objections: FCS should not become a crofting landlord (except that it is already…..); public forest should not be made over to individuals as crofts and thus ‘lost’ to the public (except that FCS already has an active disposals programme, whereby woods are permanently ‘lost’ to the public….) and so on.

FCS is widely recognised for being an effective deliverer for government, and prides itself on doing so. There is no question that tasked with creating woodland crofts, given appropriate input and support from stakeholders, FCS could do it, and do it comparatively quickly. It could also do it on behalf of other public agencies – and interestingly there is already a move to give FCS wider land management responsibilities on behalf of SG.

So why not?

Perhaps there just isn’t the demand. Perhaps the near 150 names on our Register of Interest are just dreamers with no real intention of following up an opportunity if ever it were offered to them (although the experience at Kilfinan where all 3 crofts have been pre-allocated even prior to their legal creation suggests otherwise). Perhaps woodland crofts as a model just don’t stack up, full stop, and we have all wasted the last 8 years pursuing a ‘niche’ interest. Perhaps.

Well, there’s only one way to find out for definite, isn’t there?

 

 

*Our next blog post will explore ways individuals might co-operate to access woodland available on the open market

Editor’s note: the Scottish Government’s recently published programme for government 2016-17 includes the commitment to draft a National Development Plan for crofting which, amongst other things, will ‘explore the scope to promote the creation of woodland crofts’.

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