Woodland Crofting Changed My Life (part 2)

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The concept of a woodland croft provides a modern framework for two traditional ways of life. In the concluding part of a 2 part guest post, author Ros Nash offers advice to other would-be woodland crofters based on her own experiences at Cogle Wood.

Anyone who’s self-employed can feel proud that they’re doing their own thing. What’s special about woodland crofting is that it provides a modern structure or framework that brings together two traditional ways of life, crofting and forestry.

If you’re thinking my lifestyle could work out for you too, you’re probably right. Here are some things to think about before you spend your life savings on a bunch of trees:

- Firstly, location is everything. You can’t currently be a woodland crofter unless your woods are in one of the crofting counties. In other words, find a wood that’s in Argyll, Caithness, Inverness, Ross & Cromarty, Sutherland, Orkney or Shetland, or alternatively one of the newly croft-able areas of Arran and Moray. This is purely for historical reasons, but that’s the law.

- It’s worth knowing that in legal terms, the Crofting Commission doesn’t distinguish between a woodland croft and any other kind. But the people who decide if you are eligible for grant funding do (we’re working on this! – ed.). Don’t get into it if you think it’ll make you rich. Your bank balance might not increase, but your quality of life, or happiness, will. We have several income streams planned for our woodland. Selling firewood is the obvious first step when you live among maturing trees, and we’ve enjoyed success with our local firewood business. But we won’t be retiring any time soon.

- Consider some basic chainsaw training. If you’re part of a couple, it helps if at least one of you knows what you’re doing with a chainsaw. Without your chainsaw tickets, you’ll be limited as to what you can do to manage the forest.

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- Think about how much remoteness you can handle. Our croft is a ten-minute drive from a decent-sized supermarket, and a five-minute drive from a village with a shop, post office, pub and primary school. It doesn’t feel massively remote to me. Forestry and crofting may be traditional pursuits, but technology, and specifically 4G internet, allows us to stay in touch with other people and what’s happening elsewhere, which is vital for us.

- Do some research before you decide if you want to be an owner-occupier crofter or a tenant crofter. Some local authorities are keener on woodland crofters living and working together as tenants and communities than ‘lone’ woodland croft owner-occupiers. There are pros and cons to each choice.

- Talking of cons, don’t try to outwit your local planning authority. If you don’t really want a croft but just fancy living among some trees, they won’t be fooled. You’ll need to demonstrate some commitment to your chosen path. Woodland crofting may provide a bridge between two very old ways of working the land, but woodland crofts themselves are so new that many people don’t yet get it as a concept. You’ll need to work with both the Crofting Commission and the Forestry Commission. The good news is that new woodland crofts are slowly popping up and people are catching on.

- If, like me, you’ve always been a townie, try living in the countryside for a year or two before jumping the city ship. You need to find out whether you enjoy it or whether the peace and quiet makes you feel lonely, or even isolated. It’s not for everyone. We’re lucky to have found a sense of community spirit in the rural setting we chose; of course, you can find this mentality of looking after each other in urban environments too.

- If you’re on Twitter, follow @WoodlandCrofts for regular updates from a real champion of and advocate for woodland crofters.

- If you’re still keen after all that, go into it with your eyes open and full of realistic optimism. It’s a good idea to go and visit some woodland crofters before you buy a forest. Ask them what a typical day involves. You’ll be a pioneer of sorts, and you’ll encounter successive obstacles while you’re getting set up. Keep going – it’s worth it, I promise. We still have many hurdles to jump but we’re enjoying the journey.

What else can I say except that I wish more people knew woodland crofting existed? I’ve never been more happy or excited about life. And if you’re swithering, wondering how you’d fare once you launch yourself headfirst from the hamster wheel, remember this: the wheel doesn’t stop turning just because one wee hamster jumps off. There are millions of opportunities to jump back on popping up every day, should you ever want or need to. But if you’re really ready for something new, you won’t look back. What are you waiting for?

You can follow Ros on Twitter @RosNashAuthor

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Woodland Crofting Changed My Life

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The concept of a woodland croft provides a modern framework for two traditional ways of life. In this first part of a 2 part guest post, author Ros Nash explains why she swapped her lively city life to live and work in a remote forest.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that woodland crofting completely changed my life. Not so long ago I had what I thought of as a totally normal city life. I fell in love with Glasgow as a 17-year-old student. But eventually I realised the chaos and stress of Glasgow weren’t doing me any good.

My new normal genuinely makes me happy. Every day, I wake up in the middle of a forest. I live a mile from our nearest neighbours and a robin follows me around as I work.

Just a few years ago, I’d never heard of woodland crofts. I’d barely given the idea of crofting a second thought, let alone woodland crofting. But my husband read about woodland crofts by chance, having stumbled across this website, and we’ve never looked back. It was our light bulb moment.

For years we’d talked about jumping off the hamster wheel, escaping our office jobs and doing Something Else. That something else was always disconcertingly vague. Part of the problem was I felt I should have been grateful for everything I had in my old life; a stable relationship, good job, nice flat… I wondered why all those positives weren’t enough to make me happy. That lifestyle is right for many people, of course, but it wasn’t right for me. Specifically my stressful job, which was so wrong for me that I became ill. I fell off the hamster wheel in a spectacularly horrendous fashion. See ‘What’s Up With Ros?‘ for more details.

We gave up our jobs and flat and travelled around Europe for a while. Looking back it’s clear that until we had our light bulb moment, we were drifting. Looking for something that made sense and would help to keep us both healthy. We’d talked about running a tourism business, buying a piece of land, being our own bosses. But when we discovered woodland crofting as a way to live, our dreams became actual plans. The stumbling block with our vague escape plans had been financial. Buying a piece of land wasn’t affordable for us. The chance to live as well as work on your land was a key advantage of woodland crofting. The idea that we could find a small piece of woodland, live there and use the forest as a resource… well, it sounded ideal. Idyllic even.

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It took a long time to find the right piece of woodland for us, and even longer to secure approval from the Crofting Commission, to get the officials to recognise our croft. But the wait was definitely worth it. I can’t overstate how amazing it is to live in a forest. If I feel myself getting agitated or grumpy, I just wander around the woods with my three-year-old daughter, and feel the stresses and strains fade away. Or at least fade into the background.

I’m sure there are people I know who think we’ve made a weird or daft choice by getting into woodland crofting. But as a friend once said to me, the ones who don’t get it, they aren’t ‘my people’ anyway. Mostly I get two reactions from friends. The first is ‘Wow, you’re living the dream, I wish I could do something like that!’. Positive but also slightly annoying because I always say, well, you could be woodland crofters too if you really wanted. The second reaction is ‘Oh, you’re brave, I don’t know how you manage’. An interesting take on it, because I don’t see what we’ve done as brave. It’s much braver making big changes when your hand hasn’t been forced; in our case something major had to change.

I’ve had city-based friends tell me they envy our ‘laidback lifestyle’. Which makes me laugh because they must imagine I spend my days skipping around the woods, collecting wild raspberries and hugging trees. I’ve never actually hugged a tree but I do love the peace and quiet of the woods, the smell of pine resin and the masses of outdoor space and fresh air. It feels brilliantly healthy living in a forest. And I enjoy sharing the forest with the birds, the deer, the butterflies, the insects, the frogs… Do I sound like a tree hugger now? To be completely honest, my life might look idyllic from the outside but it’s physically demanding and sometimes hard work in other ways too. But then I quite like hard work.

I remember telling a friend who grew up in a crofting community that we were all set to become woodland crofters. He informed me that working the land was ‘hard work’. Well, I thought, of course it is, but I’ve never been afraid of that. In the past, I’ve always worked hard to line other people’s pockets. Now I’m working hard for me, my other half and my child. And it feels more satisfying than anything I’ve done before.

In the second part of this post (to follow), Ros offers advice to other would-be woodland crofters based on her own experiences at Cogle Wood. You can follow Ros on Twitter @RosNashAuthor

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Shared Forester Workshop

We have been asked to share details of the above workshop being held in Lochgilphead on Tuesday 7 November 2017. The event is free of charge.

Following the recent Argyll Small Woods Survey, you are invited to a development workshop, hosted by the Argyll Small Woods Cooperative, to present the findings of the survey and to consider the viability of employing a Shared Forester to support farmers, crofters and small woodland owners.

Date: Tuesday 7 November 2017
Time: 10:00am until 3:30pm
Venue: Council Chambers, Argyll & Bute Council, Kilmory, Lochgilphead

Full details can be found in the event flier

Are You a Woodland Crofter?

Woodland croft established by planting under crofter forestry provisions

Woodland croft in Wester Ross established by planting under crofter forestry provisions

This sounds like the sort of question we shouldn’t have to ask – after all, shouldn’t we, the Woodland Crofts Partnership (WCP), know that already? Or if not us, certainly the Crofting Commission?

The answer on both counts is, unfortunately not. And yet it would be extremely valuable information to have, to support and develop woodland crofting.

It is probably useful to consider at the outset why there is a lack of such specific information, and a helpful starting point is to first ask: ‘what is a woodland croft?’

There answer – in strictly legal terms, anyway – is there is no such separate thing: they are just crofts like any other. But clearly crofts with significant woodland cover on them, where its management is a main activity for the crofter, are indeed ‘a thing’. So we in the WCP have adopted a working definition which helps guide us in promoting and encouraging woodland crofts:

“A woodland croft is a registered croft with sufficient tree cover overall to be considered a woodland under UK forestry policy”

We chose this as it is simple and objective, but clearly there are nuances and grey areas which are not picked up by a simple definition like this. Nevertheless, it is useful to be able to identify such ‘woodland crofts’, not least as a model of forestry very different from that which currently predominates in Scotland. Having information on the number of woodland crofts, their extent, the activities of their crofters and so on will be critical to the future expansion of the model – and in providing support to those crofters.

The definition begins to hint at why collating the necessary information may not be straightforward. A woodland croft might have been newly created following the 2007 Act, from existing woodland, and we can fairly easily trawl (or have the Crofting Commission trawl!) through croft creation applications.

The very first new woodland croft create following the 2007 Crofting Act

The very first new woodland croft created following the 2007 Crofting Act

But a woodland croft might be older – perhaps created through planting following the crofter forestry provisions of the 1990s – or much older still, for example if it has always been woodland covered (as for example are some of the crofts in the Sunart Oakwoods). In these cases relevant information on existing registers is fairly limited, especially in relation to woodland aspects.

We have looked at this issue with the Crofting Commission, and identified measures which could be taken to improve information on woodland crofts going forward – but it will inevitably be a slow process, and be at its most difficult when trying to identify ‘historic’ woodland crofts.

So we at the WCP have decided to compile an inventory of woodland crofts, based on gleaning information from all sources. This is not intended to duplicate ‘official’ records, but rather provide both a useful cross-reference to them, and a way to more quickly get a handle how many woodland crofts there are, and where.

So we return to our original question: Are you a woodland crofter? Do you know someone else who might be? Or do you perhaps know of a woodland croft – but it has no current occupier? Let us know at info@woodlandcrofts.org (or use the Contact form on our website)

Any information you can provide us with will be gratefully received (and treated in confidence). At this stage the aim is to identify woodland crofts, and crofters, so a couple of lines of simple description is all that is needed for now. However, once we have built a list of contacts we may get in touch again to request some basic quantitative information.

Woodland croft in the Sunart Oakwoods

Woodland croft in the Sunart Oakwoods

 

Forthcoming Event – Woodland Creation Workshop

The Argyll Small Woods Cooperative & the Croft Woodlands Project invite you to attend a woodland creation workshop in Benderloch on 18 November 2017.

This will be a practical day for those interested in creating a woodland, taking participants through growing trees from seed and cuttings, to planting and maintaining your woodland.

Full details including booking info can be found on the flier below:

WOODLAND CREATION 18.11.17

 

New woodland crofts in Argyll point to the future

patrick krause scottish crofting federationPatrick Krause of the Scottish Crofting Federation speaking at the recent KCF Open Day

 

We’ve just heard the tremendous news that the creation of 3 new woodland crofts in Argyll has now been formally approved. These community-owned crofts join the 9 already established in Mull and confirm Argyll as a hotbed of woodland crofts activity. The following has been adapted from a press release issued by the Kilfinan Community Forest Company.

 

Ten years of planning comes to fruition as Kilfinan Community Forest announces the registration of its first three new woodland crofts.

Crofting has been on the Tighnabruaich social enterprise’s agenda since the foundation of the working group to bring the forest into community ownership in 2007. Now the project’s supporters aim to show that, as well as being an important part of the country’s history, crofting can provide a solution to many of the problems facing rural Scotland in the 21st century.

Set on the picturesque Kyles of Bute, Tighnabruaich and the surrounding areas face all of the issues that affect Highland Scotland: an ageing population, a preponderance of holiday homes, a shortage of year-round work, rural isolation and falling school rolls. For Kilfinan Community Forest (KCFC) the solution to many of these problems lies in attracting families to the area to stimulate economic activity and support local services.

KCFC Operations Manager Rob Borruso explained – ‘Our main resource is the forest itself. We realised that although conifer plantation forestry dominates much of Argyll it doesn’t provide many jobs for local people. We decided that the woodland croft model where people can manage pieces of our land for the benefit of their families, the community and the environment was the best way for us to make sure our main resource – the land itself – was used to support the community’

Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation echoed this point when he visited the Kilfinan Community Forest Open Day recently –

‘It’s interesting that Scotland has a large forestry reserve but almost none of it is locally managed by the people. We’ve gone down a centralised route where we have the management of almost all our forests under one public body or large scale private ownership. In other countries the model is completely different and forests are managed by the people on a smaller scale so it’s great to see woodland crofts being created and managed by the people who live in or next to them.

The main thing crofting offers to rural communities is people. At the heart of it, crofting is about people and communities, so the more crofts you can create here the more people you can encourage to stay here permanently, not just tourists or holiday home owners (although there’s nothing wrong with that) but people who will live here full time, raise families and support local services.

Something that’s very important about crofting that I always say is that crofting survives despite everything. At this very uncertain time with Brexit looming and Scotland being dragged out of the European Union it’s really important that we have resilient ways of living, and crofting is very much an embodiment of that.’

This idea has already been borne out with the local primary school roll rising as a result of the new crofting families being drawn to the area. For Tighnabruaich Primary, a school that once boasted almost one hundred pupils in the late 1990′s, the arrival of new families has led to a welcome reversal of falling pupil numbers, pushing the total up to 32.

The crofters’ attention will now turn to regenerating their allotted land: transforming it from clear felled conifer stumps with bracken, rushes and brash piles into native broadleaf woodland producing firewood, forest products and food. Woodland crofts help Scotland to meet other national priorities such as reducing food miles, lowering emissions and improving food security. Unsurprisingly, the idea has grown in popularity, leading to increased demand for woodland crofts.

Jamie McIntyre, Co-ordinator for the Woodland Crofts Partnership confirmed that there are many people ready to take on this challenge –

‘Hopefully this news will inspire other woodland owners – community, public and private – to develop woodland crofts, for which there is huge unmet demand. We maintain a register of those who have expressed interest in obtaining woodland crofts which includes over 160 names. So while Kilfinan Community Forest has shown the way, we will need many more crofts to be created over the coming years.’ 

 

 

Guest Post – Argyll Small Woods Survey

We have been asked to share the following on behalf of the Argyll Small Woods Cooperative:

Argyll has a rich woodland heritage and a very active forestry sector.  The nature of the forestry industry primarily focused on large scale coniferous sites and less on small scale woodlands and integrated farming and forestry.

The Argyll Small Woods Cooperative is in business to support small woodland management and has embarked on an exciting project, which has the overall objective of encouraging and enhancing the active management of small woods in Argyll.

Small woods do not have the need, or for that matter the finances, to employ a forester to manage woodland management operations.  There is however potential for a Shared Forester; the sharing of forestry expertise that will introduce innovative management techniques and ideas, promote networking, and introduce sustainable models for longer term support for small woodland owners, farmers and crofters and/or managers and contractors.

Before we can embark on funding applications to support a Shared Forester, we need to gather information on the small woods resource in Argyll and their management.

We are carrying out a survey of farmers and crofters and small woodland owners which will establish the nature of the woodland resource, understand the motivations and aspirations of woodland owners, as well as identify the “market” for the environmental and social “woodland services” that can be developed and the economic benefits that might be expected.

As well as carrying out a survey of small woodland owners, we are keen to hear from the people who carry out management activities in woodland.  This will help the Coop and its members to know who can do work in the area, and also identify issues contractors are facing.

Please help us gather the information needed to support a Shared Forester model by completing this questionnaire

This survey should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes and, on completion of the survey, you will be entered into a Prize Draw to win a voucher worth £50 at a retailer of your choice.  If you wish to be included, please provide your contact details in the final question of the survey.

This survey has been developed by the Argyll Small Woods Cooperative in partnership with NFUS, RDI Associates Ltd and Acres.

 

Grazing, Trees & Trout Workshop

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It’s well known that the presence of trees can provide shelter for livestock.

What is perhaps less well known is that trees can improve soil fertility, and also improve the productivity rivers & lochs. This latter is especially relevant in the Highlands & Islands where our watercourses are typically oligotrophic (low in nutrients).

This looks like a fascinating event organised by our sister project, the Croft Woodland Project, together with the Wester Ross Fisheries Trust.

P1020487Adjacent is a picture of my own small contribution to riparian improvement – one of several aspen planted on the banks of our local river.