Grazing, Trees & Trout Workshop


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.

Forthcoming Event – Woodland Planning Workshop

The Argyll Small Woods Cooperative & the Croft Woodlands Project invite you to attend a woodland planning workshop in Kilmelford on 8 February 2017.

The half day workshop will introduce you to woodland planning, using the free online tool MyForest. It is suitable for those who are interested in starting the planning process, as well as those who are already using MyForest software.

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

Woodland Planning Workshop flier


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’.

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)

The Winds of Change?

As I write we are being hammered – again - by another winter gale. In the Highlands & Islands we are used to severe winter weather, and tend to cope with it OK, but there is no question that this has been a particularly stormy winter so far. But looking back, this seems to be becoming the pattern rather than the exception: for the last few years storms which might be have  been once-a-winter events now happen every month.

This year we’re having a spell where every month has become every week and just now it’s almost every other day. This of course is one of the consequences of climate change we have been warned of – whilst specific events cannot be predicted, it is basic physics that more energy in the atmosphere will produce more frequent and severe storms, including gales.

So perhaps this is the new reality and we will have to get used to it – and in due course design and build our structures and plan all our activities accordingly. Which brings me to forestry.

Woodlands of any type are vulnerable to wind – indeed windthow is a natural process within the forest, which serves an important role in producing gaps in the canopy to allow new trees to regenerate, amongst other things. However, where a woodland is being grown as a timber crop, windthrow is at best a nuisance, and at worst can destroy the value of a crop.

As a result professional foresters make considerable efforts to avoid windthrow through the management choices they make. However, it is worth reflecting that the model of forestry which dominates in Scotland – large-scale plantations of often no more than one or two species, managed mainly under clearfell & replant regimes – is relatively young: forestry of this type has really only developed since the establishment of the Forestry Commission in 1919.

That’s not much more than a couple of rotations in timber terms, and what we are now realising is that this period has probably been fairly benign overall in climatic terms. The next 100 years could be quite different. We may need to adapt our forestry as a result.

Scientists are indeed looking ahead and sounding warning bells. Maps of predicted future rainfall patterns have been produced to guide species choice. The threat of pests and diseases is the hot topic in forestry at the moment, and species diversity to spread risk and provide resilience is being promoted. To date however, the threat to current approaches from a windier climate seems to be getting less attention.

Furthermore, what researchers are advising and what practitioners are doing are not necessarily the same as yet. The forest industry has an alarming tendency to make future plans based on today’s markets and conditions. If the first hundred years of ‘commercial’ forestry tell us anything, it is that the only thing we can be certain of is that things will change. ‘Landlocked’ forests of today are just one example of that.

Of course some foresters will say that a windier climate will require, more than ever, the no-thin regime which currently predominates. Thinned stands, they will say, are always less stable, and thus we must avoid them at all costs.

I am not so sure. Even if there is some truth in that, a windier climate will shorten the possible rotation length even of an unthinned stand – and this will alter the economics in its own way. At the same time, the status quo may not be an option anyway. Forest certification requirements look for more thinning, and more management under Low Impact Silvicultural Systems, not less. The threat of pests and disease means we need more diversity, not less, of species, ages, structure, and management methods.

Hoping that a no-thin regime will be the best solution to a windier world, also seems a bit like playing a giant game of Jenga. As long as things are still standing, you’re OK………

So what has all this got to do with woodland crofts? Well, whilst we can’t be certain of what the future will bring, we do have some broad pointers: above all the need for resilient forests, but also the likelihood that the way to deliver that will be through more diverse woodlands. More diverse woodlands are likely to need more management input; and more ‘weather events’ will require close site monitoring, to spot and deal with issues before they have time to become major problems.

In short, we will need more forester’s boots on the ground. And if there is one thing that woodland crofts deliver, par excellence, it is boots on the ground. The resident woodland crofter is probably in his woodland as much in a week as the ‘remote’ commercial forester is in a year. That provides the opportunity to build an intimate knowledge of the woodland on an ongoing basis, and better knowledge allows better management, leading to more resilient woodlands.

In an uncertain future, we are going to need that more than ever.

Home Milling is a little like Home Baking

By which I mean, in both cases once you have acquired some basic skills and equipment you can turn your hand to making a variety of products (whether bread, rolls and cakes; or beams, flooring and lintels).

This indeed is often the main benefit in training and equipping yourself to process your own timber – the ability to produce what you need, when you need.

This point was brought home to me many years ago when we demonstrated chainsaw milling at a local agricultural show. During the course of the day we converted a number of logs into boards and beams of various dimensions. People were transfixed – it is a very powerful experience seeing a round log being transformed into useable timber right in front of you – but more often than not their first question was: ‘how does the cost compare with going to the builders merchants?’

I suppose we should have expected this but I have to say this caught us somewhat by surprise. Of course price is a factor, and for some products mainstream merchants will be cheaper, but that isn’t really the point of the exercise. The issue is, if you rely on those merchants you will be restricted to a certain range of products, in a certain range of dimensions. If your project or need falls outwith that range, then you have a problem.

By contrast, should you for example be installing a fireplace and fancy a heavy-duty mantelpiece, say from Douglas Fir, 8 feet long, 14” deep and 6” thick – no problem. You can cut to exactly the dimensions you require, in the species you want.

As well as this flexibility, the apparent inefficiency of milling individual items in this way is less marked than you might think. True, it will take a bit of time, but consider this: every useable piece of timber in your log can be sawn from it, and even the remainder is not waste, but will go into your fire.

Mobile bandsaw

Mobile bandsaw

This is an area where ‘appropriate technology’ comes in. There was a time when home sawmilling of the type described above would have either involved very basic equipment producing fairly crude results, or equipment so costly as to render the exercise beyond the means of most. Nowadays, however, there are a plethora of chainsaw mills, mobile bandsaws and swing-blade circular saws all producing excellent results.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses but depending on your priorities you will almost certainly find something to meet your needs. Prices range from a couple of thousand pounds for a chainsaw sawbench (assuming you have a beefy chainsaw already) to well over ten times that much for an all-singing, all-dancing mobile bandsaw with hydraulic log loading etc.

Such equipment is invariably imported – typically from Scandinavia or North America – as you might expect, as most other countries have a much stronger forest culture than we do. As an example of this, there is a great magazine available in the USA called Independent Sawmill & Woodlot Management, so large is their ‘family forestry’ sector (there are 10 million family forest owners in the US).

I get a digital subscription to this, and out of idle curiosity counted up the number of adverts for mobile sawmilling equipment in the latest issue. There were eight different manufacturers – and that did not include firewood processors, sawblade suppliers, kilns etc.

Indeed, one of the magazine’s more entertaining projects is their annual ‘Great Portable Sawmill Shoot-Out’ where different sawmills line up against each other against the clock, to convert a standard parcel of logs. Each is scored on speed, and quality & quantity of timber produced. By all accounts it is a great day out and the mills perform most impressively.

Readers of this blog now hankering for a mill of their own could do worse than read the Shoot-Out event review. Happy milling!

Sutherland Show

A brief post to mention that we will be at the Sutherland Show this coming Saturday 20 July in Dornoch.

This is the first time the Woodland Crofts Partnership has attended such an event and we are looking forward to meeting in person anyone interested in woodland crofts.

It is particularly appropriate that our first visit to an agricultural show is in East Sutherland as it is a pioneering area when it comes to woodland crofts. The first new woodland croft created under the provisions of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2007 was created in Edderton, whilst the first community to gain National Forest Land Scheme approval under the specific woodland crofts measure was Embo. This latter project remains to be progressed so we would be especially pleased to meet anyone from that community looking to secure a woodland croft.

There are also crofters in Sutherland who have woodland crofts by virtue of earlier mechanisms for their establishment – by planting up ‘traditional’ crofts for example. However they have been arrived at, we look forward to meeting occupiers of existing woodland crofts, as well those who aspire to one.

We are also keen to talk to private landowners who – as in the visionary example from Edderton above – recognize the benefits to both themselves and their communities of this new model of woodland tenure.

We’ll be on the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust stand so come and see us on Saturday!