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Community Woodlands Association

Community Woodlands Association

In this week's blog, Community Woodlands Association CEO Jon Hollingdale has kindly contributed a really interesting guest post. Are any SACS members involved in a community woodland, or would like to be? Let us know your thoughts!

Community Woodlands

The Community Woodlands Association (CWA) was established in 2003: from 40 or so founding groups we’ve grown steadily over the years and new groups continue to emerge, inspired and enthused by their local woods and what they could achieve in them. There are about 200 community woodland groups in Scotland, operating under various tenure arrangements: the majority own their woods but many have leases or operate under a management agreement.

Scotland has a long history of community-owned woods: the first community land buyout was at Wooplaw in 1987, whilst the woods around Stornoway castle have been in community ownership since 1923. They are not unique to Scotland, but the scale and scope of activity and ambition here far exceeds that elsewhere, a reflection of the land reform movement, which identified community acquisition as one mechanism to address the inequalities and development failures arising from our extraordinarily concentrated patterns of land ownership; and the evolution of forest policy since the 1980s, which recognised that forestry must deliver greater social and environmental benefits and be more responsive to the needs of local communities.

Community woodland groups can be found across the country from the Western Isles to the centres of our largest cities, whilst the woods with which they engage include commercial conifer plantations, Victorian policies, ancient semi-natural pine forests and secondary woodland on abandoned industrial sites: amidst this great diversity there is a common theme of woodlands as a vehicle for collective community action and development.

The balance of objectives for any community woodland, and the activities that takes place, are determined by the needs and nature of the specific community and the nature and potential of the woodlands, as well as the particular skills that groups members possess. Inevitably these objectives evolve and develop over time as groups gain the confidence and capacity to take on new projects, or new community needs arise.

Whilst all groups are committed to environmental enhancement and to improving public access to ensure that as many of their community as possible can get involved and enjoy the benefits of the woodlands, an increasing number are now operating as broad-based woodland social enterprises delivering rural development objectives: earning income and creating employment from their woods, managing forests commercially and reinvesting surpluses locally for public benefit.

At Tighnabruaich in Argyll, Kilfinan Community Forest Company (KCFC) acquired 125 ha from Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) in 2010 and a further 434 ha in 2015. KCFC combines commercial forest management with a range of development initiatives, including a sawmill & firewood processing facility, a 75kW hydro scheme, a forest centre, allotments and polytunnels, community composting, a youth skills programme, forest schools and a range of community engagement activities. Future projects include a woodland burial ground, an events space and most ambitiously, affordable housing and woodland crofts.

Some of the most striking successes of community woods have come in the delivery of social objectives. Abriachan Forest Trust, which acquired 534ha of forest and hill land above Loch Ness from FC in 1998, has carried out extensive forest management, constructed 40km of paths and tracks and established a successful woodfuel business but is best known for pioneering a range of forest education and inclusion initiatives: running Forest School and Branching Out programmes and specialising in working with hard to reach individuals and groups of young people with poor mental health and other life issues.

Dunnet Forestry Trust, on the north Caithness coast, built a woodfuel business in a previously uneconomic forest and has used a range of innovative installations, from bears and sculptures to totem poles and a 6m long xylophone, to encourage community engagement. As many groups have found, a building in the forest can become a focal point for activity; the Dunnet log cabin has proved very popular and is used for weddings, children’s parties and Santa’s grotto.

Some types of activity are dependent on access to large conifer plantations, but many groups with much smaller woods have taken forward innovative projects: Findhorn Hinterland Trust, on the Moray Firth, has established a green burial ground in their 12ha woodland, whilst the Vat Run in South Queensferry has worked with local mountain bikers to develop a skills and trails area in 7ha of secondary broadleaf woods, right under the Forth Road Bridge.

The Children’s Wood on North Kelvin Meadow is even smaller, occupying a city block no more than 150m square, but it comprises the last wild space in the west-end of Glasgow and is vitally important to the community, who organise a range of events designed to connect children to nature, raise aspirations and bring people together. A registered outdoor playgroup runs on Wednesday and Friday no matter what the weather, there’s an Outdoor Learning Club every Saturday and regular Forest School Clubs for schools and the community.

Whilst larger groups may employ staff, many community woodlands are run entirely by volunteers. Some groups are developing partnerships with the private sector and most if not all of the larger forest owners have relationships with private sector forest management companies. Community ownership is not inimical to private enterprise, indeed it can increase opportunities for local entrepreneurship, either directly through subcontracting or leasing, or indirectly through increased recreation facilities supporting local tourism businesses.

Other groups are developing relationships with local businesses through volunteering or Corporate Social Responsibility programmes. The Burn O’Fochabers woods, alongside a tributary of the River Spey, suffered extensive flooding damage in the autumn of 2009; the following spring a team from the Scottish Arboricultural Association, with invaluable support from a number of local businesses, helped restore the woodlands and the riverside walks.

The scope and scale of activity and output is all the more remarkable given that the woodlands involved are very often the “market failures”: scraps of urban woodland or remote, undermanaged plantations which had been written off as having little or no economic or environmental value but have now been transformed by community management.

CWA’s mission is twofold: to help community woodland groups achieve their aspirations and potential, and to represent and promote the community woodland movement. A large part of this work is supporting communities through the sometimes complex process of acquiring land, and then advising them on the implementation of their projects: one of the great pleasures of the job is the sheer variety of enquiries from members, from butterfly habitats and rhododendron control to footpaths and food growing to hydro schemes and woodland crofts, as well as all the governance and communication issues that go with running a community body.

We’ve delivered more than 100 training events over the years, whilst our annual conference remains a key learning, networking (and ceilidh dancing) opportunity. Wherever possible our events are hosted or co-delivered by member groups, unlocking their store of knowledge and expertise and helping maintain the sense of collective endeavour which is crucial to the movement.

The second element of our mission - representing and promoting community woodlands - is less visible but has never been more important, as we are facing unprecedented changes and challenges. Community ownership is high on the political agenda, with broad political support in Parliament, the Scottish Government’s very welcome commitment to the Scottish Land Fund, new legislation on Asset Transfer and the establishment of the Scottish Land Commission, however Brexit has brought considerable uncertainty, not least as to the future of rural support.

It remains to be seen whether our exit from the Common Agricultural Policy will be seen as opportunity for a clean slate, the chance to fundamentally restructure the support mechanisms for land management in Scotland and develop a system whereby public money buys genuine public benefits, or whether corporate capture of the process by industrial farming and food processing interests will ensure that future support is focussed even more strongly on subsidising agribusiness.

Likewise whilst Scottish forest policy and practice has evolved since the 1980s, many of our nation’s forests still suffer from chronic underinvestment and under-management, and in some quarters the perception remains that the underlying objective of “efficient” forest management is “how can we get wood to sawmills as cheaply as possible?” rather than “how can we get the most public benefit from our forests?” and “how can we make best use of every scrap of land and every stick of wood?"

In contrast, the desire to optimise public benefit and make best use of the land drive Scotland’s community woodlands. They are careful to conserve what’s precious to them: whether that is access and amenity, or biodiversity, or skills and crafts, but they are also innovative and inspirational, seeking to unlock the creativity and imagination of their people to deliver more productive, sustainable woodlands and stronger, healthier communities.

Jon Hollingdale, Chief Executive of CWA

Posted by: / 02 May 2019 at 12:24 / Comment

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