Our project is essentially long-term. Although some of our objectives will be achieved
in the near future, the success of the project will depend on the close involvement of the
younger generation who will be responsible for carrying the project forward.
The history of the communitys involvement begins in 1994 when FE invited
community councils to comment on the effects of potential sales of forest on local
community rights. The community council responded by stating its concerns about the
possibility of losing long-standing rights of access. However when Abriachan Forest came
on the market in November 1995 there was no mention of access in the sales particulars.
When its attention was drawn to this fact, FE claimed that there had been no response to
the consultation process, but Abriachan residents knew that this was not the case.
The prospect of losing community access to an area over which the community had old
rights to common grazings and peat-banks, together with the fact that the results of the
consultation process had in effect been ignored, stirred the community into action.
Another significant motivating factor was the strong local interest in natural history and
conservation. To safeguard the local interest, a steering group was formed to monitor the
sale, and came up with the radical idea of buying the forest. The fact that the community
was receptive to this idea was due in part to the success of the Assynt crofters
campaign to buy their own land, which had highlighted the whole issue of land tenure and
brought the debate on land reform onto the political agenda.
As soon as the community approved the objective of purchasing the forest, the steering
group sought and obtained sponsorship from SNH and then made an application to the LEADER
II programme for funds to conduct a feasibility study. This application was successful,
and by the middle of I996 the feasibility study had been completed and the District
Valuation Officer had valued the 863 hectares which were up for sale at £425,000.
Towards the end of 1996 the Abriachan Forest Trust was established as a Company Limited
By Guarantee and made a successful application for recognition as a Scottish charity. It
was set up to take ownership of the forest on behalf of the community and immediately
started to raise funds for the purchase. Eight directors were co-opted from the community.
At the first general meeting after the company was incorporated, the directors were
confirmed in their positions after a vote by the members of what had now become Abriachan
Forest Trust Ltd.
By this time considerable funding was in place, the main contributors being SNH, the
Rural Challenge Fund, The Highland Council, HIE, ENTRUST and British Petroleum. However
AFT then suffered two major disappointments. The applications to the Millennium Forest for
Scotland Trust (MFST) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) failed, which meant that the
trust had to revise its strategy. After some discussion it was decided to go ahead and buy
the smaller of the two buy-out options, which was still a substantial 534 hectares. This
the District Valuer had valued at £152,000. With the closing date rapidly approaching,
SNH donated the £20,000 required to make up the asking price, and the sale was concluded
in March 1998. At the formal handover, Sir Michael Strang-Steel of Forest Enterprise
announced that this was the first community buy-out which FE had negotiated.
The trust now has 50 members and junior members, which indicates that the majority of
the community supports the project. We also have a number of "Friends of the
Abriachan Forest Trust" who live outwith the community but are supportive of our
Members of the community and friends of the trust have been involved in the project in
one or more of a number of ways. Many have participated in community Activity Days which
give members and friends an opportunity to do practical work in the forest, for example
tree-planting, clearing and ditching. Members of the local youth group, Active Abriachan,
have enthusiastically contributed to these days. Shortly after the date of entry the trust
carried out a survey of the perimeter fence to identify the sections which it should
remove and also those which it should, as a good neighbour, repair or replace. As a result
it reached an amicable arrangement with a neighbouring farmer to replace a boundary fence.
Local young people have also been involved in the development of the "Family
Trees" project which is intended as both a community and a personal celebration of
the Millennium, and which involves planting and tagging specimen trees to represent each
local resident. The idea is to encourage the custom of planting additional trees at times
of celebration such as births and other significant landmarks in peoples lives. The
trust hopes that the variety of trees and the way they are arranged will give the
resulting woodland a distinctive quality so that it becomes a place of celebration for
residents, a place of pilgrimage for former residents and possibly a final resting place
for those who wish to have their ashes scattered on the Abriachan hillside.
Local people have been involved in other ways, too. For example, the directors have
employed a member of the community as a part-time secretary/book-keeper. She has proved to
be a great asset to the trust. As her work-load has increased, we have been pleased to be
able to offer her extra hours of work. In addition to carrying out her secretarial duties,
she produces the AFT newsletter, which is published quarterly. It includes not just
reports on the progress of the project but also other items of community news, and is
distributed to all members and friends of the trust and also to our funding partners.
Education and training for the community is a top priority. The training programme
includes courses in practical forestry, environmental studies and computer skills. It is
anticipated that some of the practical elements will take place in the Abriachan forest,
and the courses will be well attended by members of the community who will gain useful,
transferable skills. The first course on chainsaw use took place in the last week of March
1999, and was run by the Scottish School of Forestry in Inverness, which has expressed an
interest in using the forest for teaching and training purposes, in what would be a
mutually beneficial arrangement.
FE, which still owns the unsold part of the Abriachan Forest, recently approached the
directors of AFT with proposals for a concordat. Although there would be no financial
return for the trust, there could be other benefits, for example, joint timber extraction
operations and marketing. Our other neighbours, The Woodland Trust, are also keen to work
with us on educational projects, footpaths and deer control.
The only method of ensuring a profitable return on the forest would be to harvest by
clear felling and replanting, but this is unacceptable to the community which has a strong
interest in local natural history and conservation. We have therefore made a Woodland
Grant Scheme application so that we can mange the forest in such a way that commercial,
environmental and community interests are all considered. To this end we are also working
closely with SNH with whom we have a 60-year management agreement.
The AFT constitution states that "the number of members of the Board of Trustees
shall not be less than three nor more than twelve". There are currently seven
trustees (or directors). At each Annual General Meeting, one-third of the trustees must
retire from office. A retiring trustee is eligible for re-election after one term of
office but no trustee can serve more than two consecutive terms of office, without
standing down for at least one year before becoming eligible again. This means that a
director can serve for a maximum of four consecutive years.
The directors are responsible for the management of the forest and for working towards
the objectives of the Abriachan Forest Trust. This means that the directors have to commit
a significant amount of time to the project. The workload has been shared out amongst the
directors and this is working well, as there is plenty of scope for each director to
become involved in areas of particular interest to him or her. For example, some directors
were involved in putting together the business plan and others have been involved in grant
applications, both activities involving a considerable expenditure of time and effort. A
third group has been involved in developing a training programme. The directors have all
had to develop new skills to fulfil new roles, such as coping with the media. Because we
were the first community to buy our own forest we have been called upon by various
organisations to share our experiences and to give presentations. It reflects well on the
organisation that several of the directors now have the confidence to make these
presentations. The directors have a policy of helping other groups interested in community
land ownership by giving advice on such matters as funding applications and business
planning, and also by sharing details of our experience.
There is also potential for directors and members to form interest groups. One such
group, the Education Group, is interested in using the forest as an educational resource
and is headed by a member. This group is in the process of creating an exciting and
innovative education programme in conjunction with local teachers.
All the directors meet together once a month. The loss of a director highlighted the
importance of good communication, and these monthly meetings are essential to keep all the
directors informed of developments and to report on progress. These monthly meetings are
open to all members of the Abriachan Forest Trust and often a guest will attend. Our
guests have included representatives from FE, The Woodland Trust and SNH.
To achieve our environmental objectives, we have had to apply for additional funding
over and above the money we raised to meet the purchase price. This supplementary grant
aid is necessary for developing the forest to its full potential in an environmentally
sensitive manner. Grant aid is essential to the success of the project, but dealing with
the funding agencies has at times been most frustrating.
SNH have been most supportive throughout, both in terms of practical encouragement and
financial assistance, and we recognise them as our principal partner. MFST is providing us
with a substantial development grant, although we have to make a considerable effort to
service that organisations needs, which at times appear far removed from planting
native species in the ground. The Woodland Grant Scheme is absolutely crucial to future
plans for Abriachan Forest, and our application is at the final stages of approval
following public consultation. The European Objective 1 programme has released a grant
towards amenity provision in the forest which has also served as matched funding for the
MFST contribution and vice versa. LEADER II has supported the economic, educational,
environmental and community benefits of the project, and has given us significant funds
for training, equipment and educational resources.
Applying for grants was a long and involved process. Unfortunately each grant-aiding
body has a different format for grant applications, progress reporting and financial
control. The requirement for matched funding also seriously delayed our progress.
It has proved very difficult to obtain money even after funding has been promised,
because most of our funders work on a system of deficit funding - i.e. only paying grant
after approved work has been completed. Only BP has paid money up-front,
though the Rural Challenge Fund has paid 25 per cent in advance. This problem is
compounded by the fact that different funders pay over different time-scales. Together
these problems have made it difficult for the trust to spend the money it has received
within the agreed time.
Early on in the history of the organisation it was decided to employ a consultant
forester. The subsequent appointment has been most successful, and the value of our
consultant forester to the project cannot be too highly emphasised. He regularly attends
the monthly meeting of directors and is called upon to give advice on a wide range of
The fact that he is both highly competent and very supportive of our aims and
objectives has made for a very good working relationship. He provided expert advice on
valuations for the purchase of the forest, and when the business plan was being drawn up
he provided the trust with realistic information about cost and income. His input into our
funding applications has also been very beneficial, and his professional standing has
meant that we have been taken seriously by banks and various funding bodies. He has also
introduced the trust to contacts who have been able to contribute to the success of the
project by giving advice or support. He is also participating in our training programme
and will be leading community workshops on harvesting timber and conservation management
as well as running a training session targeted at the young people of the community.
Members of the Abriachan Forest Trust continue to be enthusiastic about the future of
the project and there is no shortage of ideas. We are in the process of completing the
MFST project to a demanding timetable. This involves clear-felling 100 hectares of
lodgepole pine and replanting with native species.
We hope to create employment for local people when we start felling operations. Other
important opportunities will include creating paths, fencing, deer control, and in the
future, a ranger service. There is also the possibility of offering seasonal work to
AFT will also support initiatives proposed by individuals who are interested in such
enterprises as coppicing, charcoal burning, bracken composting, and renewable energy as
well as traditional woodcrafts.
To enhance the amenity of the forest AFT has plans for orienteering trails, networks of
paths for walkers and cyclists. a nature trail for the less-abled, bird hides and
sculptures. A series of interpretive boards is also planned.
The Highland Astronomical Society wishes to build an observatory on our high ground as
this would be an ideal situation for observing the night sky. An observatory would give an
exciting additional dimension to our educational objectives.
The trust plans to mark the millennium by holding a festival celebrating the forest. It
will include music, drama and dance all centred in the forest, and will also have an
educational dimension by including such field studies as nature photography, bird
watching, bug hunts, pond dipping and guided walks. Activities in the forest will be
complemented by various displays and presentations in the village hall. We hope that this
event will attract both individuals and groups from the wider community who will continue
to use our forest regularly.