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Case Study Four:

ABRIACHAN FOREST TRUST

Christine Matheson

bulletIntroduction
bulletHistory
bulletCommunity Involvement
bulletThe role of the directors
bulletThe role of the grant-aiding bodies
bulletThe role of the consultant
bulletThe future

Introduction

The Abriachan Forest Trust (AFT) was set up in 1996 by the people of Abriachan, a scattered rural community of about 120 people set high above the shores of Loch Ness, half way between Inverness and Drumnadrochit. It was created as a vehicle for bringing into community ownership 534 hectares of planted forest and open hill, which had been placed on the open market by Forest Enterprise (FE). The trust was assisted in the purchase by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Office Rural Challenge Fund, the European LEADER II programme, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), BP Exploration and The Highland Council. Today Abriachan Forest is the largest community-owned forest in Scotland, and consists of a mixture of planted commercial forest, some remnants of old pines and a substantial area of naturally regenerating open hill.

The principal objectives of AFT are to:

bulletensure continued public access to a large and varied stretch of wild countryside for amenity purposes
bulletensure that the unique scenic and environmental value of the area is both respected and enhanced
bulletplay a major role in the re-afforestation of the Great Glen with native species
bulletact as a catalyst for a whole range of community activities and local job creation.

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.

History

The history of the community’s 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.

Community Involvement

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 aims.

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 people’s 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 Role of the Directors

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.

The Role of the Grant-Aiding Bodies

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 organisation’s 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.

The Role of the Consultant

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 issues.

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.

The Future

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 students.

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.

 

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