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The Borders Forest Trust  - An 'umbrella' organisation co-ordinating the activities of community-based woodland groups in the Borders

Samantha Smith

 

bulletIntroduction
bulletBackground
bulletThe Development of Borders Forest Trust
bulletThe Achievements of Borders Forest Trust
bulletCommunity Involvement
bulletThe Future

Introduction

The Borders Forest Trust (BFT) is an environmental charity that was formed in January 1996 by a group of people living and working in the Scottish Borders. The trust was established to enable the development of a range of integrated environmental, social and economic projects that would contribute towards the restoration of the area's native woodland heritage and the development of a new community-based woodland culture.

BFT works in partnership with community groups, agencies, NGOs and individuals, and is managed by a board of twelve membership-elected Trustees and a team of six staff, the majority of whom have been involved in the project in some way since the trust was established. The trust owns land in the Scottish Borders and has also bought land recently in Dumfries and Galloway. The trust also manages land in partnership with farmers, landowners, the Forestry Commission and community groups across the south of Scotland.

This case study aims to highlight the achievements of the trust to date, the key factors which have influenced its development, and the lessons learned in terms of the future development of the trust and community-based social landownership in the area.

Background

The economy of the Scottish Borders is traditionally based on farming, textiles, tourism, fishing and commercial forestry, industries which have faced economic decline across the whole of rural Scotland in recent years. The majority of the 100,000 population live in rural towns and villages, and a significant area of land is owned by large estates. The region has the lowest percentage of ancient woodland and near-natural woodland land cover in Scotland and exports around 90 per cent of its hardwood timber to be processed elsewhere.

The roots of BFT and the social landownership movement in the Borders can be traced back to1987, when a community group - Borders Community Woodlands (BCW) - purchased Wooplaw woods, a 23 hectare mixed woodland located between Lauder, Galashiels, Stow and Blainslie.

The Wooplaw project was initiated when the late Tim Stead, a furniture-maker and artist, decided he wanted to help restore, as well as use, the local woodland resource. He began making carved hardwood axe-heads in 1986 to raise money to purchase an area of land in the Borders to plant trees. The publicity for Tim's project attracted people from the Scottish community woodland movement, such as Alan Drever and Donald McPhilimy, who suggested the idea of creating a community woodland in the Borders. This led to the formation of BCW by a local group of people to take the project forward. Wooplaw came on the market in 1987 and was purchased by BCW within three months, after a public meeting in Melrose, in which David Bellamy participated significantly, raised the level of local support for the project. The purchase was made possible by the proceeds of Tim's axe-head sales, by grants from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Countryside Commission for Scotland (now replaced by Scottish Natural Heritage),and charitable trusts, and by donations from members of the public. WWF have since said they were aware they were taking a risk when they gave a grant to BCW - a relatively unknown community group with no track record.

Wooplaw Community Woodland is a successful and productive community woodland which has been used locally and nationally as a demonstration of the positive benefits of community land ownership. The woods have enabled local people to learn and share woodland management and woodland craft skills. Volunteers have planted thousands of native trees, built a log cabin and a round house, excavated two ponds and developed a network of wheelchair-friendly paths. Regular children's activity days, work days, arts events, crafts events and walks take place. The woods are not managed by one geographic community - members of the management committee come from the surrounding towns and villages of Melrose, Galashiels, Stow, Lauder, Blainslie, Earlston and further afield. Members of the original core group of people who were involved in the purchase of the woods are still involved in the management of the woods today, but over the years many other people have joined the project and given it renewed energy and direction.

The momentum created by the Wooplaw project was increased when a community group called Peebles-shire Environmental Concern organised the 'Restoring Borders Woodland' conference in 1993. The conference was attended by 130 people who were enthusiastic about the benefits of, and the need for, the restoration of native woodlands in the area, and also about the need for community decision-making in relation to land management issues. At the same time the Campaign for the Future of the Border Hills also contributed to the raising of local awareness, focusing people's minds on the need for change away from unsustainable land use practices in the uplands.

In 1994 Tim Stead and Eoin Cox, who was also heavily involved in BCW, formed 'No Butts'2, and developed a proposal to establish a Borders Environmental Resource Centre to provide a focal point for promoting environmental restoration projects, community decision-making and the sustainable use of woodland resources in the region. Development funding for the project was secured from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Scottish Borders Enterprise, and this allowed Tim and Eoin, and others, to work on project ideas which would later become the core projects of the BFT.
A butt is a section of a felled tree. "No Butts" embraced the idea that there should be no more excuses: that the natural and human and potential of the Borders had to be developed.

The ultimate impetus for the formation of the BFT emerged in response to the development in 1995 of the Millennium Forest for Scotland (MFS) project, which planned to secure significant Millennium Lottery funding for native woodland projects across Scotland. This created a new focus to bring together the groups and individuals already involved in woodland activities in the area. As a result much-discussed project ideas were re-considered, in the knowledge that there was a realistic chance of funding being made available to pull them together under one umbrella initiative.

The Development of Borders Forest Trust

In January 1995 a public meeting was held in Galashiels under the auspices of BCW to discuss project ideas that could be funded as part of the Millennium Forest for Scotland initiative. The meeting was well attended, the mood was very optimistic and the project ideas discussed were ambitious. Staff from SNH, WWF, Reforesting Scotland, the Forestry Commission and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) were present and supportive, and consensus was reached that a bid could be put together for funding to implement an integrated range of woodland-related projects which would have significant environmental, social and economic benefits in the Borders.

Various working groups were set up to develop project plans, and funding was secured by BCW (from SNH and WWF) to employ a part-time co-ordinator to oversee the development of the MFS bid and other projects linked to community woodlands in the Borders.

Many hundreds of hours of voluntary effort were put into working up realistic and achievable project plans and budgets. Although the MFS team were supportive during this process, they did not have the resources to commit a member of staff to spend time with the community and help with the development of project plans. The responsibility for submitting high standard project plans and for securing match funding remained with the mainly voluntary group of people involved in developing the Borders bid. The demands on this group of people were high, and individuals occasionally became disheartened and disillusioned with the bureaucracy associated with securing Millennium funding, which often seemed to be working against the creative enthusiasm and commitment of the group.

The Borders millennium funding bid was shaped around two umbrella projects - 'Living with Trees' which encompassed ecological restoration, education and community participation projects and 'Working with Trees' which encompassed economic development projects related to the sustainable use of land and woodland resources.

Living with Trees was designed to:

bulletPromote the establishment of community woodlands in both rural and urban settings within the Borders.
bulletCreate new native woodlands on appropriate sites, and sustainably manage species-rich fragments of semi-natural woodlands that remain in the Borders.
bulletWork to conserve and restore elements of the Borders woodland flora, associated habitats and their ecologically significant biodiversity.
bulletProvide opportunities for woodland education and widespread participation in woodland cultural activities.

Working with Trees was designed to:

bulletProvide a use for low-grade native hardwood, yielding new, innovative and exciting products.
bulletProvide hardwood timber marketing for small woodland owners, farmers and individuals.
bulletProvide courses for students and community groups interested in woodworking and woodland management.
bulletCreate demonstration native woodlands on farms to act as models of integrated land management.

The bid for funding was successful, ultimately because of the commitment and diverse range of skills shared by the group of people who put it together, and the strength of the network of people involved. The group had experience in forestry, ecology, community education, printing and design, permaculture, farming, teaching, furniture-making, business management and the arts. The group also had good relationships with the local council and Scottish Borders Enterprise, the Local Enterprise Company, as well as with local landowners, SNH staff, WWF staff and MFS staff. Willie McGhee, the BCW project co-ordinator, and his business partner Alex Smith, gave the group the crucial professional support and financial guidance needed to pull the bid together.

The success of the bid resulted in the formal constitution of BFT as a Company Limited By Guarantee without a share capital, with charitable status, in January 1996, and the establishment of Woodschool, a wholly-owned trading subsidiary. The core group of people involved in putting the bid together became the first Trustees. These people still remain heavily involved in developing and co-ordinating projects and are in many ways the conscience of the Trust, steering it so it stays true to its original vision.

The Achievements of Borders Forest Trust

After five years of development, supported by core and project grant funding from the Millennium Forest For Scotland Trust, SNH, WWF, the Forestry Commission, the National Lottery Charities Board, Scottish Enterprise Borders, Scottish Borders Council, LEADER II and other European funding, as well as donations from companies, charitable trusts and individuals, the Trust has an annual turnover of nearly half a million pounds.

An ambitious range of projects have developed from the original 'Living and Working with Trees' proposal. The major projects are:

The Ettrick Habitat Restoration Project: the restoration of floodplain habitats in the upper Ettrick Valley near Selkirk.

The upper Ettrick valley contains a mosaic of woodland, wetland and grassland habitats of national conservation importance. A community of 200 people live in the area, focused round the small village of Ettrick. The project is managed by BFT in partnership with local landowners and farmers, a Community Steering Group of local residents and a Technical Steering Group made up of local residents, agencies and funding partners.

This project will result in the creation of 25 hectares of new native woodland in the area; the conversion of 30 hectares of conifer plantation to native woodland; the management of 15 hectares of willow scrub and the restoration of a 30 hectare mosaic of grassland and wetland habitats. The project is creating environmental and social benefits; improving the quality of the landscape, contributing to low-impact tourism and generating local employment.

The Carrifran Wildwood Project: the restoration of a mainly forested wilderness in the 600 hectare Carrifran valley between St Mary's Loch and Moffat in the Southern Uplands.

The Carrifran valley was part of a hill farm before it was purchased by BFT in January 2000 after a two-year national fundraising campaign which raised 400,000. The project is the vision of the Wildwood Group, a group of volunteers from the Peebles area who were involved in organising the 'Restoring Borders Woodlands' conference in 1993 and who were also involved in the establishment of the trust. The project is managed by the trust in partnership with the Wildwood Group, who have overseen the development of the fund-raising campaign and the development and implementation of the management plan.

Carrifran Wildwood will become one of the largest unexploited areas of wilderness in the south of Scotland. Through large-scale tree planting and the encouragement of natural regeneration it is hoped that the valley will ultimately support most of the rich diversity of native species present in the area before human activities became dominant, and will become a place of inspiration for future generations.

Woodschool: a centre for the creative and sustainable use of local hardwood timber.

The Woodschool workshop is on the same site as the BFT office at Monteviot Nurseries in Ancrum, just north of Jedburgh on the A68 trunk road. It supports eight designer/ makers and the development of their own businesses, while also co-ordinating their involvement in the development of collective Woodschool products. Woodschool sources low- and medium-grade timber from local farms and estates, and cuts, stores, processes and sells this timber to end-users. This timber has particular qualities that are reflected in the innovative collection of Woodschool chairs, tables and cabinets, which have been sold to customers from the UK, Iceland, Russia, USA, France and Germany.

The Woodschool project is the vision of Eoin Cox and Tim Stead, and is managed by Eoin Cox, supported by a voluntary board of Directors, which includes a BFT Trustee.

The profits from Woodschool are covenanted to BFT, with the aim of generating unrestricted income for woodland projects as well as creating employment and adding value to the local hardwood resource.

Community Woodlands: the expansion and development of community owned and managed woodlands in the Borders, encouraging conservation, recreation, education, local decision-making and the regeneration of native species woodlands.

The project is supported by a full-time Community Woodland Officer (CWO). The CWO, George Moffat (who was a BCW volunteer), promotes community participation, volunteering and opportunities for groups and individuals of all ages and abilities to participate fully in community woodland projects. He also supports the development of new community woodlands and community woodland management groups, and co-ordinates training activities and the Borders Tree Warden Scheme.

There are currently ten established community woodlands in the Borders, with plans for the development of more sites in the east of the Borders over the next three years. All are managed by community groups - some of which are now independent charities and voluntary associations with constitutions. The groups which do not own their woodland have management agreements with the landowners, which include the Scottish Borders Council, and the Forestry Commission.

Biodiversity Conservation: The conservation of juniper (juniperus communis), a relatively scarce element of the native Borders flora.

A review of the biology and status of juniper in the Borders was co-ordinated by the BFT in 1997, and was followed by research into the genetic viability of local juniper populations and the development of a Borders juniper restoration strategy. In 1998 the total Borders juniper population consisted of 4,500 bushes. The aim of the biodiversity conservation project is to establish 50,000 bushes in the Borders by 2010. Locally sourced juniper cuttings have been established in local nurseries and in schools, and planting to date in seven core areas in partnership with local farmers has doubled the Borders juniper population. Discussions have taken place with the Edinburgh Gin Company about the potential use of native Borders juniper berries as a flavouring for their gin.

Ancient Woodlands: the conservation, regeneration and expansion of 150 hectares of remnant semi-natural Borders woodlands.

This project follows on from the BFT Woodland Inventory project, which mapped and categorised on a Geographical Information System (GIS) all woodlands in the Borders. The inventory project identified a number of ancient and semi-natural woodlands that have been selected for conservation management. After discussions and negotiations with local farmers and landowners, fencing and planting is taking place on a network of sites. The first project sites are located near Lauder, Galashiels, Westruther, Jedburgh and St. Mary's Loch.

Veteran Trees: the identification and conservation of ancient trees of social, cultural and ecological importance.

The first phase of the project involved surveying the veteran trees of Tweeddale, with the aim of recording ecological information on individual trees and the types of habitat where they are found, and also their history and cultural connections. The survey was carried out with the help of the Tweeddale Tree Wardens and other members of the local community. The project organised the first Scottish Veteran Tree Workshop, and has identified the threats that exist to veteran trees and recommendations on how best to manage them.
Tweeddale Tree Wardens are one of two Scottish Tree Warden groups in the National Tree Warden Scheme operated by the Tree Council, an England-based organisation that exists to encourage volunteering, learning and local action.

Education and Arts Projects: environmental education, interpretation, and cultural and awareness raising activities.

The BFT school grounds project promotes the development of curriculum-linked environmental improvement projects in Border school playgrounds, and involves tree and hedge planting and the creation of new ponds, wildlife gardens and outdoor classrooms. These projects are managed in partnership with committees of pupils, parents and teachers, as well as representatives from the local Commission education department and ranger service and other environmental organisations working in the Borders.

The 'Butts to Benches' project promotes the creative use of local hardwood timber to create sculpted benches and play structures in schools and public spaces, and results in new creative partnerships between schools, communities and local craftspeople.

The Art in the Woods project has resulted in the development of two environmental arts projects - 'Woodlands in Time' and 'Seeds in Time'. These projects were managed by a steering group of local artists and explored and celebrated the woodland environment through sculpture, music, dance, photography, film and storytelling.

New interpretation projects are currently being developed in partnership with communities and schools at the Wildwood and Ettrick project sites, and craft and educational activities continue to be core activities in community woodland projects.

These projects have been successful in encouraging and enabling a diverse range of people to participate in woodland-related environmental activities in the Borders.

Tweed Rivers: three projects co-ordinated by BFT as part of the 1999 Tweed Rivers Heritage initiative, a major Heritage Lottery-funded Borders-wide project that is co-ordinated by Tweed Forum, a consortium of local agencies and organisations.

The BFT Tweed Rivers projects have strong links with existing BFT projects. The Tweed Valley Community and Semi-Natural Woodlands project involves establishing community participation in the management of six Forestry Commission woodlands, with the aim of creating more natural woodlands. The Selkirk and Lindean Woodland Access project involves access, tree planting and path work linked to the existing community woodland at Lindean and a new site near Selkirk. The Riparian Woodlands project involves the regeneration of semi-natural and neglected woodlands in the Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys in partnership with local farmers and landowners.

Community Involvement

Community involvement has been critical to the success of the BFT. The trust was established as a result of local grass-roots support. As the trust has developed, the principles of local consultation and participation have remained at the heart of all its activities. Major decisions relating to policy and direction are made at lively Annual General Meetings usually attended by 60 -100 people, and most projects have a community group or community representatives involved at the core of the decision-making process.

Encouraging community consultation and participation has often meant project plans have been significantly altered. For example, the entry points to, and the access paths within, the 100-hectare Ettrick Habitat Restoration project site were decided by the project's Community Steering Group, and are different from the original ideas of the BFT staff involved in the management of the project. At the Wildwood project site the fence heights and the location of a hill-top fence have been altered from the original plans because of opposition by local people with walking interests.

In 1997 BFT was offered the chance to buy Bailhill and Lindeanburn woods near Selkirk. A public meeting was organised in the adjacent village of Lindean to encourage local people to consider setting up a woodland management committee and a new community woodland. BFT expected local enthusiasm for the project to be high, but there was significant opposition to the idea of setting up a community woodland. Although this opposition made BFT doubt the value of purchasing the wood, local interest in the project steadily increased after it was bought, and today the woodland is run almost independently by a voluntary group of local people who have formed Lindean Community Woodland Association.

Community consultation has not always resulted in mutual agreement, and compromise has not always been reached. There is a vocal group in the Moffat Water valley opposed to the removal of feral goats from Carrifran valley and the general wildlife policy of the Wildwood project. The group's demands threaten the successful establishment of woodland in the valley, and despite numerous meetings with BFT staff and the volunteers in the Wildwood group, progress has not been made towards an agreement on the best way forward.

The Future

BFT is reaching its first milestone - the successful completion of the projects developed and implemented as part of the Millennium Forest for Scotland initiative. Although participation in the initiative has caused frustrations, as staff and volunteers have felt that too much emphasis is put on continuous project reporting and the production of work programmes and cash-flow projections, these demands have given BFT an organisational rigour that it might not otherwise have had.

BFT has grown in confidence over the last few years. Our experience has shown that community-based voluntary organisations have to work proportionally much harder than larger, longer-established organisations to demonstrate credibility to funders and government agencies, but that community-based groups can achieve just as impressive results on the ground. There is also a natural tension between being a community-based organisation and an efficient business-like organisation, and we feel we are getting the balance right.

One of the main constraints to the future development of the Trust is the fact that the majority of the Trust's income is still derived from a relatively small number of funding sources. The Trust, like many similar voluntary organisations, finds it difficult to secure enough core funding to maintain efficient and effective core functions - most core staff, including the Trust Co-ordinator, also manage projects. Funders continue to place emphasis on funding new projects and initiatives over the short term, and the Trust is still heavily reliant on the additional voluntary effort of staff, as well as on the Trustees and project volunteers, to deliver all its objectives.

The other main constraint on the future development of the Trust is the lack of affordable land for sale in the Borders. The Trust has tried to get round this problem by entering into land management agreements with landowners, including the local council and farmers, as well as opportunistically buying areas of land that have come up for sale when funding has been available. If the Trust is going to realise its vision, communities need to have the option to buy land on the scale of the Wildwood Project site, to extend significantly the boundaries of what can be achieved.

We were fortunate last year to secure three years of grant funding from SNH and WWF, and are currently working on developing new fund-raising strategies to increase the diversity of our income and the long-term viability of the trust. We also plan to commission a formal evaluation of the impact of the work of the trust on the local environment, and on local communities and their economy. We hope this will help to demonstrate the value of native woodland restoration and community decision-making not just for the Borders but for the whole of Scotland.

 

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