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Community Involvement at Portmoak Moss and Kilmagad Wood

Andrew Fairbairn

bulletIntroduction
bulletBackground
bulletAbout the Community
bulletPortmoak Moss
bulletAcquisition of Portmoak Moss
bulletCommunity Involvement
bulletAcquisition of Kilmagad Wood
bulletManagement of Kilmagad Wood
bulletPartnership Working
bulletThe Future

Introduction

This case study explores how Woodland Trust Scotland (WTS) has worked with a local community to acquire two woods in Perth and Kinross, providing the opportunity for local people to become involved in the conservation of their environment. It also examines the processes which have led to successful management of the woods through a partnership between the community and WTS.

Background

WTS was established in 1984, 12 years after the Woodland Trust (WT) was founded. WT is the foremost conservation organisation dedicated to the conservation of the UK's native woodland. It achieves its purposes in two ways: through the acquisition of woodland and sites for woodland regeneration; and also through wider advocacy of the importance of protecting ancient woodland, enhancing its biodiversity, expanding native woodland cover and increasing public enjoyment. WT currently owns and manages over 1,000 sites across the United Kingdom. All woods are certified under the Forest Stewardship Council's UK Standard of Sustainable Forestry - an independent endorsement of the quality of woodland management.

WTS manages 77 sites totalling 7,000 hectares. These include nationally and internationally important woodland sites, in addition to urban and community woods. Nearly all of WTS's sites are freely open for the public to enjoy (although access is not encouraged where an intrinsic safety issue exists).

About the Community

The two woods - Portmoak Moss and Kilmagad Wood - are situated adjacent to the villages of Scotlandwell and Kinnesswood, close to Loch Leven, in Perth and Kinross. The immediate community numbers about 2,000 people, most of whom are employed in agriculture or the professions. Within a five mile radius lie Milnathort and Kinross which have a similar socio-economic make-up and a combined population of approximately 10,000, and also Ballingry and Lochore, ex-coal mining areas where unemployment is high, with a combined population of 15,00 people.

Portmoak Moss

Portmoak Moss is a former Forestry Commission commercial woodland consisting largely of a plantation of spruce and pine. The wood extends to 42 hectares and has been planted on a raised bog or moss to which the local residents have historically had access in order to cut peat for domestic fuel. The ground under the densely planted conifers is dark and bare of any vegetation due to lack of light, whereas in the more open areas mosses and ferns thrive as well as plants such as foxglove, wood sorrel, orchid and the unusual 'lords-and-ladies' with its spike of orange berries. Twenty-two species of bird have been recorded breeding in the wood, including long-eared owl, green and great spotted woodpecker, goldcrest and siskin.

Acquisition of Portmoak Moss

In 1995, Portmoak Moss was placed on the Forestry Commission's disposal list. This action prompted concerns within the communities of Scotlandwell and Kinnesswood who shared a strong desire to retain access rights to a place of high amenity value. The perceived threat was that the access local people enjoyed under the Forestry Commission's ownership would not be guaranteed under private ownership. Representatives of the two communities approached the Woodland Trust requesting a partnership acquisition, with the Trust taking legal responsibility for ownership of the site.

WTS was able to commit itself to the acquisition of the wood because one of WT's five WT criteria for acquiring any wood is "importance to a local community." In addition, it acknowledged, as did the community, the advantages of the combination of community participation and the security of long-term ownership by a known land-owning charity in terms of accessing grant aid.

An appeal was launched in partnership with the community. WTS secured grant aid from Scottish Natural Heritage and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, while local people raised an impressive 25 per cent of the acquisition costs, including 10,000 from Perth and Kinross Council which matched local fund-raising pound for pound.

This joint funding package enabled Portmoak Moss to be acquired by WTS in February 1996 at a cost of 80,000. Karen MacDonnell of the Portmoak Moss Appeal stated at the time, "We never had any doubt that we would be able to reach the community target but we have been astounded by how quickly things have happened." At the time of the acquisition WTS Officer Jill Aitken said, "It is important that local people are given the opportunity to help care for the wood in future and the Trust will provide support to enable them to do this."

Community Involvement

A Secretary of State for Scotland once said, "Community woods allow local people to have a say in their environment and to become practically involved. This inspires a feeling of ownership and responsibility, re-establishing the bond between people and the natural environment." WTS endorses this statement, but is also well aware that achieving the goal of active community involvement in the management of local woodland can be a complex challenge. Acquiring a threatened wood can often be the easiest piece of the jigsaw, for everyone is motivated and has a common goal: in the instance of Portmoak Moss this step was achieved relatively easily. Management of a site is altogether different.

It would be fair to say that initially the community saw WTS as an obstacle to getting on and doing things in the wood. As the landowner, however, WTS had to ensure compliance with the appropriate health and safety regulations and training requirements to satisfy their insurers. As a result it took some time for both local people and WTS to agree a way forward that was satisfactory for all.

The solution was to improve communications and so allow each party to understand fully the others' expectations. As a first step a community steering group was set up - the Portmoak Community Woodland Steering Group (PCWSG), and a draft management plan was jointly agreed by the group and WTS. To assist the process of mutual learning, the Rural Development Forestry Programme was invited to carry out a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in December 1996 with the following objectives:

bulletTo facilitate meetings and interactions within a wide cross-section of people in the locality surrounding Portmoak Moss
bulletTo assess current usage of the wood; the ambitions local people had for the Moss; how they might like to get involved; how they would like to be kept informed about activities and developments in the wood; and ways in which more people could become involved.
bulletTo assist PCWSG and WTS to understand better the views of local people about the management of the Moss.
bulletTo start a process by which local people might come to a better understanding of each others' ideas and concerns regarding the future of the Moss.

The PRA collated people's likes and dislikes and suggestions about ways of providing local information (mainly through local posters and newsletters). It also provided information about ideas for the future and the ambitions people had for Portmoak. These included path improvements, clearing exotic species, improving biodiversity, holding events in the wood and removal of dog fouling. Many other new ideas for the wood came out of the PRA process.

The management plan was subsequently redrafted, taking account of the detailed PRA findings. It was then finalised and agreed between WTS and the steering group.1 The PRA was the catalyst that enabled everyone to have an opportunity to become involved in the management of the wood and to play a part in providing a mechanism for woodland management delivery.

The process of producing the management plan and the results of the PRA ensured that people had clear ideas of what was needed. It was evident that the site had limited opportunities for enhancing recreation, amenity and wildlife, for reasons identified by the community during the PRA:

bulletthe peat surface degrades rapidly once the sward has been breached, resulting in paths which are 'un-walkable' in wet weather.
bulletlack of management of the plantation had led to a dense tree canopy prone to wind damage.
bulletthe tree canopy inhibits regeneration of native species and ground flora.

The management plan addressed these issues by including sections on improving access to the countryside for people of all abilities; and on improving the understanding of the natural heritage and local culture through interpretation and education.

At the time of writing (February 2001), the PCWSG is formally constituted and meets on a regular basis. A WTS representative usually attends the monthly meetings. The management plan (currently under review) enables everyone connected with the wood to be clear about required management works and how they are to be undertaken. And most importantly, communication between PCWSG and WTS is frequent and effective.

Acquisition of Kilmagad Wood

About a year after the acquisition of Portmoak Moss, Kinross Action Group approached WTS with the news that a local farmer was willing to sell Kilmagad Wood, which lies within a mile of Portmoak Moss, to the north of the village of Scotlandwell. Kilmagad covers 27 hectares of hill ground in an Area of Great Landscape Value lying to the north of the A911 Scotlandwell to Kinnesswood road. The land is partially wooded and has been subject to grazing, which has prevented natural regeneration of the existing tree species such as oak, rowan, elm, ash, and Scots Pine. The wood has superb views across the Firth of Forth as far as Edinburgh and beyond. There is a public Right of Way through the wood, which is a well-established area for walking.

When the idea was put forward, the PCWSG were enthusiastic to acquire and manage Kilmagad using the Portmoak 'model'. Again there was a joint effort to raise the acquisition costs of 32,500. WTS secured grant aid from The Gannochy Trust, The Scottish Executive Rural Challenge Fund and Perth and Kinross Council, while the local community raised the vital final 10 per cent of the funding package enabling the acquisition of Kilmagad Wood to proceed in February 1998. The acquisition was supported by the Ramblers Association Scotland, Perthshire Tourist Board, Perth and Kinross Council, Portmoak Community Council and Kinross-shire Community Action.

This second purchase provided an appropriate opportunity to extend local involvement in management of important natural assets, for Kilmagad Wood and Portmoak Moss are linked by a circular walk (the Tetley Tea Trail) connecting the two villages of Scotlandwell and Kinnesswood. The trail is promoted by both the Community Council and the local Tourist Board. Visitor numbers are expected to rise and people counters have been installed at both sites to assess the impact.

Management of Kilmagad Wood

The experience of preparing a management plan for Portmoak Moss assisted greatly in the development of the Kilmagad plan. The process was similar and much more straightforward second time round: WTS and PCWSG jointly prepared a draft management plan, and presented it to a public meeting. A few minor amendments were made and the plan produced.

However, the management of Kilmagad presented different challenges from that of Portmoak Moss. The Kilmagad Wood plan addresses the need to restore the woodland by natural regeneration and tree planting and benefits from consultations with SNH about natural regeneration. Planting has been used to supplement regeneration only where necessary. Portmoak Primary School have set up a tree nursery using seed collected from the site, and many of the saplings they have raised have been planted out by the community.

Partnership Working

Immediately following the acquisition of Portmoak, there were some tensions between the community and WTS - it was a new situation for all. Difficulties arose because of different expectations and the Trust's obligation to adhere to stringent health and safety regulations and requirements for insurance purposes. It would be fair to say that initially people saw WTS as a stumbling block to an immediate implementation of management works, a programme of events and voluntary work. There is no doubt that the Participatory Appraisal, combined with the setting-up of the steering group and the management planning process, has enabled communications to flow more freely with the result that there now exists a clear understanding of what the objectives for the woods are and how they will be achieved. Most of the original expectations of both the community and WTS have now been achieved.

Formalising the relationship between community and WTS provided the group with the impetus to adopt a constitution which sets out the following aims:

bulletTo improve public access
bulletTo enable community involvement
bulletTo improve the diversity of age structure and species of tree with the woods
bulletTo promote and enhance the environment for the benefit of the community.

It is essential to emphasise that both management plans (which are currently being reviewed) and all the works undertaken at both woods have resulted from a two-way process between the steering group and WTS. The current review of the management plans is open to public consultation. The drafts were prepared jointly with the steering group, and the final plans will be agreed once account has been taken of comments from the wider community. The process of reviewing and developing the management plans is lead by WTS as they conform, in format, with all our other plans which are recorded electronically on a database. This approach has enabled local people to take real decisions and influence the way in which their local environment is managed without the legal burden of land ownership.

People have also had the chance to learn new skills. Since the acquisition of Portmoak, 40 volunteer training places have been completed in first aid, small tree felling and bridge building. One person has obtained a chainsaw certificate and now carries out minor silvicultural works in both woods. The steering group has acquired a chainsaw mill to make products from timber extracted from Portmoak. The group also won the Perth and Kinross "Better Place Award" in 1999, a recognition of their contribution to Local Agenda 21 and Community Enhancement.

Many other positives have resulted from the partnership approach:

bulletMany events are organised each year by the PCWSG, and countless volunteer days are spent working on improvements in the woods.
bulletSchool children use the woods as an open-air classroom, learning about their natural environment and the importance of trees.
bulletPortmoak Guides have achieved the conservation pennant through project work based on Portmoak Moss.
bulletA new 400 metre path for people with disabilities has been developed at Portmoak, and was constructed to BT 'Countryside for All' Standards. In all, 1,000 metres of paths have been upgraded, taking into account the vulnerable nature of the ground. Specifications for the pathwork came from SNH's Footpath Advice Team.
bulletExotic trees have been removed from Portmoak Moss to allow for regeneration of native species.
bulletNatural regeneration and planting areas have been set up at Kilmagad, and local people have collected seed and planted saplings.
bulletInformation boards and display panels, designed for easy reading by the visually impaired, have been produced and set up in the woods.
bulletThree sculptured seats have been designed and placed in Portmoak Moss.
bulletVisitor surveys are being undertaken at the woods, the results of which will help to inform future management decisions.

The Future

To improve public access; to enable community involvement; to improve the diversity of native woodland habitat; and to promote and enhance the environment for the benefit of the community - these are all aims outlined in the agreed management plans. Since 1996 huge strides have been taken in the pursuit of these aims.

Although the land is owned by WT, it is managed with a partnership approach and there are no plans to change that. Where stumbling blocks have appeared, they have been due largely to inadequate communication and understanding (as explained earlier). These difficulties have, however, been fully resolved by open debate. It must be emphasised that since the formation of the steering group and the introduction of the process of jointly agreeing management plans, stumbling blocks are a thing of the past.

Many practical improvements have been made at each wood. However, there remains much to do in re-structuring Portmoak to achieve the ultimate aim of creating a wood dominated by native broadleaved species of tree. At Kilmagad the main focus will be on the establishment of new woodland areas, now that the agricultural grazing pressure has been removed. In both woods the dead wood habitat will be retained where practicable. Day-to-day management works are carried out by a Dollar-based estate maintenance contractor, and major projects are contracted on a case-by-case basis. Voluntary work is undertaken by members of the community when they have the necessary skills and qualifications or when training can be organised. This arrangement is to everyone's satisfaction at the moment, although WTS would respond positively if the Steering Group expressed a wish to take a more proactive role in the delivery of all the management works.

As for the long term, ultimately we are all aiming at the provision of well-managed, varied habitats with opportunities for public access, improved woodland biodiversity and amenity value. We also wish to promote the significance of the partnership approach as an example of what can be achieved through working together. In other parts of the UK, communities have expressed a wish to take on full management control of woodland owned by WT and management agreements have been drawn up as a result. One day the PCWSG may wish to go down this route, although to date they have not expressed the desire to do so. But who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Note: Reforesting Scotland have used Portmoak CommunityWoodland Steering Group as a case study for their Community Woodland Network. Copies can be obtained from Reforesting Scotland (Telephone: 0131 554 43210).

 

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