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July 29, 2009

Forest crofts

A community trust in the tiny village of Embo in Sutherland is planning to break new ground in the use of forestry land with the creation of Scotland’s first forest crofts. Twelve crofts of about ten acres each are being planned by the Embo Trust. The proposals have been spurred on by local concerns about the lack of opportunities for young people who have grown up in the village and who want to remain and work in the area

David Ross, The Herald

They could be the first in a new wave of woodland dwellers in Scotland.

The east Sutherland village of Embo is leading a number of communities looking to buy local woodland to set up forest crofts.

They are applying to the lottery for £370,000 to buy 400 acres of the woodland near their tiny village in order to establish the first forest crofts on some of the 1.6 million acres Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) owns.

It’s three years since it was confirmed that the former Scottish Executive would allow the creation of new crofts on FCS land, but today there still aren’t any.

Some in government are known to feel that established Treasury rules, demanding that the sale of any public asset earns a market value, will prevent forest crofts from realising their transformational potential to tackle the problems of rural Scotland, not least the chronic need for affordable housing.

Other communities share Embo’s ambition, but none are as far down the road.

In January its application to purchase the “Fourpenny Plantation” was accepted by the FCS under the National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS). What is driving the project is a determination that young local people can put down roots, and not be forced to follow generations of their forebears in leaving Embo.

Twelve crofts of about 10 acres each are planned for the woodland by the Embo Trust (Urras Euraboil), the community body set up to spearhead the initiative. Rona Grigg, director and company secretary of the trust, explains: “We were concerned at the lack of opportunities for young people, who had grown up in the village, to remain and work here. With a population of 254 we have 29% over retirement age and 8% under 18.

“In 1901 the population was 550 with 41% under 18. When they can get suitable work, they find it very difficult to get a house to live in. Few have been able to afford any that come on the market.”

There was plenty of interest already, she said. “They would all use the land productively whether it be horticulture in poly tunnels, rearing poultry, coppicing there are many options, but the one thing is certain, any house built on the land would be tied to the land. It would be a tenancy, which could be passed down to you children and grandchildren. But this is for the community benefit and there would be none if in two years time a croft house is on the market as a holiday house.”

But the plans don’t stop at croft creation. Also envisaged are: a recreational area with paths suitable for walkers and cyclists in the northern 118 acres of the existing shelterbelt; a 55-acre nature reserve of mixed native woodland with interpretive signboards as a resource for locals, visitors and schools; the remaining 105 acres to be used primarily for a woodfuel business that would employ a part-time woodland manager; and finally a multi-purpose building using local timber, green roof and renewable energy for heating for use both by the trust and the community.

Jim McGillivary, the local councillor who chairs the trust, is worried that Embo could lose out on lottery money: “I think it is a concern of anyone applying for lottery money just now that they will lose out because of the London Olympics, but we have got to try. This could transform our demographic profile.”

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham agrees, telling The Herald: “The NFLS, uniquely, allows communities to apply to acquire any part of the national forest estate, whether it is deemed surplus or not, so that those communities can own and manage local woodlands to deliver benefits that meet the community’s needs.”