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September 24, 2014

Enterprising woodlands

The community woodlands movement is thriving at the moment – as anyone who attended their recent gathering in Dunbar will testify.  Beyond those who have an active knowledge of the woodland world, the most common perception of a community woodland would be as a place to take a nice stroll. While that’s true for some, there is often much more going on under the surface. Some even manage to turn their patch of woodland into a sustainable business. Kilfinan, in Argyll for example.



Hope Whitmore, The Guardian

 “Some people,” says Rob Borruso, “are more squeamish about chopping trees than they are about killing chickens.” Watching a log being fed into the sawblade, I can understand why.

It’s a little ironic that at the heart of Kilfinan Community Forest is the timber operation which helps to make the forest sustainable. We stand back and watch as a long, thin log is strapped to a machine, and then cleaned before the moving blade is adjusted. BBC Radio 1 is playing in the shed, and as the tree is prepared, a Kasabian song with a fast beat begins to play, as though anticipating the destruction of the log. We all laugh – but it’s hard not to wince when the blade bites into the grain.

The truth is that this lumber has been vital for the forest. After a storm last year, the group sold off 90% of the fallen wood to bring in vital revenue. The remaining 10% they kept for their own use; there is evidence of carpentry everywhere as soon as you enter Kilfinan. There are picnic benches, engraved signposts, and a hut with an arch-shaped roof and feeders for the bird, all made from the trees around us. Looking down from the site you see the Argyll coast, and behind it the sea, hills, and small islands half hidden by the mist. Everything is a soft water colour, grey and green.

I’ve been walking through the forest with Nikki Brown, development manager, and Borruso, engineer turned director. We’ve come up a peaty path winding past oaks, birches and sycamores, though these are sparse and a tangle of branches lie on the ground. “This is our native area of woodland,” says Brown. “It got very badly damaged by the storms in December, we lost about 50%. It was such a shame, and some of the old oak trees went.”

In 2010, after five years of hard work and fundraising, the local community finally succeeded in a radical project to buy the 127 hectares (314 acres) that make up Kilfinan Community Forest. With the help of funding from organisations including Highland and Islands Enterprise and Argyll and the Islands Leader, the community forest is the most advanced project of its kind you will find in Scotland.

The group is now trading timber, and in October they’ll start work to harness the burn which runs through the forest, creating enough hydro power to allow the forest to become financially self-supporting. There are also plans to build wooden houses within the forest to provide affordable accommodation for people with a local connection. The plan initially features seven, but will ultimately be 20, creating a small hamlet of forest dwellers. The people who live there will have to accept the presence of timber trucks and the sound of wood cutting. “But we have this view!” says Brown, motioning to the coast.

“What I see isn’t the view,” said Borruso, “what I see is 50mph horizontal rain, and creating housing that will stand up to that.” Andrew Graham-Weall points out: “They’ll be really nice houses to live in though. Much lighter than a brick house, no damp and so easy to heat.”

Graham-Weall, owner of the nearby Tighnabruaich Art Gallery, has made a boat out of larch from the forest. It is painted white and trimmed with seaside blue. He tells me about a day he spent recently with some volunteers in the forest. “We ran a day taking a tree down and demonstrating how to use it, we turned some into planks for usable timber, one thing we made was a wood table and in the evening we ate supper off it. People were gobsmacked – they know wooden furniture is made from trees – but that this is how you use the piece of wood, they were amazed at the connection.”

He talks lovingly of the projects in the forest; the vernacular style of furniture which the group will make their own and share with the community through wood workshops, the polytunnel allotments with their glorious tomatoes and fat marrows, the forest school where the children from the primary now go as part of their curriculum: “They learn about making fires safely, making a shelter, they made a fire pit recently.”

The whole ethos is about getting people involved, through running workshops, volunteering programmes, and recently a survey of the forest’s archaeology with Clare Ellis from Argyll Archaeology. We continue through the forest past the squirrel walk, created by students from the secondary school. “We had five of them here for four weeks over summer, they came up for three or four days a week and we paid them, they learned how to make benches and made things,” says Brown. “They made a squirrel walk and this bench. There are limited paid opportunities round here for young people, and it’s one of the things that we’re really about.”

Finally we walk through the polytunnel allotments, a glorious cornucopia of squashes, tomatoes, sweet peas and lettuce. Forty local families are involved in the allotments, making 70 or so people in total, and with the building of a new polytunnel they’re planning to double that. For such a small village, a lot of people are already involved.

“It’s important to get people involved,” says Borruso, “because people care about things if they feel they own it, or own part of it, it’s about taking ownership, physically and metaphorically … there’s a great Indian-American proverb, the white man used to say, you have to see the west, you have to see the prairies to believe it, and the Indians said you need to believe the prairies to see them – it’s like that, you need to believe the project to see it, rather than see it to believe it.