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January 24, 2023

Crofting with a woodland twist

With respect to the rural housing crisis, if necessity is the mother of invention, the only inventiveness at the moment seems to be coming from communities – the latest example from within the community woodlands movement. An idea more commonly found elsewhere than in Scotland, but one that has nonetheless long been championed by a small but committed group of enthusiasts – woodland crofts.  A form of human-scale forestry, the concept melds crofting legislation with forestry regulation and aims to deliver the multiple benefits of affordable housing, sustainable livelihoods and good stewardship of the land. Glengarry Community Woodlands is leading the way.

Severin Carrell

“It’s very exciting,” said Colin Grant, a fifth-generation farmer in Glengarry near Fort William. Grant has seen his community dwindle over the decades but now the village is at the centre of a novel experiment that could help repopulate the Highlands.

Local people in Glengarry are creating woodland crofts in nearby forests – affordable family homes designed for craftspeople, carpenters and small-scale farmers, using a shared ownership model designed to combat the soaring costs of scarce rural homes.

Glengarry’s experiment is being watched closely by rural housing and land reform campaigners across Scotland, as well as Scottish government ministers, curious about whether this model could help solve rural Scotland’s housing crisis.

There has been a recent surge of interest in woodland crofts, caused by the Covid crisis, Brexit, and a growing desire for low-carbon living, said Jamie McIntyre, who co-founded the Woodland Crofts Partnership, an advocacy and advice campaign.

“The Covid pandemic caused a lot of people to reassess and look for a different lifestyle and we see that in the rural housing market as well,” McIntyre said. People now realise they can work remotely. “On an individual level, living and working on a woodland croft is low carbon living par excellence, ideally in a timber-built house, heated with fuel and eating food grown on land around you.”

“It’s very exciting, this project, because there has been a need for affordable housing for quite a few decades,” Grant said. “There’s a positive feel about it amongst a vast majority of the community. It’s seen as strengthening the community.”

Over the decades, he said, Forestry Commission workers moved out, as did the hydro engineers. The village shop closed 30 years ago. In a trend repeated across rural Britain, cottages were bought up for second homes and holiday lets, driving up prices; around a quarter of local homes are frequently dark and empty outside the holiday seasons.

“Jobs have just vanished and while tourism has grown, it’s not enough. There’s a need for more job opportunities.”

So Grant and his neighbours, about 100 of them, set up a community-run company called Glengarry Community Woodland which now owns 78ha (193 acres) of forest and open land, backed by £193,000 from the Scottish Land Fund, a government body that part-finances community buyouts.

In collaboration with the Community Housing Trust, an affordable housing charity that bought 19ha immediately beside Glengarry’s largest 47ha plot, they plan to build four affordable homes and create six woodland crofts, offering those as a mixture of tenancies and self-build projects looking south over Loch Garry.

It will be partly financed by income from six new off-grid forest cabins for holiday lets the community group is building, with larch from their forest, after raising just under £250,000 from crowd-sourced equity funding in December, to cash in on the growth of eco-tourism.

Tom Cooper, Glengarry Community Woodland’s development manager, said these homes would mix the strict rules of crofting tenure where crofters, registered by the Crofting Commission, have to actively work and live on their land, and the principles of shared equity. The community trust will part own the land.

Colin Grant, a fifth generation farmer in Glengarry, near Fort William. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“We’re expecting crofters to be able to manage the woodland, and will have to demonstrate that when they apply for the croft,” he said. “They’re not just going to be open to everyone.

“Very few crofters want to make their sole income from the croft. You might work part-time in tourism, which is a very seasonal industry here. You might work at weekends on the croft, to bring in additional income.”

There have been numerous privately owned woodland crofts dotted around Scotland, and the first community-owned scheme began in north-west Mull in 2012.

McIntyre has recently tracked projects springing up across the Highlands and islands, including on Skye, at Kilfinan in Argyll and Tiroran on south-west Mull. Near Ullapool, Loch Broom Community Renewables, which already runs a 100kw hydro power station, is buying 94ha of surrounding forest for woodland crofting. It feels like a tipping point, he said.

The Crofting Federation, a campaigning group, wants 10,000 new crofts built in Scotland: half should be woodland crofts, it believes. McIntyre has lobbied Forestry and Land Scotland, the state-owned forestry agency, to allow crofts on its land. “You should do woodland crofts on the national forest estate: that would be a really important natural next step,” he said.

Ronnie MacRae, the Community Housing Trust’s chief executive, said Glengarry’s model could provide proof that collaborative, mixed-tenure crofting works. It met several needs: affordable rural housing, net zero living and sustaining rural economies. “We know that there’s demand and I think that’s growing,” he said. “There’s a big appetite from most small rural communities to get more housing choices.”

Grant said Glengarry hoped to become a pioneer. “The thing which is exciting us, if it goes well, it could be a model for others to follow. That’s what we really like about it. Its reputation and a proven track record could go a long way.”