The economic and environmental benefits of planting trees on crofting ground will be in the spotlight this week, when the Croft Woodland conference takes place on Thursday and Friday in Boat of Garten.
Organised by The Woodland Trust and and Scottish Forestry, formerly the Forestry Commission for Scotland, the conference will start by celebrating the impact of 25 years of crofter forestry following the Crofter Forestry (Scotland) Act of 1991.
Its architect, former Western Isles MP Calum Macdonald, and Assynt Crofter Bill Ritchie, who played a leading role in the development of crofter forestry, will be speaking on the first morning of the conference.
Bill Ritchie, a leading mover in the pioneering community buyout of Assynt estate, recalls: “Assynt took the title to their 21,000 acre estate in 1993 and planted the forestry – around 1000 hectares of woodland on the common grazings – over the next five or six years. Ten townships were involved. Assynt was by far the biggest scheme – nearly 10 per cent of all the crofter woodland – and now there’s a substantial amount of woodland growing on the common grazings.
“The Crofter Forestry Act was very important and Calum was responsible for that. He was the person who steered it through Parliament.”
Calum explained: “Prior to this, the rights of crofters over their grazings were just what they had been for 100 years, namely grazing your animals and cutting peat. But in the1980s there was a revival of interest and a change in the image of crofting, led by people like Bill Ritchie and Jim Hunter.
“Whereas in the 1960s and 70s policy makers and Governments had viewed it as an archaic and inefficient type of agriculture, the newly-established Crofters Union began articulating a modern vision of crofting as ideally suited to delivering environmental and social benefits in a responsible and sustainable way.
“The problem was that the rights of crofters were still stuck in the 19th Century and they were unable to take advantage of new economic and environmental opportunities such as the widely-recognised need to plant more trees. The only people able to plant trees in the Highlands were multi-millionaires using it as a tax dodge.
“The Act changed all that. It gave crofters both ownership of, and funding for, trees on their common grazings. Communities all over the Highlands took advantage of it and it gave a big boost to the community woodland movement generally across the whole of Scotland.”
Duncan Mackay was clerk to the Sandwick North Street township in Lewis which was one of the first to take advantage of the new Act. He told how the scheme had a transformational effect on crofting community finances as well as on their physical surroundings.
He said: “Before the Crofter Forestry Act came along we were struggling to raise £70 for fertiliser for the grazings. Every place was struggling then, because if you wanted to do improvements, you had to go round begging for money.”
With the passage of the Crofter Forestry Act, common grazings committee could receive £5,000 a year for 15 years in compensation for planting 100 hectares or 190,000 trees.
Having that money meant the grazings committee were always able to find their share of the costs of improvements that were needed – for the fank, fencing, reseeding or drainage – and also had some money for village amenity improvements such as flower baskets and to give to the over-65s and any villagers needing to pay for travel to competitions or events.
“We never looked back once that came in. It absolutely changed grazings and agriculture. It changed the whole concept.”
Bill Ritchie estimated that more than 10 million trees were planted throughout the crofting counties under the scheme and said it was “a wonderful gift to give to the next generation”.
He said: “It will be for the next generation to decide what to do with these woodlands. We’ve given a very valuable resource to the next generation. When I was doing this 25 years ago, I was a young whippersnapper crofter. Now my grandson is out planting trees.
“They say the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago. The next best time is now. And that’s why I love the fact my grandson is out there, planting trees now.
Calum Macdonald, who now develops community wind farms including Point and Sandwick Trust’s award-winning Beinn Ghrideag, agreed.
“Although the first 25 year of crofter forestry has been hugely successful, we need to see it as only a start of what needs to be done, especially with the Climate Change Committee now saying we need another 3 billion trees planted by 2050. And it’s not just trees. Why shouldn’t crofters have the right to harvest wind energy as well peat? Why not the right to plant wind turbines as well as trees?
“I was also part of the Scottish Office team that brought in Devolution in 1999 and if there is one thing I find really disappointing it is the lack of further progress on crofting rights and progress.
"We have half a million hectares in crofting tenure and 5,000 communities organised into grazings committees yet successive Governments still see this as an embarrassing anachronism instead of a unique Scottish strength that should be central to land use policy in the 21st Century.”
Photograph: Calum Macdonald is pictured against the backdrop of the common grazings trees by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos