Involving private land owners and the community in restoring Atlantic oakwoods forests in Scotland
The Atlantic oakwoods of Scotland are remnants of a band of ancient semi-natural forest that once followed the Atlantic coastline as far south as Spain and Portugal. These temperate rain forests are especially rich in lower plants.
In Scotland, the oak woodlands used to play an economic important role for small rural communities. They provided grazing and shelter for livestock, a renewable source of timber and firewood, plentiful wild game and, later, charcoal for small-scale iron smelting and bark for tanning leather.
However, this localised management practice has gradually disappeared, first in the face of large-scale commercial felling for the iron and shipbuilding industries, then through the planting of fast growing conifers as part of the Government’s policy to establish a strategic timber resource. Increased grazing pressure by deer and sheep also took a heavy toll on the forests’ potential to regenerate itself, as did the invasion of the exotic rhododendron. The oakwoods were left depleted, both in terms of their biodiversity and their potential to provide local community benefits.
Reconnecting people with their forests
Undoing the effects of the management of the last 300 years is not an easy task. Part of the solution lies in trying to ‘re-connect’ local communities with their forests. Unlike some forest habitats that are best left untouched from a conservation point of view, Atlantic oakwoods do lend themselves well to positive management. The restoration of the oakwoods of Loch Sunart in Scotland is perhaps the best example of this approach, due, largely, to the strong sense of local community and a desire to promote the sustainable use of natural resources.
Conservation management at Loch Sunart has been supported through two LIFE-Nature projects. The first was part of a strategic project on seven Sites of Community Interest (SCI sites) proposed by the UK for the habitat type ‘Old oak woods with
Ilex and Blechnum in the British Isles’. The project set out to restore these pSCIs to a more favourable condition by removing the threats compromising the habitat. The main actions were the removal of rhododendron or under-planted conifers to allow the natural regeneration of oaks and other native trees. Wherever possible this was combined with the control of deer populations.
The second project took the conservation issues one step further by focussing on finding long term management solutions for the forests. Both projects were run by the Caledonian Partnership, itself an innovative partnership between Government forestry and conservation agencies, conservation NGOs and research bodies to promote large-scale conservation projects in Scotland.
Because of the multiple ownership of the forests in Scotland, consensus building and developing coordinated management approaches has been one of the greatest challenges. The Caledonian Partnership projects have pioneered the concept of Local Operational Planning Teams to ensure that discussions and delivery of the project actions are taken at the local level.
Made up of local officers from the relevant countryside conservation agencies, together with the Forestry Commission, these teams work in partnership with individual owners at a ‘grass roots’ level to seek a consensus on the measures to be implemented for a particular site. By pooling the different types of expertise together, they can design activities that are not only appropriate for the conservation of the forests, but are also economically attractive to the local people.
At the Loch Sunart pSCI, Forest Enterprise (the executive agency of the Government’s Forestry Commission), was able to access additional funds from outside the project to train local people in the skills necessary to undertake habitat restoration work within the LIFE project. The work was also supported by Sunart Oakwoods Initiative a community-led culture and conservation initiative.
Linking in with Rural Development
Other factors influencing the acceptability of the actions funded through the EU LIFE-fund were that the restoration actions could be closely linked to the Forestry Commission’s grant schemes which encouraged work with the private sector. By acting as a complementary fund, LIFE could ensure the highest quality conservation management of key sites.
The land owners have benefited, not just because the funds provide much needed start up capital for getting conservation friendly woodland management schemes off the ground, but also because they can see a clear policy commitment towards restoring native woodlands. This in turn creates a favourable climate for launching new small-scale economic ventures in the forestry sector.
The fact that rhododendron clearance has since been included as an eligible measure for funding under the latest woodland grant schemes is another major achievement of these LIFE projects in terms of containing and hopefully eradicating this highly invasive and persistent alien species from Scottish woods.
Perspectives for the longer term
The Sunart oakwood experience shows a good link between Natura 2000 and rural development. Working locally with the communities directly concerned has helped to maximise the contribution that sustainable management of local woodlands can make to the local economy. The special nature of the oakwoods does place particular demands on management but also offers unique opportunities. Local skills were needed to support woodland management, leading to the setting up of local training initiatives.
Initially this was to provide labour for direct woodland management but, with time, the skills are also supporting other business activities which can make use of the timber. In a remote area, such as Loch Sunart, with high transport costs, it is important to aim for local uses. Timber from the Sunart oakwoods has been used for wood-fuel, boat-building, fencing, house construction and craft work.
Woodland management actions have also included improvements to access, interpretation and visitor facilities thus helping to support the development of a local ‘green’ tourism industry. The development of the local skills and the infrastructure, as well as the development of a strategic view for the sustainable management and development of these woods could guarrantee the future conservation and protection of these Natura 2000 sites and their forest habitats.
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