Creation of the Forres Community Woodlands Trust
The following is drawn from an article on the web by Fabio Villani who was one of the leading enthusiasts for the project and the first Chairman of the FCWT.
In 1998 during the consultation process for the Moray Development Plan, it was realised that the Muiry Wood, a much used and loved area of woodland on the outskirts of Forres, was being afforded no protection against unwelcome development.
The woodland, belonging to the Moray Council, was the last remnant (32 acres) of a large area which had belonged to the town of Forres until the 1970s. Despite the popularity of the Muiry Wood with walkers and dog-walkers, the Development Plan recognised the woodland only as a commercial woodland.
The only protection the Plan was going to extend to the Muiry was as Countryside Around Towns (CAT). Given that a very large development contrary to the Local Plan had been pushed through only a few months previously, and given that a large housing development was being proposed nearby at the same time, it is not surprising that the protection afforded by the CAT designation was not felt to be adequate.
A community group was formed to work in partnership with the Moray Council to allow users and local residents to become actively involved in the management of the woodland. Support was sought and received from the Forres Community Council, the Forres Community Forum Ltd (a local charitable company) and the Forres Gazette as well as from members of the community at large. This was achieved through letters, personal contacts, networking, presentations and public meetings.
While these preparations were in progress it was discovered that the adjacent woodland was going to be sold to a private buyer. This area of woodland, along with the 32 acres mentioned above, was originally part of a large area of land in mixed use that was managed by the last Town Council of Forres as part of the Forres Common Good Properties.
It was sold to a private buyer by the Town Council in 1973, shortly before its dissolution, to avoid any possible asset stripping by the embryonic Grampian Regional Council, based in Aberdeen. The money raised was re-invested within Forres and used to build Forres House Community Centre. A letter was sent to the sellers, putting the case for sale to the community. Once again support was sought and obtained from individuals and community groups as well as from the local Councillors and the Forres Gazette.
Meanwhile, negotiations with the Moray Council were concluded, and the Muiry Wood Community Woodlands Association (MWCWA) was constituted and an executive committee duly elected, at the inaugural meeting in September 1999. Barely two weeks afterwards, the owners of the neighbouring land offered the sale of 40 acres of that land at the cost of £24,000, subject to the transaction being finalised by the end of 1999, less than three months away. This was a tight deadline as funds amounted to just a few hundred pounds. Although, the offer did not include the whole of the area being sold it was conditionally accepted, subject to confirmation of funding being available.
The MWCWA Committee concentrated on seeking grant aid rather than on the slower route of organizing fund-raising events locally. The objective fitted very well within their guidelines of the Community Land Unit (CLU) of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and help was available from the CLU to prepare the bid as well as to raise the funds. The Committee applied for, and were awarded, £2,000 to cover surveyors’ and solicitors’ fees as well as publicity and administration costs related to the land acquisition.
The MWCWA had been set up to work in partnership with the Moray Council to manage that part of the woodland for which the council retained full responsibility. However, to own and manage woodlands it needed to become a limited company dedicated to the promotion of woodlands for the public benefit. Therefore, with legal advice from the HIE CLU, the Forres Community Woodlands Trust (FCWT), was set up as a limited company with very similar aims to those of the MWCWA which was dissolved.
The HIE CLU offered a grant of £18,000 and a loan of £5,000 repayable over 12 months, leaving initially only £1,000 to be raised locally before the deadline. Additionally, the survey and valuation which the MWCWA had commissioned from Grove Forestry had revealed that a generous Woodland Grant Scheme (WGS) agreement, dating back to 1995, would be transferred along with the land title. However, the planting and regeneration mix did not reflect the actual conditions on the ground and had to be re-negotiated with the Forestry Commission in time for planting to be completed by the end of March 2000.
To meet the deadline, the Committee met most weeks and daunting amounts of work were achieved by unpaid volunteers between meetings; grant application proposals were completed and a management plan written whilst the legal details such as boundaries, access and responsibility for the maintenance of shared fences were dientified. Importantly, the initial community share of the purchase cost was raised and the land finally returned to the community ownership of the FCWT on 1st March 2000. The WGS was also satisfactorily re-negotiated and planting was carried out by the end of March deadline, thanks to the combined efforts of volunteer labour and local contractor.
Early days of Forres Community Woodlands Trust
Once the Land Purchase was complete, the FCWT was involved in the management of three quite different areas
The area owned by the Moray Council, where the role of the Trust was more akin to that of an advisory watchdog group than a manager with direct control. This was a fairly mature Scots pine plantation, approximately 75 years old, covering some 13 hectares. A small number of self-sown broadleaves were also present in this area, as well as some invasive exotic species, particularly rhododendrons. A few coupes were felled in this area in spring 1999, to provide the opportunity to introduce some diversity of both species and age structure in this part of the woodland. This and the control of exotic species within a continuous forestry cover was to constitute the extent of active management in this area.
The area to the north-east of the mature pine (just over 10 hectares) was now owned and controlled by the FCWT. It was clear-felled by the previous owner in the early 1990s and was in 2000 a good example of lowland heathland at the early stages of colonisation by pine and birch thanks to natural regeneration.
The supplementary planting carried out in this area after re-negotiating the WGS with the Forestry Commission was a scattered mix of native broadleaves plus a deep band of Scots pine along the northern boundary. Some 20 per cent of the area was to be kept as open ground, both to maintain the visual character of the area and to retain and encourage bio-diversity. This part of the land was to be used mainly for informal recreation and as an educational facility. Work planned for the area included some unobtrusive car parking facilities, path improvements and signage.
To the east of this, separated by a minor but busy road, lay a further five hectares, which also belong to the FCWT. This area had not been used by the public as much as the previous two, and some of it is more fertile ground had well established regeneration, mainly birch with small numbers of rowan, holly, larch and Scots pine. The supplementary planting carried out aimed to demonstrate a range of different forestry systems, including a large percentage of native hardwoods, an area of which was to be used to demonstrate coppicing, and an area planted with sitka spruce. This site would itself to hands-on training sessions in various techniques, from coppicing and green-woodworking to willow-sculpture and small scale harvesting. In the longer term it was proposed that a forest garden might be established there as a working model of permaculture. Improvements to the infrastructure were also planned to facilitate access and interpretation.
In 2001 to improve access to the Muiry Wood and New Forres Wood, grant funding was achieved from the Landfill Tax Fund and the Forestry Commission to enable car parks to be built and paths enhanced.
It was for sale in 5 lots with offers over £133,000 asked for the whole. Over the next 4 weeks, the FCWT made a massive effort working, or so it seemed, around the clock and involving valuation; petitioning; feasibility planning; public relations; public funding applications and private fund raising.
At a public meeting, the Community gave unequivocal support for only one course of action: buy!
The support from the Forres public was outstanding with private donations of £56,000 raised or pledged. In addition, funding of around £91,000 was provided by HIE, Moray Council and SNH. This enabled a successful bid for all 5 lots of £145,000 which was successful just before Xmas 2002. The Forres Woodlands Trust was now undoubtedly a Community Trust.
Since the creation of the Forres Community Woodlands Trust, the Woodlands have been managed by a small group of Trustees. Several of these served from the creation of the Trust for many years including Mrs Pat Johnstone, Ian Suttie, George Alexander, Bruno Crawley. Fabio Villani was the initial Chairman and then Chris Piper a forestry consultant took on this post in early 2002. Under his dynamic chairmanship, the Trust developed utilising a series of Management Plans to identify the way forward. Chris Wortley took over the Chair in 2008 with Chris Piper remaining as one of the Trustees. In December 2012 there was a significant change of Trustees as the company rules required the resignations of several long serving Trustees. A list of current Trustees can be found on the Office page.
Creation of a wild flower meadow – 2015
The small clear area in the middle of Sanquhar Woodlands known locally as ‘The Coffin Field’ was originally purchased from Altyre Estate with the aim of making it a Natural Burial Site. However, investigation of the soil composition showed that the area could not meet the planning requirements of Moray Council and SEPA for such use. Therefore, the FCWT Board have decided to develop it as a ‘Wildflower Meadow’ and encourage biodiversity in this area.
Volunteers removed the old wire fencing that marked the boundary of some parts of the field. The volunteers then planted trees and bushes to replace the wire fence with a hedge and these are currently protected with plastic guards. To encourage the growth of the wildflowers, the meadow was cut in late 2014 and the cuttings removed to reduce the nutrient content of the soil.
In early spring 2015, as the grass began to grow, volunteers mowed a small area where orchids, identified by experts as ‘atypical or unusual morph of northern marsh orchid’, had been discovered: the grass cuttings were once again removed.
This encouraged the orchids to flourish and by late June there were a significantly larger number than last year. This process will be repeated in future years.
Yellow rattle has been found in the field.
It helps keep grasses in check (as well as being good for the beleaguered bumble bees), so in the medium to long term the vigour of the grass in the coffin field will be reduced, while wildflowers such as the orchids will be able to spread more easily.
We plan to continue to reduce nutrient levels by removing the grass after cutting and allowing the yellow rattle to flourish, so that in future the grass won’t grow as tall, and hopefully orchids and other wildflowers will be abundant across the whole field. This will be fantastic for biodiversity, as well as providing a superb visual display. From a meadow management perspective, it is essential that the wild flowers present, including the northern marsh orchids and yellow rattle, have a chance to set seed. Therefore, the grass in the majority of the meadow will not be cut until late August and once again the cuttings will be removed.
Bracken has grown around some parts of the field. To reduce its impact and hopefully prevent it spreading, Nick Molnar and his Clydesdale horse Tommy ‘bashed back’ the bracken in an eco friendly manner and we will have to wait and see what impact this has.
The grass cutting was undertaken in early September by Moray Council under contract from the FCWT.
Great care was taken to avoid the areas where new trees have been planted and where the orchids grow.
The height of cut was adjusted where necessary. The grass is allowed to lay for a few days before being removed. This process will reduce the amount of nutrients available in the soil and will therefore encourage the growth of the wild flowers.
Forres Community Woodlands commended in 2016
Forres Community Woodlands Trust was awarded a commendation in the Healthy Lifestyle Competition of The Scottish Finest Woods Awards 2016. The judges visited Sanquhar, Muiry and Newforres Woodlands in early summer and interviewed members of FCWT Board before delivering their verdict. A commemorative rosewood plaque and certificate were later presented to the FCWT as seen below.