Seeing the woods and the trees
An innovative arrangement for managing community benefit funds from two wind farms in Stirlingshire has helped Carron Valley residents create a vibrant community-owned woodland.
Led by local development trust Valley Renewables Group (VRG), the Carron Valley community successfully took over 21 hectares (52 acres) of woodland near Carron Bridge village in November 2018. Since then, they have transformed an overgrown wilderness into an ecologically responsible community asset benefiting residents in many ways.
Following extensive community consultation, planning and negotiations, VRG completed a ‘community asset transfer’ in August 2018 under the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment Act. Forest Enterprise Scotland (part of the Forestry Commission) agreed to hand over the site in recognition of the community’s plans to create a recreational facility and responsible forestry activities benefiting local residents in various ways.
VRG obtained initial funding from the Scottish Land Fund to make the purchase and start activities. Foundation Scotland, VRG and the Community Council were already working in partnership to establish new devolved arrangements for managing community funds emanating from the nearby Earlsburn and Kingsburn wind farms, owned by Falck Renewables. It made sense to ringfence a portion of the funds towards the exciting new Community Woodland, enabling VRG to progress with plans for developing the site over the initial three years.
The Community Woodland
The site is located at the entrance to the Carron Valley Forest; the area is seen from the B818 road and to the left on entering the forest across Spittal Bridge. The northern third of the area, between the forest road and the River Carron, is semi-mature broadleaves and conifers, with two-thirds of the area, south of the forest road, being clear-felled in 2013 and replanted with Sitka Spruce. There is a handy flat open area of about half an acre at the entrance to the woodland, part hard standing and part a large open grassy area.
Before afforestation, the site was part of an upland sheep farm. A steading, some boundary walls and sheep fank are shown on an old 1917 Ordnance Survey map. Remains that were beside the old droving route are still to be found within the mature woodland. VRG discovered early on that ancestors grew rhubarb, at least!
An ecological survey in late 2018 showed a wide variety of habitats and wildlife. The north of the site includes stands of mature Norway Spruce and semi-mature broadleaves Beech and Sycamore. Small areas of the waterlogged ground around the forest road have acid flush and swamp habitats, including the locally scarce Water Sedge. Other open ground habitats included unimproved neutral grassland, tall waste-ground vegetation and acid grassland stands. South of the River Carron on open ground is tall-herb fen, marsh and neutral grassland habitats, including Water Sedge.
Two protected species (the Kingfisher and Common Cross-bill) and four high conservation species (Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Tree Pipit and Lesser Redpoll) have been recorded, and there is evidence of Otters, Pine Martens, and Red Squirrels. VRG will be monitoring numbers in the coming years and has also launched a red squirrel project.
Transforming the woodland
VRG has embarked on ambitious plans to:
- Increase public access and use
- Increase biodiversity
- Kick-start more community activity
- Create a sustainable source of wood fuel
A mountain bike trail uses the forest roads, and there is a Right of Way along the west boundary that leads up towards Tomtain (453m) and beyond. New footpaths have been made as green walkways within the mature woodland, and through the native woodland around the new pond, with seats at good viewpoints. Not all paths are fully accessible just yet - this is a work in progress! The paths link to an extensive network of other tracks and trails within the rest of the commercial woodland to the west.
At the bottom of the hill is a wet basin of deep peat, fed by many drainage ditches and springs coming off the hill. This site is being developed as an open water and wetland habitat. Ponds and wetlands are an increasingly scarce resource and provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. The peat basin has been re-shaped to form a large area of open water with shallow margins suitable for wetland species - sedges, reeds, rushes and wetland flowers like Meadowsweet and Valerian. The surrounds of the pond have been sown with wetland grass and flower seed mixes. A recycled plastic deck and jetty at the water’s edge are for pond-dipping, with lifebelts nearby for safety. A new path, with convenient benches, surrounds the pond.
Converting a commercial conifer plantation into a mixed species native woodland will take time. There is a wide variety of tree species, ages and spacings, mainly native broad-leaf species best suited to the area. New trees added include Aspen, Downy Birch, Common Alder, Willow, Rowan and Bird Cherry. There is also extensive natural regeneration of some of these species including the Willows, Alder and Downy Birch. Much of the work of assisting in the re-introduction of these native trees will continue to be done by Community volunteers, guided to date by a Woodland manager paid for in part by Kingsburn and Earlsburn Community Funds.
9,000 native broad-leaves have been planted on three-quarters of the area. The long-term plan is to coppice these for wood fuel - a traditional woodland management method. It involves repeatedly cutting down young tree stems to near ground level, resulting in a ‘stool’ from which new growth emerges and, after a few years, the coppiced tree is harvested, and the cycle begins over again. It is an easy and sustainable method of providing community wood fuel.
Small groups of young Sitka Spruce have been left to grow on within the mixed woodland. An area of Spruce has also been set aside for Community Christmas trees. These will be tagged for each community household registering an interest and will be pruned to shape during the summer and each tree replaced after felling.
The woodland has an approved 10-year management plan and all felling permissions in place from Forest and Land Scotland. Mature woodland management is being tackled in small areas, including windblown trees being harvested for wood fuel, whilst Norway Spruce and broad-leaves will be thinned to let light in. Sitka Spruce will be sensitively felled for wood fuel and replaced with native broadleaves and open ground. An area of mature conifers next to the river and overshadowing the homes at Roadmen’s Cottages will be felled and replanted with native species.
Much of the initial work was undertaken by contractors using specialised equipment and machinery. Pre-Covid, community volunteers took part in monthly workdays held on Saturdays, mainly during the summer, to do tree and weed control, grass cutting, pruning, seeding, and re-planting. In future, there will also be wood fuel weekends.
Other groups are welcome to join the work. Local scouts helped with seeding around the pond and they will be back to make and place bird, bat and owl boxes. VRG is hoping to run some workshops about that and also for some specialised skills training such as chainsawing!
There will normally be an annual Woodland Open Day and BBQ in June where everyone is invited to come and take part.
A Carron Valley Diversity Project has been set up on iNaturalist including an interactive activity for any visitors to the woodland to help gather more data on the diversity of the woodland’s wildlife.
A new community meeting space
Kingsburn and Earlsburn Community funds have also helped fund a lock-fast steel container with power and light which provides storage, a shelter and a rest area for volunteers. A much larger, joined pair of containers for use as a meeting room with an adjoining toilet block is being investigated. The large, open grass area is being regularly cut for woodland open days and other community events.
Plans for the future include foraging sites with fruit trees and bushes; an exercise trail; training courses in chain saw handling and safety; wildlife surveys to monitor species response to increasing woodland diversity and hides for viewing wildlife.
“Our devolved partnership with Valley Renewables Group is a great example of tailoring fund arrangements to suit different local contexts. Valley Renewables Group and Carron Valley residents have achieved a remarkable amount in taking over and developing the Community Woodland, and I know they have exciting plans for its future. The Falck Renewables Kingsburn and Earlsburn Wind Farm Funds will continue to play an important role in fuelling these ambitions.”
Malcolm Jack, Community Fund Manager at Foundation Scotland
“Thanks to Falck Renewables for enabling the restructuring into to an amenity woodland, making it a real asset to our Community”.
Margaret Porter, Chair of Valley Renewables Group (Development Trust for Carron Valley & District)