Forest Freedom

During the summer holidays last year, some local teachers began the hard task of clearing up an area of woodland near to one of the local schools. Located on the outskirts of the town and enclosed by buildings, it was an area that you never really noticed. Pleas for help were answered by both adults and children and by the time the schools started back in August, a huge amount of rubbish and debris had been cleared from the site and an entrance made into the trees.

“Forest Friday” became a regular occurrence in the school whereby a group of children had the opportunity to engage in a short period of outdoor learning. Entire classes have also taken the chance to study outdoors as have nursery pupils and the charges of local childminders. The local community have also been very supportive and have embraced the area wholeheartedly and the help and assistance from others in maintaining and enhancing the site has been invaluable. Preschool aged children have made pathways lined with boulders and some of the dens that have sprung up are works of art. Many hours have since been spent by people with no previous involvement with the Forest or school litter picking, removing items that have been dumped or clearing areas back. Logs have been donated that have allowed Gathering Circles for sitting at to be created and recently, a successful pitch was made at Your Cash Your Caithness for a £1000 donation that allowed an all access path to be created so that wheelchairs and buggies can have an easier route through the woods.

Your Cash, Your Caithness was an initiative that sprung up to allow local communities a greater say in how ward discretionary budgets from Highland Council were spent. Community groups apply with their ideas which are then shortlisted before being voted upon by the public. An event is held locally where the shortlisted groups present their case in front of the audience and the audience then makes the difficult decision of which groups are awarded the available money. This process has led to far more community engagement with local groups,and greater transparency within the council as to where money is being spent.

Work within the Forest is far from over with hopes for an outdoor classroom to be built and it has been a joy to see how much fun the children have from learning to tie knots, planting new young trees and whittling wood to simply playing in the mud. Not too far away, the long established Board of Dunnet Forestry Trust is in the process of buying Dunnet Forest from the Forestry Commission. Already an extremely popular recreational haunt, directly across from the eternally golden sands of Dunnet beach, Caithnessians have for years visited here to walk their dogs or for school trips. This buyout, with help from the Scottish Land Trust, aims to build upon the wonderful woodlands already available here to ensure their survival for generations to come with autonomy for local residents.

Laide Wood is now more than a decade into being a fully fledged community woodland and bears no resemblance now to what it used to be. From Easter egg hunts to simply being a tranquil meander around the beauty of Wester Ross, this is only possible because of the dedication of the volunteers who run these woodlands and allow them to flourish. Continually evolving and mainly supported by donations and membership, it grows and changes year upon year. Easter Ross meanwhile boasts the fabulous Evanton Community Wood which this week won the accolade of becoming Scotland’s first dementia friendly woodland. Working with Paths For All, the uniformed volunteers helped to make the area wheelchair friendly and produced dementia friendly signs. “If outdoor spaces are well designed for someone living with dementia then they are well designed for everyone”. This simple quote speaks volumes and is surely the way that we should look at everything going forward.

Last year, the Scottish Government launched “Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-29”, a consultation into how to build upon the work already being done within the sector and a draft response has now been published. With other initiatives and quangos ensuring that bit by bit, Scotland’s countryside is transferred to community ownership, you can’t help compare the dynamics between Holyrood and Westminster and remember the disastrous tax break scheme of the 1980s where the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland were ruined by a non-native treeplanting scheme brought in by the Tories. Work is now ongoing to remove these plantings thanks to the Scottish Government but it will take a century before the natural habitat of the Flow Country will return to what it should be. 30 years on, it may be different faces in the Government but the Tory principles are as strong as they ever were – to do what is best for them and Scotland just has to put up with it. At least, in a further 30 years from now, when the peatlands begin to return to their native state, I am confident that my children will not have to suffer the Tory governance that we did and Scotland is finally, and rightly, in charge of her future.