Evanton village sits just off the A9 on the Cromarty Firth just 16 miles north of Inverness. A thriving village serving a local population of around 1200, Evanton has one amenity that has grown (literally) from strength to strength – a community woodland, as Simon Harry explains.
The 65 hectare (150 acre) mixed, mainly coniferous, woodland was purchased from the Novar estate some years after the estate initially approached the community. Evanton Wood Community Company (EWCC) was formed to take on the project and register under the Land Reform Act. Some 4 years later, after completion of various studies and plans, an initial disappointment from the Big Lottery and a wholesale change in the initial board, followed by a refocusing on community involvement, the group gained the support of the Heritage Lottery to purchase the wood and run a 5-Year Action Plan. One third match funding was sourced from local wind-farm grants, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, landfill and other grants plus support from local businesses. This all came together to allow community purchase, at just below the valuation price, in September 2012.
The Novar Estate records of 1882 state: ‘The wood is now about 64 years old and composed of Scots fir, larch and patches of hardwoods: Beech, Oak, Ash & Elm and also a few clumps of Spruce. The fir and larch are very well grown and clean timber – with fine long straight poles and some very heavy especially amongst the hard woods .… .’ This timeline suggests that the wood was planted when the area was in the ownership of the Alexander Fraser of Inchcoulter (aka Balconie) who planned the village in the early 1800s and named it after his son Evan. The same Mr.Fraser was an active owner and manager of slave plantations in Grenada and benefited from the government pay-outs to such owners after Emancipation of 1833. It is entirely likely that Evanton Wood was partly planted with funds from this source.
Since the mid-1950s the wood has been managed by a system of continuous cover/lower impact silviculture and in 2003 won the Hunter Blair trophy for silvicultural excellence. An underlying aim of community ownership is to continue this style of management at the same time as opening up the wood to increased community use and benefit.
Simon Harry has been involved in the wood since shortly after the community purchase when he took on the position of Education and Outreach Coordinator. He has seen the wood go from strength to strength with newly created activity areas, upgraded footpaths, new wetland habitats and a woodland classroom built from timber sourced mainly from the forest. “This building project literally grew arms and legs and took almost a year to complete”, says Simon. “The hard work of all the volunteers and schools involved with the project paid off when, in partnership with Dingwall Academy, we won the education category of Scottish Finest Woods Award in 2015.”
The two local Nurseries visit weekly and require only modest input; the two Special Schools in the area also visit weekly, with more hands-on involvement by staff and volunteers. A work in progress is the creation of an accessible natural play area close to the cabin from an area cleared of western hemlock. “With the development of the cabin and state-of-the-art composting loo, also the publication of our own educational resources and availability of volunteer input, we have been able to host an increased number of schools who use the site throughout the year. This is encouraging as it shows that schools are increasingly seeing outdoor learning as an integral part of the learning process,” says Simon.
It is not just school groups and the local community that are benefiting from the developments within the woods. Groups supporting adult learners, dementia patients and people with long-term mental health challenges are also finding positive rewards from using the woodland setting. Recently a 10-week pilot programme was run in partnership with NHS Highland helping local dementia sufferers through a series of outdoor activities ranging from art, music and green woodworking to exploration and woodland cooking. The family members have commented on how much their relatives have gained from this experience.
Partnership working has brought various dividends. “We are also fortunate to have a great working relationship with a number of organisations such as the Forestry Commission, TCV and Community Payback team who have supported our projects,” says Simon. “We have drawn on the expertise, manpower and innovative approaches to experiencing the woodland environment of these agencies, to our mutual benefit”.
“Having seen first-hand the positive effects that woodlands provide has meant that we are able to tailor our provision to whichever groups comes into the woods”, says Simon. “We offer programmes that are learner-led with achievable tasks and we can really see the positive effects particularly in the area of health and well-being through engaging in the woodland environment. It is widely known that woodlands can raise the spirits, calm the mind and generate a feeling of well-being in almost all who visit them, and our aim at Evanton wood is to further support and promote this”.
Enabling both community groups and teachers in their use of the woodland is a key aim of the work of the education coordinator. “There is much scope for schools and colleges to use woodlands to support their pupils learning outcomes, providing an ever-changing resource to inspire and enthuse. Think about holding a numeracy or literacy lesson outdoors,” says Simon, “folk are more likely to engage when their surroundings are conducive to the learning process”.
The importance of volunteers
At the heart of any such community buy-out is a cohort of volunteers who fill many roles to carry out the day-to-day practicalities of managing a woodland. Evanton Wood has such a core of volunteers that do this and more, whilst supporting the role of the education co coordinator. This support ranges from ensuring the cabin is warm for visiting groups, providing much needed practical skills e.g. electrics, slating and carpentry , through to working with visiting groups and helping to run sessions.
Kennie McCusker is a regular volunteer in the wood who brings with him experience ranging from woodland management and bush-craft to practical building experience. “I try to volunteer as much as I can,” says Kennie “there is a real sense of community buy-in to this project. Knowing many folk who live in the village I’m often told how pleased they are with what is going on in the woods, and to see so many using the woods particularly the young children.”
Recent work with NHS Highland has demonstrated that there is a real need for suitable locations where individuals can get involved in practical outdoor tasks. “We have had many requests from organisations that support both young and old to provide volunteering opportunities” says David Smith, chair of the board and himself a regular volunteer. “We try to support as many as possible because we know the benefits that this involvement to the individuals and the project. The great thing about the success of this project is that it is the culmination of input not by a few but by many. Take the cabin for instance – the nursery through to pensioners were involved, everyone played a part”.
Work is now being undertaken in partnership with Ross shire Voluntary Action to identify the needs of volunteers who are keen to work outdoors; these needs will then be matched with the various skills and opportunities that exist in Evanton Wood. The aim is to develop a structured volunteer programme whereby individuals contribute their time and effort and gain skills and other useful outcomes in the process.
Meanwhile woodland and habitat management is an ongoing process. “Some people may think that a woodland manages itself but in many cases we need to assist with this” says Adrian Clark, board secretary and regular volunteer who organises the monthly volunteer Saturday sessions. “We are essentially continuing as before but with a greater emphasis on encouraging biodiversity. We are currently removing invasive western hemlock and also plan to remove some of the beech trees to allow light to reach the forest floor and encourage a greater diversity of plants and animals than currently is the case. We have also planted some 3000 native trees, courtesy of The Woodland Trust.”
Knowing what lives in the woods also plays a key role in how the wood will be managed. Initial surveys have been carried out of the habitat, invertebrates, amphibians, birds and mammals; this has been done by local specialists with the financial support of SNH. The wood has recently completed a series of specialist walks and talks, several in conjunction with the local walking groups. A pond development project in partnership with Froglife has meant that the woodland now has a number of new wetland habitats to support amphibian life. “The pond project has been a great success” says Simon; “although only in its second year it is teaming with life and has the added benefit of providing another learning resource for visitors”.
Mountain-biking is one of the most popular cycle sports in Scotland and is growing in popularity every year. Evanton Wood offers cyclists an experience in how mountain bike trail used to be – natural. Simon is also a British Cycling coach and uses the wood to train local riding talent. “The beauty of the trail network at Evanton is that it is all natural single-track, this is what we all used to ride before the advent of man-made trail centres. The trails at Evanton offer challenges not normally associated with those centres, such as rooty sections” says Simon. “We have run training workshops for young aspiring Olympians through to riders new to the sport; for such a small site the trails here have lots to offer.”
Evanton Wood also has a permanent orienteering course and has hosted a number of orienteering events, running events, forestry open days and other focused community events. Step-it-up Highland walking groups from near and far make regular use of the wood especially since the pedestrian tracks were upgraded over the past year. “The proximity of the wood to the community is one of its strong points, you can walk into the heart of the wood from the heart of village in 20 minutes – something that is very special in terms of accessibility for all,” says David Smith.
The community wood is now in the latter stages of its initial 5-year management plan. The board and the community are keen to keep the momentum going, building on the success to date. “The work that has been done in the wood in such a short space if time is very encouraging,” says Simon; “the community has truly created a wood for all. Schools now know that the wood can support their outdoor learning requirements in all their forms, groups supporting those with specific needs know that the wood can play a positive role in the health and well-being of their clients and, above all, the local community knows that the buy-out of the wood has paid dividends and has shown that local communities can positively manage their woodlands for all.”
Images courtesy of Adrian Clark
Find out more about Evanton Woods @ http://www.evantonwood.com/index.asp