Forestry Forum picture by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos

The Highlands and Islands Regional Forestry Forum, a group of 16 delegates who advise the Forestry Commission on policy and practice in the region, visited the Isle of Lewis recently – their first forum field visit to the island for 15 years.

They toured new plantations and sites of interest and spoke of how impressed they were with the enthusiasm shown by islanders for creating new woodland.

The visitors were hosted by community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust, who run the Croft Woodland Project in partnership with Woodland Trust and have committed to creating 100 hectares of new woodland on croft ground in the Western Isles by 2020.

Point and Sandwick Trust (PST) have funded a Croft Woodlands Project Officer – Viv Halcrow – who is based in the PST office although her work covers the whole of the Outer Hebrides.

Viv’s job is to give practical help and advice on tree planting and the funding application process in a bid to overcome the barriers that exist, such as limited knowledge and excessive bureaucracy.

A report which went to Point and Sandwick’s AGM in November showed that progress on the Western Isles Croft Woodland project had so far been impressive.

At that point, 42,410 trees had been planted in the islands since the project began in 2016, with five SRDP (Scottish Rural Development Programme) plantations going into the ground that season alone, with 1,400 to 7,200 trees in each and totalling 21,000 hectares.

Smaller scale planting is also happening, with applicants helped by funding from Woodland Trust’s MOREwoods scheme. There were more than 34 of these MOREwoods schemes, with between 300 and 1,350 trees in each scheme and more than 10,640 trees altogether.

There have been hundreds of inquiries and croft visits – and some islanders, who had been planting trees out of their own initiative, were subsequently coming to Viv for advice.

The Forestry Forum’s visit to Lewis took place on May 16 and 17, with the visitors welcomed by Point and Sandwick Trust’s general manager, Donald John MacSween.

There were a number of talks, including an introduction to trees in the Western Isles by John Risby, Conservator Highlands and Islands with Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), and Donald Macleod, an FCS Woodland Officer with FCS with responsibility for the Western Isles, Skye and Lochalsh and Wester Ross. Donald John MacSween and Viv Halcrow also gave a talk on the Western Isles Croft Woodland Project.

They visited two recently planted croft woodlands schemes in Point and went to Lochs the next day – to see a plantation in Leurbost, where 10 hectares have been planted by the common grazings committee, and another community woodland at Sgoil nan Loch.

Calum MacKinnon, one of the men involved in the Leurbost planting project, said the trees had made a “massive difference” to their local environment.

There are five Regional Forestry Forums in Scotland, which replace the previous Regional Advisory Committees as regional advisory bodies to FCS and their members represent a wide range of interests in sustainable development, ranging from international commerce to crofters.

The Highlands and Islands forum is chaired by Dr Michael Foxley.

Speaking after the site visits, John Risby said the local enthusiasm was clear to see. “People are wanting to see some trees in townships. There’s lots of potential, lots of enthusiasm – that’s what we’re picking up.”

The challenge, he said, was in “helping that enthusiasm” and “getting the right trees”.

He said forestry in the Western Isles was different to forestry most elsewhere as conditions were “very harsh for trying to grow trees”. However, methods have evolved to combat this – such as grouping them closer together, avoiding wet or windy ground and carefully selecting the trees in the first place. He said it was very useful for the forum to see all this in practice on the ground.

Forum chair Michael Foxley said their aim was to find out what was happening locally, to learn what people’s aspirations were and to find ways to help these aspirations become reality.

He hailed Viv’s role in the Western Isles Croft Woodland Project as “fantastic, absolutely fantastic – we could do with more Vivs”.

Woodland officer Donald Macleod, based in Dingwall, said there had been big changes since he started 20 years ago. Then, the focus was on trees on “common grazings out on the hill” – which he described as “moderately successful” – but it was now about getting more woodland in villages, in the ‘in-bye’ land.