Back to the Woods

Former Rural Skills teacher, Robin Bell, acquired a 90-acre croft not far from Oykel Bridge in Sutherland three years ago. His ancestors worked this land before the Sutherland clearances so Robin wanted to return to it. The croft was once a township and the ruined remains of 16-17 cottages on the site have attracted the interest of Historic Scotland. The flood plain at the bottom of the croft is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The croft is predominantly rough grazing so Robin’s options for use were limited. Coming from a long line of foresters, planting trees seemed an obvious choice. Robin said, “my grandfather chopped the trees down, so I wanted to put them back”.

Being aware of the environmental issues, and with the aim to do everything on the croft “as green as possible”, Robin knew that “putting sheep on it was not really an option”. So, trees it was.

Robin embarked on the Forestry Grant Scheme and was assigned a forestry agent. According to Robin, one of the drawbacks of the Scheme is having to personally front the money, which meant putting all his savings and a bank loan into the project: “That ties up your money and puts your life on hold for a while”. At the end, when the work is completed and approved, reimbursement is issued from Rural Payments.

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Robin with sapling.

Robin forested 34 acres of his croft with an amazing 22,000 trees – all native species of Scots Pine, Oak and Birch. The total reimbursable cost was just under £70,000. The Scheme will pay Robin an income of around £4,000 a year for five years.

I asked Robin about his plans for the rest of the croft. As an experienced gardener, Robin says “I’d rather grow things than have animals”. He is considering alley cropping – possibly growing oats between rows of nut trees. Living in such a picturesque part of Scotland, green tourism is another possible income source for Robin who particularly likes the idea of low impact shepherd’s huts for cyclists and back-packers.

Robin has undertaken a wonderful work for our planet. Talking to him I realise that, despite the Government’s enthusiasm for planting trees to help meet their climate targets, they do not make it easy! Given that this is critical environmental work, our lobbying efforts in this area will insist that ways are found for farmers to access woodland creation schemes without having to find the money up-front themselves.