Now, Alan Titchmarsh might wax lyrical about the Native Caledonian Forest but, for most of us, the prospect of Scotland covered from end to end in an unbroken canopy is just a little overwhelming. Still, excusing the pun, wouldn’t it be wonderful to experience the sights and sounds of the way Scotland once was, but maybe on a more manageable scale?
Remarkably, despite hundreds of years of urbanisation, industrialisation and deforestation, all it takes is a view from a high vantage point and suddenly you realise that, after all, our country is still impressively silvan. There are woods everywhere. Just take in the view from the Bathgate Hills, from Edinburgh Castle, or Traprain Law, and you’ll see that industrial, urban and rural landscapes throughout the Lothians have a plentiful canopy of cover.
Better still; take to the ruined ramparts of Craigmillar Castle on the east side of Edinburgh. With the volcanic bulk of Arthur’s Seat to the North, survey round to the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and see a landscape where access is being sympathetically transformed with the help of the Woods In and Around Towns initiative of Forestry Commission Scotland.
Increasingly, FCS has become known for its conservation role, and the old perception of an erstwhile government logging company is as outmoded as the memories of the First World War timber shortage that prompted its inception. More rightly now cast as a saviour – or rather a rejuvenator – of Scotland’s urban treescape, the Edinburgh based organisation is very much at the forefront of managing Scotland’s woods, and raising awareness of their health and recreational benefits, especially in the post-industrial towns of Scotland, where communities are often seeking a new focus and a new sense of civic pride. Polkemmet Park pictured below offers golf and orienteering amongst its woodlands.
Gone are the days of monoculture timber plantations. The enlightened attitude of the twenty-first century is to nurture and responsibly manage the native mix of trees that give Scotland’s forests their distinctiveness. Add to the expected Scots Pine, several varieties of Alder and Birch; Eared Willow; Hazel and Oak; along with two species that are ironically Scottish – the Rowan and Juniper.
These natural civic resources are often under utilised. In fact, Scotland’s woods, particularly in and around towns, have been largely neglected, and they were often under managed and under explored as a result. While many a childhood afternoon was spent “playing in the woods”, it becomes a less attractive prospect for grown-ups with families, when childhood imagination wanes, and all there is to offer is a muddy slog though informal tracks, and always the prospect of stumbling upon a carelessly discarded.
Looking for ways to promote healthy living, the Scottish Executive recognised the important benefit that Scotland’s urban woods could offer, and instructed the Forestry Commission Scotland to bring forward a plan of action to reengage communities with their woodlands. The Woods In and Around Towns initiative was the result and over one hundred individual schemes successfully applied for grants under the scheme.
Craigmillar, pictured above, is a case in point. Here, the woods set off the ruins of the Castle in an emerald wreath, and better access paths make possible the use of these green lanes as a pleasant and safe way to get to and from work, or simply as a new way to enjoy this part of Edinburgh. What was a neglected eyesore is now a popular woodland walk, used by a greater cross-section of the community and a place that brings pride to a neglected corner of the capital. Indeed, with a significant impact civic pride for the area, Craigmillar Castle Park is becoming a recreational destination in its own right. It’s an example of WIAT funded projects, designed to improve the local amenity, bringing also the collateral benefit of an informal boost to leisure and tourism visits.
Raising awareness among communities has been a big challenge for the WIAT initiative. As the single most quoted reason for not using urban woodland, â€˜not knowing they were out thereâ€™ was on its own at the front. To address this true case of not seeing the woods for the trees, the WIAT team have engaged with community leaders, active groups and local media to promote the pleasures of the woods, right on the community doorstep.
A success story has been South Queensferry. The seaside community was largely unaware of Ferry Glen until the WIAT initiative intervened. The Friends of Ferry Glen, who had campaigned long for improved access to the woods to the south of the old, pre-Forth Bridge railway line, hosted an opening party last year.
“It’s great to see our years of work and planning for Ferry Glen coming to fruition,” said Gordon Wood, the Chairman of the Friends. “With the funding now in place, we’re looking forward to working with the Edinburgh Green Belt Trust and the City of Edinburgh Council to make Ferry Glen a place for Queensferry to be proud of.”
Other woods that are already popular have also benefited. The numbers who use Penicuik Estate for example, have prompted the landowner to seek grant funding to formalise and improve existing paths through the wood and to install a footbridge over the North Esk. Nearby, on the Arniston Estate in Gorebridge, path improvements are being considered to make better use of the grounds around the exceptional Arniston House. The local economy benefits as well.
The WIAT initiative has proved a successful way of channelling funding into community projects, which make a real impact on local wooded environments. Though the initiative is currently closed to new applications, Forestry Commission Scotland is still actively involved in dozens of projects. If you go down to the woods on a regular basis and you would like to see a big surprise, exploring a WIAT project would make a positive start.
For more details about the WIAT initiative visit www.forestry.gov.uk.