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Municipal Forests v Community Woodlands - Reflections from 2020 National Student Award Winner

Heloise Le Moal

As we launch the 2021 National Student Award, our 2020 winner – Heloise Le Moal, a forest management student at the University of the Highlands and Islands – shares her experience of using the funding to create a report and video case studies considering the municipal approach to forestry ownership and management in France compared to community woodlands here in Scotland.

My initial plan for this research project consisted of carrying out a comparative study between municipal forests in Belgium, France, and Switzerland and Community woodlands here in Scotland. That was, of course, before Covid-19 came. I did, eventually, go to the Continent over the summer, albeit I had to restrict my travels. I therefore enacted my ‘Plan B’ and decided to carry out my research in my two homes: Le Mans and Inverness. The three cases I ended up investigating were not necessarily comparable at every level, but they nonetheless have interesting stories to tell. 

France: An extra layer of democracy

The first story is the one of L’Arche de la Nature, a 450 hectare (ha) site with 300ha of forests located in the south of Le Mans, France. It is owned and managed by the Communauté Urbaine (CU) of Le Mans Metropole, which encompasses 19 ‘communes.’

 In some ways, a CU could be compared to a Council in Scotland, as their competencies are planning, water, transports, waste, roads, council houses, and crematoriums. The difference at the lower level is that a commune, unlike a community council, owns land, and has its own budget and decision-making bodies (councillors and mayor). The councillors of a CU are elected through the municipal elections of each communes. In Le Mans Metropole, there are 58 councillors for 210,000 inhabitants with an annual budget of €421m (in 2020) covering an area of 207 sq km. The funding comes primarily from local taxation and a grant from the national government. 

The l’Arche forest was first bought in 1974 with the intention of enhancing the local greenspaces for the community. It was then extended in 1997 to improve visitors’ experience as well as preventing the construction of a golf course on a floodplain. They are now looking at buying the last remaining bits of adjacent derelict land.

The activities you can do, and the facilities available there – from barbecues to an educational garden and farm, a forest museum, a disc golf course, walking, jogging, mountain biking, orienteering – are almost endless.

Every year, major outdoor events are organised and are now some of the key calendar highlights of the city, along with the famous 24-hour car race, such as the woodland festival, apple festival, and Easter Hunt. They all take place on Sundays and can draw up to 12,000 people over an afternoon.  There are also a plethora of partnerships with local charities and media to organise 10k runs, concerts, and much more.

One can probably wonder about the cost of such a success and I was quite surprised to realise that it takes less than 3% of the total budget of the Metropole to employ 38 staff to look after the site annually. 

Scotland: An empowering participation 

The concept of community-owned woodland fascinated me when I moved to Scotland from France as it “has no clear parallels internationally,” as noted in the Commission’s International Experience of Community, Communal, and Municipal Ownership report. In Inverness, I met with two community woodland groups: Culduthel and Aultnaskiach Dell. The scale of both, at around 5ha, is much smaller than l’Arche.

Culduthel Community Group is still in the middle of a legal process to acquire Culduthel Community Woodland as it is currently ownerless. The group was formed two years ago when local residents, through the Community Council, wanted to take action on the potential hazards that old trees were creating. Since the Community Council cannot own the land, and as the Highland Council was not in a position to take on the woodland, a community group was set up to seek options for ownership. They now have 30 members including six trustees.

Aultnaskiach Dell was bequeathed to the community in 2012. The former owner wanted to safeguard the future of the woods and save it from potential development. She asked if locals were interested in organising a community buyout and a steering group was formed to evaluate the feasibility. The woodland has now been in community ownership for two years, and after numerous grant applications to fund initial maintenance work, they currently have 60 members including eight trustees. 

Lessons from both 

Both cases are success stories. In France, every single person interviewed was unconditionally eulogistic about the benefits to the area. It attracts 500,000 visitors per year, including school trips from almost every single primary school in the Metropole and even schools from out with the region.  

In Inverness, I could sense the satisfaction and the pride of David Chieffers, trustee of Culduthel Community Group, when walking in the woods that he has helped improve over the last couple of years, and his impatience to recruit volunteers and organise events. Ann Clark, the secretary of Aultnaskiach Dell Community Woodland, highlighted an endless list of activities, partnerships with schools, and community events which had been taking place in the Dell. 

Community woodlands are a great example of active citizenship and empowerment which makes citizens actors and not only users of the land. This level of active participation is maybe what might be missing in a setup such as l’Arche’s, albeit people can still get involved through the charities and partners organising events in the woods.     

Another point is that community groups rely fully on volunteers and grant funding. Murray Ferguson, Chair of Culduthel Woods, shared with me his frustration about the administrative quagmire he had to wade through to get grants, and help from the public authorities to bring the local woodland up to the safety standards. As for the Dell, Ann is well aware that most of the trustees have been there since the creation of the woodland and that there will be a need to find new people to ensure the continuity of a life-time project.

This experience really helped me to get a better understanding of Scottish as well as French democracy and land use, and I am really grateful to have received the Scottish Land Commission Student Award without which I would never have carried out the research. 

The 2021 Scottish Land Commission National Student Award is now open for entries. 
Find out more and apply here.

Case Study: L'Arche de la Nature, Le Mans, France
Case Study: Culduthel Woods Community Woodland, Inverness, Scotland
Case Study: Aultnaskiach Dell, Inverness, Scotland