One of Scotland’s largest community land acquisitions is doubling to over 4,200 hectares after a massive fundraising effort.
The Dumfriesshire town of Langholm has just raised £2.2 million (€2.6 million) to buy 5,300 acres (about 2,100 hectares) from the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the Kingdom’s most powerful landowners. United.
It will join the first similarly sized lot that the community secured last year, thus maximizing the benefits of the Vale de Tarras Nature Reserve to people, nature and the climate in precious peatlands.
“This is a grassroots struggle against the climate emergency and biodiversity crisisand helping to create a better future,” says Jenny Barlow, the reserve’s property manager.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride, but the generosity and unwavering support of so many wonderful donors and volunteers has pushed us over the line in the nick of time.”
It had been difficult for months: July 31 was the deadline, extended by the Buccleuch estate from May. A £1m (€1.2m) grant from the Scottish Land Fund – a government fund for community takeovers like these – and a €288,000 public crowdfunder were complemented by three large donations last week.
Agrarian reform in progress Scotland it’s a sea change for communities that have been tenants for centuries. More than 200,000 hectares of Scottish land (about 3%) are now in community ownership, much of it in the highlands and islands such as the Isle of Eigg in the Hebrides.
But it is less common in southern areas like Dumfries and Galloway. Speaking to Euronews Green in June, Jenny said this is just the beginning of her journey.
“It’s a long-term change, because there’s a landowner who’s owned all the land around here for centuries. So it’s a big shift in terms of how people view it,” she said. “We know we’re there when people start saying, ‘This is ours, not theirs, this is ours.’
What are the environmental benefits of owning Langholm land?
The Langholm Initiative’s ecological project is a long game. But they are already starting to see a return of species that haven’t been seen for decades, says Barlow. Majestic golden eagles visited from the Golden Eagle Project of Southern Scotland.
What was already a Special Protection Area (SPA) for harriers has become an even safer breeding ground for these birds. A live camera will soon allow people to follow the progress of the chicks in the five nests built this year. Charitable partners Hen Harrier Action and RSPB are tagging birds by satellite to help protect them from persecution.
The team recently completed a ‘BioBlitz’ – a large community-led biological survey to take stock of all species in the Langholm Moor reserve. They recorded some types of invertebrates and moths for the first time in Dumfries and Galloway.
Setting this baseline is important for the development trust – which has purchased all rights to the land on behalf of the local community – to show its impact.
“The bottom line is that we know that to have this impact on nature, we need scale,” says Barlow. “This bigger and better combined theory for nature conservation and restoration is something we can be really ambitious with given the scale we have and the mix and diversity of habitats.”
They already own the bottom of the Tarras River. The purchase of the 2,100 hectares to the north has now brought the entire river basin onto the community property, creating a water corridor with “exciting” potential.
peat bogs are another vital habitat and the UK’s biggest carbon store. They retain about 3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, the equivalent of all the country’s forests plus those in France and Germany.
But the peat soils on Langholm Moor are not in good shape. Until recently, the land was famous for hunting grouse and was managed according to the burning of heather to encourage fresh growth and feed the birds.
“It’s a new chapter now,” says Barlow. Shooting Sports is not part of the mix, although she emphasizes that the group is “still very interested in hearing from all the people who worked the land and know it like the back of their hand”.
Restoring this degraded land is a key part of the initiative’s plans – ensuring it remains a huge carbon sink rather than an emitter. The team is also working with the Woodland Trust to expand the area’s old-growth forest, removing conifer plantations and replacing them with native trees.
10 years after intensive grazing stopped, trees are already regenerating across the landscape, explains Barlow. “It’s amazing to see how, when you give nature a chance, it starts to rebalance and restore itself.” Only a helping hand is needed.
But what really sets the project apart is its focus on the local community, in a tight trio of nature and climate.
Why is community at the heart of Langholm’s plans?
A once-thriving textile town where the Edinburgh wool mill was founded, Langholm has been in economic decline for many years.
Reservation ownership is helping to turn those fortunes around.
An alternative nature-based economy may not be a ‘silver bullet’, says Barlow, who moved from Sunderland in north-east England. But it creates a variety of jobs, from land jobs to small wind and solar farms. There are also the indirect effects of ecotourism on the village of Langholm and Eskdale.
“I suppose when we talk about climate action, there’s that other just transition – of bringing people together with you,” she says.
“And I think that’s what I hope we can show: that it’s actually not just about restoring the natural world, it’s about providing new opportunities and new economic opportunities for people as well.”
The Langholm Initiative’s democratic co-design model stands in stark contrast to the the schemes of some private owners in Scotland. It gained support and followers from all over the world.
Now they’ve “defied the odds” and “achieved the impossible” for the second time in two years, with a fundraiser featuring everyone from young footballers to local businessmen, ‘junior rangers’ to retired tree planters.
“We are really interested in not just looking into the city,” adds Barlow, “but giving a really positive and inspiring example of the impact people can have.”