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Rural community near Alford fear ‘dream’ homes could be ‘ruined’ by 185 acre woodland plan

Plans to transform 185 acres of fields into a wood-producing forest has left Leochel homeowners concerned about their private water supplies and property values.

Leochel locals Dianne Fraser, Dave Tilley and Jim Mair shared their concerns with the woodland creation. Image: Lauren Taylor / DC Thomson
Leochel locals Dianne Fraser, Dave Tilley and Jim Mair shared their concerns with the woodland creation. Image: Lauren Taylor / DC Thomson

Locals are worried plans for a commercial woodland could disrupt their “idyllic, quiet” area near Alford.

Wester Leochel Farm was sold off in lots and now, Scottish Woodlands plans to transform 185 acres of fields, close to Cragievar Castle, into a wood-producing forest.

Most of the commercial woodland will be made up of fast-growing sitka spruce, alongside more native trees like broadleaf oaks, birch and rowan.

The company says the plans will help build more sustainable homes and create more jobs, particularly in local sawmills.

But some locals fear it could ‘ruin’ their rural lifestyle.

The Press & Journal spent some time visiting neighbouring homes in Leochel to find out what the people living in the area had to say about how the plans could affect their lives…

‘Our dream was a quiet country cottage… that’s just been ruined’

Dianne Fraser finally bought her dream home in Leochel just two years ago alongside her partner Adam.

Nature-lover Dianne Fraser finally bought her dream home and was looking forward to making her field a wildlife haven. Image: Lauren Taylor

Their house came with eight acres and the couple has been planting their organic grassland field with native trees and flowers, hoping it will become a haven for wildlife.

“Our dream was a quiet country cottage with a bit of land so we could have a wee stream and pond for the wildlife, so we could have a really quiet life.

“That’s just been ruined,” she told us with a heavy sigh.

Their peaceful dream was shattered just a few months after moving in — and only because another neighbour had asked representatives from Scottish Woodlands to visit them. Now, they both “dread” hearing anything about the development.

Diane believes the previous owners did not know about the plans because they would have been obliged to tell her and Adam before they bought the house.

And if they had known about the plans, she says they “absolutely would not have bought the house”.

Fears development will disturb ‘really quiet spot’ in Leochel

When they bought their home, they were told the private water supply had not run out in 26 years. But, now with the planned intense planting, there is a fear the trees could pull up too much of the water, particularly in hotter months.

Not only will Dianne’s picturesque view be affected but the woodland could eventually shade part of their field, meaning they might not be able to grow native plants on the land.

Dianne looking out at her field and the view behind her home.

She thinks the lorries, traffic and people will disturb what is a “really quiet spot”, and the infrastructure won’t be able to cope with any more traffic.

As we’re trundling along the single-track road in her car we have to pull into someone’s driveway to let an oncoming car pass.

“It has just caused so much stress for us,” Dianne explained. “I’ve passed all communication onto Adam because I just feel so sad and so upset about it all.

She added: “Our dream property hasn’t turned into a nightmare because we still love the area so much, but, just moving in and having to fight a company that is only thinking about profit…

“We just don’t believe anything they say anymore.”

One neighbour couldn’t change his house colour, but now farm next door will completely change

Dave Tilley and his wife moved to Leochel after falling in love with the area, particularly the view, 26 years ago.

Dave Tilley showed me the track between his and Dianne’s home, pointing out where his private water supply is in a nearby field.

In the early 2000s, they looked into changing the harling on their home from pink to white.

His planning application was rejected because the house was once part of the Craigievar Estate, and changing the colour would not keep with the area.

Dave accepted this decision, but now the land just behind his home, which he believes has been a farm for centuries, could potentially change without going through the same strict planning process.

With disbelief, he said: “We’re about 350 yards from the boundary of where the forest is going to be and I couldn’t even change the colour of my house because of tradition.”

As we walk along the narrow, single-track country road, he points out the steep ditches at either side.

One of the roads leading to the development.

The road is crumbling and full of deep potholes. According to Dave there has been times when larger vehicles have got stuck in one of the verges and has had to be towed out.

Water supply is a ‘big concern’ for Leochel locals

Like his neighbour Dianne, Dave worries about the private water supply and access issues affecting the “idyllic and quiet” area.

And because his view will eventually become the back of a forest, he is worried his property will devalue.

The view of the landscape that could be transformed.

Dave only learned about the plans in February of this year, 20 months after Scottish Woodlands first sent letters to some affected residents.

When representatives from Scottish Woodlands visited Dianne, who is less than 100 metres down the road, they didn’t come and speak to Dave and his wife.

In Dave’s opinion, if a more thorough consultation process had been carried out he would “without a doubt” feel more at ease.

And, he believes Scottish Woodlands could put residents’ minds at rest by making sure there’s a stock of water — like fitting a million-gallon water storage tank so no one will be at risk of running out.

He explained: “When you run out of water, where do you get it from? You have to go to the council to get a tanker in, you need to feed it into your house. It’s not just a case of you run out of water so switch another tap on to get more, it takes a few days maybe even longer.

“If you’ve got a young family, or whatever, what do you do? Do you move out?

“It’s a big concern for a lot of people.”

Claims developer has not carried out ‘effective’ consultation

Jim Mair was one of the first few locals to get a letter and over the last 21 months has been fighting for answers, as well as keeping his neighbours involved and updated.

Jim Mair was one of the first residents to receive a letter, and he has been sharing information with all his neighbours since.

As we sit in his home office, he shows me the 40-odd page document detailing the development since he first learned about it.

“The hard part is keeping track,” he says while scrolling through the document. “I record every bit of correspondence I send out and receive and I take note of the main points.

“It is difficult for an ordinary person to keep on top of this, I’m just lucky I’ve got the background and the mindset to say ‘I don’t want to be in a position where I’m facing a decision I’m not fully informed of’.”

He and his wife bought their home in 2005 and invested time and money into remodelling the house to get it the way they both wanted.

But now, he is also worried the commercial woodland will cause an issue with the light, roads and water supply — and he believes the mitigations being offered are insufficient.

“My perspective, rightly or wrongly, is that they have chosen not to have 100% effective and complete engagement with the community here,” Jim said.

“I personally think when a developer puts out letters to local households they should ask for confirmation of receipt.

He added: “I’m not against planting trees, but I do believe in the saying ‘the right trees in the right place’, and I think where we are now at the moment is the wrong trees in the wrong place.”

Local pushes for meetings to get answers for Leochel community

Jim believes the proposals could be “made to work” if the developers were “prepared to consider how to actually work alongside the neighbours”.

After receiving the very first letter, Jim wrote back to them with his concerns in June.

And so he invited the developers to come to his home in Craigievar so he could learn more about the project.

Two Scottish Woodlands representatives met with Jim at his home in October. But when he asked for a public meeting, he says he was told they were too expensive and people might not turn up.

Undeterred, he offered to book the Cushnie village hall and persuade his neighbours to come — but the company declined.

Public meeting of plenty of concerned neighbours

Last month, with the help of the Donside Community Council, Jim organised a public meeting to get neighbours’ views at the Craigievar village hall.

Despite the relentless rain and cold night, 25 locals turned up to discuss their worries about the woodland development.

There were no Scottish Woodlands representatives at this meeting.

A public meeting at Craigievar village hall.

One local Andrew Johnston attended the meeting and described his house as being in the “epicentre”.

The fields around his home will eventually be repurposed into woodlands, and his house will one day be surrounded by a forest.

What does Scottish Woodlands say about water supplies and infrastructure concerns?

Neil Crookston, director of the north of Scotland for Scottish Woodlands, said the company takes its responsibility to communities “extremely seriously”.

Neil Crookston was involved with creating <a href="">Brewdog’s Lost Forest.</a> Image: Jason Hedges / DC Thomson

He stressed the potential impact of the woodland proposal on private water supplies was assessed.

The director said: “Scottish Woodlands Ltd then worked with residents in neighbouring properties to address any concerns, in two cases, changes to the woodland design have fully mitigated the impact.

“In the two remaining cases, Scottish Woodlands has identified a solution in consultation with residents which it is confident will improve the long-term security and reliability of the water supply.”

The road is well-used.

In regards to the concerns about infrastructure, Mr Crookston explained the area surrounding Craigievar is already used by many farm and timber vehicles. Aberdeenshire Council has strict rules to ensure the local roads can cope with traffic, including tree planting.

He added when the trees are harvested then there will be lorries needed to remove the timber, but this will not take place at the site until after 2050.

Has Scottish Woodlands carried out a consultation process?

Mr Crookston stressed that community engagement and consultation is an “essential part” of any new woodland creation scheme.

During any woodland creation project, the views, ideas and concerns of residents are taken into consideration, according to the director.

Communities and local representatives have an opportunity to influence the proposals at an early stage before Scottish Forestry reaches a decision.

A sign for Wester Leochel Farm.

He said: “With this proposal, consultation started in June 2022 when residents, government agencies and the local authority were informed about the plans.

“After meeting a resident, it became clear other residents had been omitted, so information was hand-delivered to rectify this and give them an opportunity to comment. We also met with Donside Community Council in January 2023.

“Once we had worked with the community on the issues raised, we wrote to 43 properties, the community council, and the local MP and MSP with updated information and provided a month to respond.

“There was also an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the proposals in a virtual drop-in session online – a suggestion made by the local MSP.”

What next for the potential Leochel woodland?

Mr Crookston told the P&J that the next step is submitting a Forestry Grant Scheme application to Scottish Forestry. The government body will then review it against the the criteria and UK Forest Standard.

And, all consultation responses that Scottish Woodlands has received will be shared in full.

A Scottish Forestry spokesman said every woodland creation scheme applying for Forestry Grant Scheme funding is subject to “rigorous assessment”.

He said: “Once an application has been received we will carefully consider it against UK Forestry Standards and a public consultation period of 28 days will also be held when the application goes live on the public register.

“Once this consultation has been completed we will consider the feedback along with the application before deciding on whether the woodland proposal can go forward.”

Read about another woodland development in Aberdeenshire, and more on the drive to create new forests in Scotland: