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Branching out: How a community changed the fate of a fading woodland

Laide and Aultbea Community Woodland covers more than 85 hectares.
Laide and Aultbea Community Woodland covers more than 85 hectares.

A community-owned woodland near Ullapool has unexpectedly scooped the title of Scotland’s Finest Wood.

Laide and Aultbea Community Woodland was once an unloved purpose-grown pine plantation, but over the last 15 years has been transformed by volunteers into an increasingly important and biodiverse woodland.

The hard work of the community means the area has been recognised as the 2021 winner of Scotland’s Finest Wood Award for Small Community Woodlands, but the work doesn’t end here.

The woodland nobody wanted

The 85-hectare woodland is shaped like a bowl with high ground running around its perimeter.

“To us, it’s like a huge garden,” said John Rippin, the woodland’s chair of trustees, “except the plants take 60 years to grow and some of our weeds need a chainsaw to get rid of.”

One of the viewing platforms within the woodland.

He explains that the woodland was originally planted in the 1960s as a commercial forest, but once the planting was completed it was essentially abandoned before being bought and sold several times by different businesses.

Some time passed and in 2003 a local community group managed to purchase the woodland outright with the intention of developing Laide Wood into an area of both conservation and recreation.

They began planting, restoring and creating trails for the public to use.

John Rippin is chair of trustees for the woodland.

“We opened in 2007 and have done all sorts since then,” John said. This includes planting more than 60,000 indigenous trees, replacing bridges, creating picnic areas and building new walking routes.

“Having this mixture of trees means there is much more diversity in the woodland now,” said John.

“It means it’s more resilient but it also brings in a lot more wildlife. We’ve got everything from otters and pine marten to crossbill birds and dragonflies now.

“Plus a tremendous amount of fungus.”

From unloved to award-winning

Lockdown after lockdown didn’t stop the 12 regular volunteers. Working alone or in small bubbles they have spent more time than ever in the woodland over the last 18 months.

“We decided to enter Scotland’s Finest Wood Awards this year after we’d just finished planting our most recent batch of trees,” John said.

“Scottish Forestry had just come to inspect our planting – they come regularly to make sure it’s all done within regulations – and they were so impressed that they mentioned we should think about entering for an award.”

A map of the woodland showing the walking trails.

As with most events, the 2020 ceremony was cancelled. But John managed to look on the bright side.

“By the time the awards were reinstated we’d done even more work,” he said. “We’d created a new path and a new viewing area accessible for wheelchair users and pushchairs…so perhaps Covid did us a favour there.”

The woodland scooped the top prize in its category of Small Community Woodland which has spurred the team on.

“Woodlands are a long game and this award gives us so much encouragement,” said John.

“We are really pleased with how our first 20 years are going and are sure now that this work will be carried on long into the future, well after I’m gone.”

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