Villagers branch out to make forest community business

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Scotland Correspondent

Highlanders are set to make history this year by trying to establish Britain's first community-run commercial forest. Villagers in Laggan, near Inverness, are to launch a take-over bid for the 3,500-acre Strathmashie forest, owned by the Forestry Commission.

They won the right to make the bid after appealing to Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland. Impressed by their vision of an expanding, community-run asset, Mr Forsyth ordered the commission to enter negotiations.

The move is part of Mr Forsyth's new policy of devolving power to communities and follows his announcement that crofters will be given the chance to take over government-owned estates. He hopes voters will find his brand of "real devolution to real local communities" more attractive than Labour's plans for legislative devolution, with a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

Historians say Mr Forsyth's initiative marks a radical political shift, with Scots Tories abandoning their unquestioning support for large landowners. Dr James Hunter, an expert on land use in the Highlands, explained: "In the past, Tory politicians have tended to side with landowners and landowning bodies because, frankly, they themselves were landowners. But Forsyth is different. He comes from an ordinary background and is far less patrician. His moves so far have been almost revolutionary."

The Laggan project is the Tories' boldest land reform initiative. Strathmashie forest is worth up to pounds 1m to the Forestry Commission. Villagers want to take it over because, they say, the commission has failed to exploit the asset and halted commercial logging 10 years ago.

Villagers want to re-introduce commercial logging and attract tourists by offering mountain walking, mountain biking, go-karting and deer stalking.

Their campaign is led by Ian Richardson, a retired doctor, who has waged a lengthy battle with the Forestry Commission. "At first they dismissed us as 'Bottom the weaver and Smug the joiner', but now they have to take us seriously."

Dr Richardson insists that a takeover will secure the future of the village. "Since the war we have lost two-thirds of our population with people moving away to Inverness and Fort William. There are only a handful of youngsters left out of the 200 people who live here. We will have no future unless we use our assets carefully - and our greatest asset is the forest."

Although the Forestry Commission insists that if Strathmashie is sold, it must go to the highest bidder, Dr Richardson is hopeful that with Government backing a deal can be struck to manage the forest before taking over control later.

Villagers have a powerful ally in the owner of a local estate. Roy Tylden- Wright, who runs the 11,000-acre Cluny estate, insists that local management will benefit the entire area. "It's about empowerment. When you give people control over their own lives they work harder than ever to make sure things succeed. Walking around the village, you can sense the enthusiasm," he said.