This is the first in a new series of blog posts highlighting stories of small woodland ownership. Scotland is a country where forests are mainly owned in large expensive units and where ordinary people wishing to own a small woodland face considerable challenges acquiring one in their locality at reasonable cost.
Steve McLean is a woodworker and sawmiller specializing in bespoke, handmade kitchens, furniture, oak frame structures, fire surrounds and mantles, all made from locally sourced Scottish hardwoods. You can get a flavour for his work from his website but here he tells the story of how – and why – he became a woodland owner.
It was just another working day in September 2008 when we got the call from the lawyer to let us know the woodland was finally ours. The journey to owning a woodland started in 2002, when we took a leap of faith and moved our furniture making business from our garage in Fintry to an old stable fourteen miles away in Ruskie near Stirling. This meant that for years we were – unknowingly – to drive past what would become ‘our’ woodland, on the way from home to our rented workshop.
After six years working in the stables at Ruskie, we had needed more space; and so we moved to a larger unit with a small yard within the same farm. We now had the space to set up our first sawmill (a large chainsaw mill), but it wasn’t long before we decided to invest in a basic band saw mill, a Hudson 36. We shared premises with a stone company, meaning that we could borrow fork lifts to move large logs onto the mill, and shift the cut timber up to the old kiln we had managed to procure from a local tree surgeon. This allowed us to start building oak frames, something that had interested me since encountering this in America and Canada.
We were starting to build a log stock whenever the budget allowed, and slowly we squeezed the boundaries of our small yard, which quite rightly, started causing issues with our landlord. It didn’t take a lot of thinking to realise that we needed our own place with room to expand, and so the search for a woodland began.
The reason for acquiring a woodland rather than a building plot or an industrial unit was based on two things. Firstly, one got better value for money per m2, and we needed a lot of storage space. Secondly, a rural setting suited this type of business. Initially we searched online using companies who specialized in woodland sales and found a few within a fifteen mile radius of our home. These ranged from five to thirty acres. A couple of woodlands were potentially suitable and we looked into these more closely, only to find that they carried legal caveats which precluded any chance of building a workshop in them. Watch out for this if you start trying to acquire a woodland, it seems to be quite common.
Exasperated by the legal constraints we had encountered, we turned our attention to woods on our doorstep. Obviously none of these were on the open market, so we set about finding out who owned them. The closest to our home was owned by a former local laird who now lived on the Isle of Man. Initially he showed some interest in selling, however the process dragged on for a year as he rarely replied to our lawyer’s letters and it finally fell through when he transferred his estate to his son, who immediately tripled the price! The second local woodland turned out to be owned by a South African and we never received a reply to our offer letter.
By this time we had noticed a small oak woodland on our way to work, a mile outside the village and 400 metres from the road. One weekend we decided to take a walk and have a closer look, and found to our delight a beautiful 16 acre ancient oak woodland on a sloping site with 2 small natural spring burns running through it; and with an acre field at its base. This time it was owned by a local farmer and we arranged a face to face meeting and put forward our case to purchase it.
The heads of the farming family visited our workshop a couple of months later, apparently checking out the credibility of our story! Additional enquiries were made locally as to our characters and our suitability to be sold the land. Sometime later we received a call from the family to tell us that they would be happy to sell us the ground and to make them an offer. After a little negotiation we finally agreed on £20,000 plus all legal fees, and responsibility for all fencing. In September 2008 we finally became the proud owners of a 16 acre ancient oak woodland, which we have renamed Darach Mor (big oak).
The lesson from this is that attempting to buy locally from neighbouring landowners can be a good option, but that depends on having a good case for owning a wood – and in our case it helped that we were known locally, and we had a wood-using business.
This was of course only the beginning, as we now had to get planning permission for roads and buildings on a green field site and of course find the money to fund it all. As a qualified Civil Engineer prior to becoming a furniture maker, I was able to prepare all the drawings for the access road, yard and workshop for the planning application. This went through with surprising ease and we had permission within a few months. It would however be four years before we could finally move out of the rented workshop in Ruskie to our new yard.
We still however have a long way to go as we don’t have any services as yet. Our power comes from a 33 KVA 3 phase diesel generator, which works out at around £10 day to run. Living only a mile away from the workshop has however saved us over £2,000 year in diesel, which more than compensates for the cost of the generator. Sewage and water will, all going well, be installed imminently. The cost of the loan to purchase the land, build the access road and set up the temporary workshop, is also less than we were paying in rent, so all things considered it was the right decision.
The Dovetail Scotland workshop
Since moving the business to Darach Mor we have managed to purchase another 24 acres around our existing woodland from the same farmers. We have applied for grant to fund the costs of deer fencing 35 acres (including the existing oak woodland) and planting approximately 24,000 productive broadleaf trees. It is said that a nation becomes great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in!
Our story shows that acquiring a woodland can be done even on a furniture maker’s budget. The recipe is in essence simple. It starts with determination (and a small helping of courage!); add stamina, some good friends, a strong supportive family and hard work and you are well on your way. Local landowners can be persuaded to sell a wood if you can present good case. We are looking forward to the next stage of our journey as we try to get permission for a house and watch the new woodland grow and take shape. Your future is limited only by your imagination, so imagine big and make it happen!