Am Bratach No. 219
January 2010


Forest group irons out voting troubles after Strathnaver and Altnaharra boob

The long-standing voting district of Strathnaver and Altnaharra was overlooked by promoters of a land buyout attempting to test public opinion in the run-up to a programme of land purchase in the upper reaches of Halladale and Strathnaver.

Two Strathnaver sites closely associated with the Clearances — Rossal and Truderscaig — had been earmarked for purchase by the North Sutherland Community Forest Trust and the application to purchase had reached the stage when voting papers had been distributed in the rest of the parish of Farr with a view to measuring the level of support among the local population.

Unfortunately, a less than thorough examination of the intricacies of public administration by the parties involved — the other was Highland Council — left some of the people likely to be affected most by a change in ownership disenfranchised. And had it not been for Strathnaver resident, Ian Mackay, who quickly brought the matter to the trust’s attention, the oversight could have gone unnoticed for some time and even scuppered the whole project.

But this was not the first hiccup.

“Originally, the designated area for the ballot, the parish of Farr, was agreed,” explained trust chairman Sandy Murray.

“Then, when we got the electoral register from the council, we only had the restricted, or edited, one. Then, we had to go Dingwall and find the names of the people on the full register. We put out the information to everybody and then discovered the council hadn’t put out the voting papers to people on the full register — they only put it out to people on the restricted one.

“Some of the directors were in the full register, but not the restricted one. We got that sorted out very quickly — they went out about two days later — then we discovered that they had missed out Strathnaver. The hiccup there was because we assumed that Strathnaver was under the Bettyhill area. When we put out the 780 letters, we didn’t actually realise...we hadn’t gone through the names and addresses and things like that and we didn’t realise that Strathnaver and Altnaharra were missing.”
So the group was forced to go back to the council’s Dingwall office, collect the missing names and addresses and arrange for letters to be distributed to the missing sixty or so voters in Strathnaver and Altnaharra and agree a new deadline for the second ballot, 12 noon on Friday, January 8. The first ballot closed the month before. Mr Murray stressed that his group did not wish to know the result of the first section of the ballot until the whole area was balloted.

Though North Sutherland Community Forest Trust draws its membership from the parishes of Durness, Tongue and Farr, they had proposed to limit voting to Farr, something which the Forestry Commission, the present owners of the land, agreed to. “We felt that because the forestry was all within that parish, that to go out to our membership in Durness wouldn’t really be worthwhile because they didn’t know the area,” said Mr Murray. “It was just the sort of way that it came up in discussion and was accepted.”

The trust’s latest bid to become a landowner is more modest than that reported on these pages in the past.
In their sights is 484ha of planted land at Dyke and Forsinain and 82ha of “heritage” land at Rossal and Trudesrcaig.
“We believe this is a more realistic option in terms of gaining funding and developing the community’s aims,” states the 5-page document that has now gone out to most, if not all, the people entitled to vote.

The remaining forest land at Dyke and Forsinain is expected to be gobbled up by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, already the owners of the nearby Forsinard Estate.

“They will fell the trees and return the majority of these areas to their original bog-land habitat,” states the forest trust document already referred to. “Whatever is left over following the Trust’s and RSPB’s purchases will be sold on the open market.”

The interest in acquiring Forestry Commission land of historical interest in Strathnaver stems from a desire on the part of another local, not-for-profit organisation, the Bettyhill-based Strathnaver Museum, to keep the land in some form of public ownership. “They didn’t want it to disappear into private ownership, said Mr Murray. “Private owners would not have any real commitment over the preservation of them.”

He indicated that either the museum board or his trust would manage the Rossal and Truderscaig sites. “I think there are grazing lets on them at the moment anyway,” explained Sandy Murray. “That would need to continue because of the way that you would have to maintain them. We would be happy for the like of that to continue.”

Fortunately, they’ll be sufficient in the long-term to keep the trust’s sawmill at Forsinain busy, but the timescale would be a big problem, concedes the trust chairman, because it would be ten to fourteen years before there would be timber on their forest blocks ready for harvesting.

“So they’ll be a period of waiting and then it’ll be sustainable for the sawmill — well, it depends how it’s managed — but they’ll be ten, fifteen years there that you can keep harvesting. But a lot will depend on wind-blow and things like that. But, hopefully, the trust would be replanting what we were felling for the mill. It wouldn’t all go to the mill — there would be a lot of firewood and a lot of pulp wood. We’d be taking out stuff that you can saw, like fence posts, but we would be hoping that in the interim we would still be getting timber out of Borgie Forest through our management agreement.”

“If the ballot goes in our favour, then we have a good chance of getting it through the Forestry Commission National Forest Land Scheme. We were meant to be meeting with them last week, but it was put off because of the snow. Now, it’s not going to be until the beginning of February.”

As we went to press, Mr Murray was bracing himself for a 2-hour telephone conference with potential funders, the National Lottery, on Tuesday, January 5.

A new valuation of the land is overdue, but is expected to flag up a price tag of £1,300 a hectare.

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