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Langholm – a landscape of hope

David Lintern visits Dumfries and Galloway to find out about plans for the Langholm community buyout.

There’s something astonishing happening in the Scottish Borders. In mid-September 2020, the Newcastleton community bought an area known as Holm Hill. Over the hills at Wanlockhead – reputably Scotland’s highest village – plans for another buyout are also underway, with the land valued at 1.4M and the community now submitting a grant application to the Scottish Land Fund.

But the new land reform charge is being led by the people of Langholm. At around 10,000 acres (that’s 7,562 football fields to you and I) the Langholm buyout is the most ambitious community led regeneration scheme in the south of Scotland so far. If it’s successful, it will become the largest ecological restoration project outside of the Cairngorms.

In July I was lucky enough to spend a day with project manager Kevin Cumming and others in the community, photographing for the John Muir Trust, who have supported the buyout plans from the beginning. Two things in particular struck home – the first being the commitment and expertise of everyone we met. While the opportunity for a buyout is still relatively new, it rests on the very solid foundations of the Langholm Initiative, a community organisation with over 25 years of experience in capacity building and voluntary work. The second was the sheer scale and scope of the plans. The moorland to be restored back to full health is vast, has huge potential and is stuffed full of raptors… but there is also a solid business plan in place to support the environmental work and revive the fortunes of local people, too.

Langholm is a stoutly built, handsome mill town tucked in the folds of hills between the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. It’s known variously as the home of engineer Thomas Telford and writer Hugh MacDiarmid, and as a Reiver town, whose heritage is – under more normal, less Covid restricted circumstances – celebrated annually by a market festival and a Common Riding. The Riding marks out the boundaries of the area of moorland designated in 1759 as land belonging ‘inalienably’ to the local people.

It’s also known for its woollen mills and for its birds of prey – both the subject of mixed fortunes in the past. The trade in Borders Tweed once thrived but the relocation of Edinburgh Woollen Mill to Carlisle in 2019 saw the last of five big mills close, a real blow to the local economy.

Langholm Moor also gained some notoriety in wildlife circles as the test bed for two research experiments to ascertain whether raptors and driven grouse shooting could co-exist. The Joint Raptor Study was followed by the Langholm Demonstration Project, both involving a range of shooting and conservation interests. The results were mixed and still the subject of debate, but the overall outcome was that raptor numbers rose while red grouse numbers fluctuated, and ultimately, driven shooting was deemed no longer profitable by the owners. Fast forward to May 2019, and the announcement by the Duke of Buccleuch Estate that the moor was for sale.

Writing in The National, Michael Russell pointed out, “Last year the Scottish Land Commission estimated that 1125 individuals – a number that includes public bodies such as Forest Scotland – owned 70% of Scotland’s rural land, with 87 private owners being responsible for almost half that figure.” The Duke of Buccleuch was until recently the largest single landowner in Scotland, and those other Borders buyouts are also the result of his Estate divesting itself of land. Both locally and nationally, questions have been asked about the £6 million price tag attached Langholm Moor – land that historically was given to Buccleuch’s ancestors by Royal Charter, and a part of which is contested as common land anyway. A certain degree of resentment is understandable – why should we add to a rich man’s coffers?

from top left: Margaret Pool, Kevin Cumming, Gavin Graham, Alison Hutton

But the big community vision here in Langholm is well leavened with pragmatism. “What is the alternative?” asked Chair of the Langholm Initiative, Margaret Pool; “We have to look at it through today’s eyes. The Buccleuch Estates is a business and if Langholm Moor sold on the open market, we don’t know who might come along and buy it.” The community are on the front lines of land reform and as such are focused on the future. They have commissioned their own valuation and accept that the price reflects current value and the mix of incomes that the land could generate.

Local environmental project leader Kevin Cumming has found himself at the helm of the new plans, after drafting a visionary document for the ecological side of the project which aims to “reverse decades of drainage and restore peatlands, promote the natural regeneration of native woodland, and encourage a natural mix of habitats and species that will make the area more resilient to climate change.” The moor is already designated a SSSI and SPA, but the community group would apply for National Nature Reserve status (to be called the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve), in order to drive wildlife tourism and protect the Hen Harrier population, which is now the strongest on the UK mainland.

He describes it as “a landscape scale climate action project”, but it’s far from just wishful eco-thinking. There’s a robust and well balanced business plan in place to support those ambitions, ranging from small scale renewables, commercial forestry and affordable housing (with a residency burden attached to ensure the buildings are permanent dwellings not second homes). They’ll also refurbish business units, which could be used to house enterprises like a saw mill or micro-brewery.

Kevin already uses the John Muir Award as an outdoor learning tool to connect young people with their local landscapes, but community ownership could extend those opportunities far beyond current capacity. There are hopes for a research centre and bunkhouse (to enable the scientific monitoring of the changes in the valley), a Hen Harrier observatory, an all-abilities riverside path; improved way-marking and interpretation, alongside eco camping. “The mills are gone forever, and tourism is now the way forward” says steering group member Gavin Graham.

On our visit, we saw Hen Harriers training their young to fly and a Kestrel take a vole. Native woodland is already well established, which can provide local seed source for further regeneration, and the moor is also home to peregrine falcon, merlin, meadow pipit, lapwing, curlew, buzzard, golden plover, short-eared owl, raven, red and black grouse. This, alongside Langholm’s location near to the border and the cities of Newcastle and the Central Belt, means there is lots of potential for wildlife-based tourism. “People are interested in the natural world,” said group member Alison Hutton. “A healthy natural environment would be a stronger economic foundation than grouse.”

I came away from Langholm buzzing with hope. The community buyout is all about connecting people with place… and it’s the people of this place who have chosen to determine their own futures. It’s a landscape of huge potential and peopled by a passionate, knowledgeable and dedicated team of locals who clearly have a steady hand on the tiller.

The Langholm Initiative have so far raised about half of the sum needed to buy all of the land, but if they can raise £4.2m by 31st October they also have an option for a smaller 5,200 acres.

Their Crowdfunder page is at https://www.gofundme.com/f/langholm-moor-buyout

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