Langholm Moor: In roller skates on K2…

The news that the Langholm Initiative had won a £1m grant from the Scottish Land Fund seems to have been generally greeted by colleagues in the media as a good news story for the Initiative’s bid to buy in 10,500 acres of moorland.

It is a significant sum of money (it would do me …) but I’m afraid the truth is that the award will be seen as a major disappointment by the Initiative, which wants to take over this chunk of the Buccleuch estate and turn it into a community-owned wildlife haven and nature reserve.

It had asked for £3m towards the £6m that the Duke of Buccleuch is asking for the land, having already raised maybe £200,000 towards the buyout through a crowdfunder and the John Muir Trust. Even that would have still left the Initiative folk with a mountain to climb, maybe a summer Matterhorn, challenging but doable for the fit and able. Now it looks a bit more like K2 in winter, in roller skates and boxing gloves.

The Langholm Initiative’s crowdfunder appeal

The basic problem is that the land fund has a limit of £1m on individual grants. This was breached a couple of years ago to give more than £4m to the buyout of 5,000-acre Ulva off the west coast of Mull, so that might have given hope to the Langholm folk, but clearly this was not judged to be so important. Perhaps Ulva, as an area brutally depopulated in the Highland Clearances, was of higher significance as a symbol of land reform.

But despite being the most expensive community buyout proposal ever in Scotland, the Langholm Moor project is significant and has a lot going for it.

Langholm Moor was the site of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, which ran from 2008 to 2018 and was intended to come up with answers as to whether grouse moors could be run differently to bring greater benefits to nature. That will mean a lot is known about how it works, its flora and fauna, and how it can be run to benefit nature.

Importantly the proposal is being put together by local people, with local support. The Langholm Initiative has been around since 1994 and has a string of other projects to its name, benefiting people in this remote corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

I am convinced that a local approach – rather than some outside NGO or agency marching in and looking to make the place “wild”, while pissing off the locals – is one of the best ways for environmentally beneficial projects to thrive, and privately staff at some of those NGOs agree.

A few months back I was down on the Eddleston Water near Peebles where a whole-catchment experiment in natural flood prevention is going on, with tree planting, remeandering and dams which mimic the work of beavers.

The project’s success is already becoming apparent, with locals noting smaller flood peaks downstream in Peebles.

And it has had excellent buy-in from landowners – not always the keenest on enviro-schemes that don’t make them money – because it’s being run by what a 2016 report describes coyly as “a trusted intermediary.” More straightforwardly The Tweed Forum which is delivering the scheme on behalf of the Scottish Government and others has its roots in the local  fishing and land managing community itself: they know the people involved from the start.

The Langholm plan is not the same but this similarity, in local roots and drive, is what makes me think the project deserves support, a chance, because local people will back it to the hilt.

There are also around a dozen lettable houses, and a working farm, on the buyout site which should mean it can be a viable business from the get-go, with money coming into its coffers to pay for support workers and schemes. Not all land buyouts have this advantage…

Those homes and farmland, of course, will have been one of the factors in pushing the price so high, but you have to question the valuation of £6m. It’s based on “current market values” but beyond the houses and farm, upland ground has no great commercial value.

It might be hoped, of course, that the Duke would look kindly on the locals at this point and lop a few quid off his asking price: what would a couple of mill matter to him? That is perhaps unlikely (!) so some other rich benefactor will probably be needed if the project is to raise all the cash by October as it must to keep its £1m from SLF.

At a time when we’re ever more aware of the degradation of our environment and the need to repair it, this situation of dependence on wealthy folk to help out of the goodness of their hearts seems crazy.

I’m not one for doing a Mugabe (or giving some the chance to suggest a Mugabe is being done) but are there grounds for suggesting that areas of land such as this might have to be sold at a discount to local people, if they have a good plan for it that will bring major benefits? Maybe “market value” is less than an ideal way to approach these issues?

Without Government intervention, the folk of the Langholm Initiative will need supplementary oxygen, down suits, crampons specially adapted to fit round the wheels, and a hefty slice of luck up there. But let’s hope anyhow they can get to the top. They deserve to.