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These Scottish villagers bought a nature reserve - now they are fundraising to double its size

Hen harriers have been severely persecuted for preying on game species.
Hen harriers have been severely persecuted for preying on game species.   -   Copyright  Langholm Initiative/Laurie Campbell
By Lottie Limb

Villagers behind one of Scotland’s biggest community land buyouts are hoping to double the size of their new nature reserve to more than 4,000 hectares.

Langholm, near Gretna Green on the English border, raised £3.8 million (€4.5 million) last year. With it they purchased around 2,100 hectares of land from the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the UK’s most powerful landowners.

They’re now fundraising another £2.2 million (€2.6 million) to buy an adjoining, similarly sized plot, in order to maximise the benefits for people, nature and climate. The site is on peatland which has global significance.

A £1 million (€1.2 million) grant from the Scottish Land Fund, funded by the government for community takeovers like these, was announced on Thursday. It puts the Langholm Initiative in sight of its target by 31 July, after the Buccleuch estate extended its deadline for the sale from the end of May.

Ongoing land reform in Scotland is a seachange for communities which have been tenants for centuries. More than 200,000 hectares of Scottish land (around 3 per cent) is now under community ownership, much of it in the Highlands and Islands like the Hebridean Isle of Eigg.

Langholm Initiative
Jenny Barlow (L) and development manager Angela Williams.Langholm Initiative

But it’s less common in southern areas like Dumfries and Galloway. Jenny Barlow, estate manager of Tarras Valley Nature Reserve - created following the town’s historic success in March 2021 - tells Euronews Green this is just the start of the journey.

“It’s a long-term shift, because there’s been one landowner that’s owned all the land around here for centuries. So it’s quite a shift in terms of how people see it,” she says.

“We’ll know we’ve got there when people start to say ‘This is ours, it’s not theirs, it’s ours.”

What are the environmental benefits of Langholm’s land ownership?

Langholm Initiative/laurie campbell
"We're actually finding species that people didn't know existed in the region," says estate manager Jenny Barlow.Langholm Initiative/laurie campbell

The Langholm Initiative’s ecological project is a long game. But they’re already starting to see species return that haven’t been spotted in decades, says Barlow. Majestic golden eagles have visited from the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project.

What was already a Special Protection Area (SPA) for hen harriers has become an even safer breeding ground for these birds. A live camera will soon enable people to watch the progress of chicks in the five nests built this year. Charity partners Hen Harrier Action and RSPB are satellite tagging the birds to help protect them from persecution.

The team have just completed a ‘BioBlitz’ - a big, biological community-led survey to take stock of all the species on the Langholm Moor reserve. They recorded some kinds of invertebrates and moths for the first time in Dumfries and Galloway.

Setting this baseline is important for the development trust - which bought all rights to the land in the local community’s name - to show its impact.

laurie campbell
Curlew (pictured), short-eared owl and merlin also live on Langholm Moor.laurie campbell

“The fundamental of it is that we know that to have that impact for nature, we need scale,” says Barlow. “That bigger, better joined up theory for nature conservation and restoration is something we can be really ambitious with, because of the scale that we've got and the mix and diversity of habitats.”

They already own the bottom of the River Tarras. Buying the 2,100 hectares to the north will bring the whole river catchment into community ownership, creating an aquatic corridor with “exciting” potential.

Peatlands are another vital habitat and the UK’s biggest store of carbon. They lock away an estimated 3 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gas, equivalent to all of the country’s forests plus those of France and Germany.

But the peat soils on Langholm Moor are not in a great state. Until recently, the land was famous for grouse shooting and was managed accordingly by burning heather to encourage fresh growth and feed the birds.

Danny Wilson
Globally important peatlands and ancient woods are being restored on the reserve.Danny Wilson

“It’s a new chapter now,” says Barlow. Sports shooting isn’t part of the mix, though she stresses the group is “still really keen to hear from all the people who worked on the land, and know it like the back of their hand.”

Restoring this degraded land is a key part of the initiative’s plans - ensuring it remains a huge carbon sink rather than an emitter. The team are also working with the Woodland Trust to expand the area’s ancient woodland, removing conifer plantations and replacing them with native trees.

10 years after intensive grazing stopped, trees are already regenerating all over the landscape, explains Barlow. “It’s incredible to see how, when you give nature a chance, it starts to rebalance and restore.” Only a helping hand is needed.

But what really sets the project apart is its centring of the local community, in a tight trio with nature and climate.

Why is community at the heart of Langholm’s plans?

Picasa/Langholm Initiative
Locals swim and enjoy a picnic on Tarras Valley Nature Reserve.Picasa/Langholm Initiative

A once thriving textile town where Edinburgh Woollen Mill was founded, Langholm has been in economic decline for many years.

Ownership over the reserve is helping to reverse those fortunes.

An alternative, nature-based economy might not be a ‘silver-bullet’, says Barlow, who moved from Sunderland in the northeast of England. But it does create a variety of jobs, from employment on the land to small wind and solar farms. There are also the knock-on effects of ecotourism in Langholm and Eskdale village.

“I suppose when we talk about climate action, there is that other bit of a just transition - of bringing people along with you,” she says.

“And I think that's the thing that, hopefully we can show: that actually, it isn't just about restoring the natural world, it is about providing new opportunities and new economic opportunities for people in that as well.”

Langholm Initative
The reserve is also a place for outdoor education.Langholm Initative

Langholm Initiative’s democratic model of ‘co-design’ is in stark contrast to the schemes of some private landowners in Scotland. It’s won them support and followers from all over the world. Now they’re hoping to repeat the success with the purchase of the second plot from Buccleuch.

With a campaign featuring everyone from young footballers to local business owners, ‘junior rangers’ to tree-planting pensioners, the community has already raised over £154,000 (€180,000) through a public crowdfunder. That target has been stretched to £200,000 (€235,000) as they look to make up the remaining £450,000 (€528,000) of the overall cost.

It’s a high price to pay, but one Langholm is determined to meet to fulfil this ‘forever project.’

“We’re really keen that we aren’t just looking inwardly at the town,” adds Barlow, “but giving a really positive, inspiring example of the impact people can have.”