Beacon of hope
South Scotland's largest community buyout is boosting biodiversity and offering a fantastic opportunity for people to visit this beautiful region. By Richard Bunting
Above: hen harrier at Langholm © John Wright
Achieving the impossible once is hard. But achieving it twice – well, that takes some doing.
But that's what happened in summer 2022, when South Scotland's largest community buyout was able to announce that it had “achieved the impossible” for a second time in just two years.
A historic agreement between The Langholm Initiative charity and Buccleuch – one of Scotland's biggest landowners – for 5,300 acres of land was to go ahead, after the Dumfriesshire town of Langholm successfully reached its goal of raising £2.2m.
This will double the size of the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve – created in 2021 after the community buyout's first stage raised £3.8m to purchase an initial 5,200 acres.
The habitats to be restored and expanded here include native woodlands, such as through the initial planting of 200 hectares to provide homes for wildlife, amenity use and the soaking up of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The reserve is also rich in ancient woodlands, with a wide variety of species including oak and alder. Ancient woodland along the Tarras Water, for example, is to be restored including through natural regeneration – ensuring a mosaic of biodiversity-boosting habitats.
This is a story that, for me, began back in 2020 during the dark days of the emerging Covid pandemic. I work with several rewilding and environmental charities, and was inspired to hear about a plan by the community of Langholm to try to raise a lot of money to buy a lot of land for nature, climate and people.
Langholm, nestled in the beautiful and dramatic Southern Uplands and birthplace of legendary poet Hugh McDiarmid, has a rich history and culture.
Once a booming centre for the textile industry, most local people would finish school and instantly find local employment in the mills. Those days have gone, and the last 20 years have seen a rapid decline in the industry. Langholm now faces the same problems as many other rural areas in Scotland – loss of economic opportunities, youth migration, an aging population.
However, the town is blessed to have Langholm Moor on its doorstep. Local people are extremely passionate about the land they believe to be theirs, and have marked the boundaries of the common land for over 250 years. This tradition still goes on today with a spectacular annual event called the Langholm Common Riding.
The moor is a special place. Here you can be mesmerised by the spectacular sky dancing of courting hen harriers – the most persecuted bird of prey in the United Kingdom – over dramatic hills.
It's a place where you can escape from the bustle of modern-day life to watch the lekking of black grouse, or observe the silent hunt of a short-eared owl. Where you can listen to the calls of a curlew echo over the moors, or watch newly fledged dippers explore the Tarras Water.
The national and international importance of the natural heritage on this land is recognised by large parts of it being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area (for Hen Harriers).
The moor has been the site of two scientific studies regarding land management for the purpose of driven grouse shooting. The latest of these studies – the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project – produced its final report in 2019. It found that driven grouse shooting was no longer economically sustainable.
Later that year the landowner Buccluech announced its decision to sell about 25,000 acres of its Borders Estate, and that it hoped to do so quite quickly.
For the Langholm community – with their deep connection to this land, which had never been sold before – the clock was ticking. If local people were to have a say in how their moor would be managed, they would have to act promptly.
The question was asked: what could you do with a former grouse moor?
Soon a vision emerged. Through community land ownership and the creation of a vast nature reserve, a foundation could be laid for local regeneration – including by supporting eco-tourism and bringing visitors to the area.
A feasibility study and business plan were drawn up. The town would set out on a quest to purchase 10,500 acres of Langholm Moor – jointly valued at £3 million – from Buccleuch.
Soon called “the impossible dream”, this would be southern Scotland's largest community land buyout to date. It would be led by the Langholm Initiative, formed in 1994 as one of south Scotland's earliest development trusts. The charity facilitates projects that make a lasting difference to the local area and the lives of the people that live there.
If the community could somehow raise the funds and purchase the wildlife-rich and culturally important land, they would create the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, with the goals of tackling climate change, boosting nature restoration and supporting community regeneration.
Globally important peatlands and ancient woods would be restored, native woodlands planted and regenerated along river valleys, and open moorland protected for ground-nesting birds.
The community had decided to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have control over their own future.
This was inspiring stuff. I got in contact with Kevin Cumming, at that time the Langholm Initiative's project leader, and volunteered to help with the buyout's media work.
My first conversation with Kevin brought home the importance of this project. Kevin spoke about the moor – describing it as a hidden gem in South Scotland. He had travelled all over Scotland wildlife watching, but the biodiversity on Langholm Moor was unique and spectacular.
We launched the community buyout on 7 May 2020, with a public crowdfunder. The rest was a rollercoaster – and one of the most inspiring, uplifting projects of hope I have been involved in.
The John Muir Trust generously kick-started the fundraising campaign with a £100,000 donation. Other leading charities – including Borders Forest Trust, Rewilding Britain, RSPB Scotland, Trees for Life, and The Woodland Trust – offered support of various kinds.
The Scottish Land Fund made a £1 million offer – a huge leap forward. But the community still had just months to raise millions of pounds, with funder deadlines meaning a deal needed to be in place by 31 October 2020.
With that Hallowe'en deadline looming, the buyout focused on completing a first stage to bring approximately half the land into public ownership. That was still an ambitious target – there was a mountain to climb, and at times the project appeared to be seriously at risk.
But one by one, other major funders stepped up – including South of Scotland Enterprise, the Carman Family Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation and Bently Foundation.
The crowdfunder, meanwhile, kept gathering pace. During the nail-biting final week, an extraordinary surge of more than £50,000 donations – £24,000 on one day alone – saw the crowdfunder smash its £200,000 target. In all, nearly 4,000 people from all over the world had generously donated.
In the final 48 hours, with the community still some £150,000 short of the total needed, The Woodland Trust agreed to contribute £200,000 – taking the community over the line.
As November 2020 dawned, we were able to announce a landmark community buyout agreement of £3.8 million for 5,200 acres of land and six residential properties. I've rarely been so pleased to press 'send' when mailing out a news release.
As Benny Higgins, Executive Chairman of Buccleuch, said, the deal demonstrated what can be achieved when everyone involved is committed to working together.
With legal completion in March 2021, the community took ownership of the land for the first time in its history. The Tarras Valley Nature Reserve was born – and nature recovery work began immediately.
“Together we've achieved something which once seemed impossible. We can celebrate as a new era begins for this special land with which our community has such a deep and long-standing connection,” said Margaret Pool, The Langholm Initiative's Chair at the time.
Finishing what we started
This was a remarkable result, which led to headlines worldwide. Even so, everyone was keen to finish what we had started – by purchasing the remaining land, which Buchluech had generously agreed to keep off the open market.
Stage two of the buyout was announced in October 2021 – the goal being to raise £2.2 million to buy a further 5,300 acres of the moor, and so double the size of Tarras Valley Nature Reserve to 10,500 acres.
There was no certainty we could replicate the success of the first stage. But hope is a powerful motivator. As Jenny Barlow, the reserve's Estate Manager, said: “Scotland is one of the world's most nature-depleted countries and desperately needs projects like this.”
There was an immediate pledge of £500,000 from a private donor. We also launched another crowdfunder, and before long a £20,000 donation from Rewilding Britain took that public appeal past the £100,000 milestone.
Buccleuch, meanwhile, gave us much-needed breathing space by offering us an additional two months to fundraise – extending the deadline to 31 July 2022.
The Scottish Land Fund stepped up again, awarding £1 million. This was a major game-changer, but even so – as with the first stage – the buyout often seemed at serious risk.
But once again too, support for the crowdfunder provided daily inspiration that helped drive us forwards. In all, nearly 3,000 people donated – taking it past its £150,000 target, then past a £200,000 stretch target, and eventually passing £242,000.
Tens of thousands of pounds poured in during the final weeks alone. Each pound counted, and this outpouring of global support also showed major donors that this was a serious project of hope.
Success for stage two was only confirmed as the deadline was reached – with the confirmation of hugely welcome and generous donations of £300,000 from Alex Gerko, philanthropist and founder of algorithmic trading firm XTX Markets, £100,000 from Anne Reece of the Reece Foundation, and £50,000 from John Muir Trust.
On 5 August 2022, we could announce that the community had defied the odds again. An agreement for 5,300 acres of land and two residential properties between The Langholm Initiative and Buccleuch would go ahead.
“We are so grateful to every single person who has backed this beacon of hope for people and planet. The generosity and unwavering support of so many wonderful donors and volunteers have got us over the line in the nick of time,” said Jenny.
Beacon of hope
So what next?
Once the legal purchase of the land to officially bring it into community ownership had been completed, the nature reserve was doubled in size. And it was then, in many ways, that the hard work began.
This is a community that is moving forwards with a big, bold vision to restore nature and lost habitats at a landscape scale – helping to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, while helping to regenerate a community.
A community-led approach to future plans has been placed front and centre – giving people a voice to shape their own futures and opportunities after years of economic heartache following the decline of the textile industry.
That includes an ongoing programme of community participation – ensuring that initiatives are co-designed, collaborative and reflect local people's needs and aspirations. A lot of work has been carried out to ensure a community-designed management plan that provides detail and a shared vision.
There are exciting plans around social and economic opportunities through a sustainable, nature-based approach. The reserve has already seen jobs on the land rise to six from zero.
The nature reserve will offer a fantastic opportunity for people to visit this beautiful corner of Dumfries and Galloway, including through eco-tourism, camping and walking trails.
There are hopes too that the buyout will inspire other community-led nature recovery projects across Scotland and beyond. It shows that communities can be powerful forces for positive change.
The significance of what has been achieved in Langholm can't be overstated. The overlapping climate and nature crises are the biggest long-term threat that humanity faces. Tackling these threats has to include landscape-scale change to reverse decades of mistreatment of our natural world.
It's a privilege to have been involved. This grassroots fightback against climate breakdown and biodiversity loss – for people and planet – is a much-needed beacon of hope.
“We are so grateful to every single person who has backed this beacon of hope for people and planet" – Jenny Barlow
Green Adventures November 2023
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Richard Bunting is a spokesperson for Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, as well as for charities including Trees for Life and Rewilding Britain. He also runs environmental project
This article was first published in the New Year 2023 edition of .