Demand for land is growing. We must ensure aspirational communities can keep up.

The rise of community land ownership has great potential for nature, the climate and people alike — but it comes with unique challenges to solve.

Down in the cobbled streets of Langholm the sound of horses cantering and riders bellowing echoes all around. Through crowds of jeering people lining the route they advance up the fellside and out into the heather-clad hills of the Tarras Valley. But this is no ordinary celebration. It’s the Common Riding, an annual ceremony dating back hundreds of years held to commemorate the Border town’s age-old connection to the land which surrounds it.

For any outsider this may feel like a throwback to a by-gone era. Much more recently, though, the community of Langholm has focused as much on shaping its future than it has on keeping its history and traditions alive. In 2019, it marked the beginning of a new era by successfully buying a large grouse moor in the valley which had been put up for sale by the Duke of Buccleuch.

“Together we’ve achieved something which once seemed impossible, and today we can celebrate as a new era begins for this special land with which our community has such a deep and long-standing connection,” explains Chair of the Langholm Initiative Margaret Pool. “We know that communities can be powerful forces for positive change [and] hope our story will inspire other community-led nature recovery projects across Scotland and beyond.”

Community buyouts are emerging as a driving force in rewilding the uplands

Among the chessboard of burnt patches of heather and ghostly plantations of non-native Sitka spruce, the community of Langholm found hope. They saw the opportunity for restoring carbon-rich peatlands and re-establishing native broadleaf woodlands across the degraded landscape to bring benefits for nature, climate and people alike. “This is about a grassroots fightback against the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, and helping to create a better future,” said Jenny Barlow, one of six people to have taken up jobs created to implement the community’s vision for Langholm Moor, which is now known as the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve.

A hen harrier soars above the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve (Credit: Langholm Initiative)

The community of Langholm has shown what can be achieved when a determined group of people with a bold vision come together to take a stake in shaping the future of nature conservation in the uplands. But the success of the initiative—which involved securing a staggering £3.8 million to acquire the 5,200-acre upland estate for rewilding—didn’t come without a rollercoaster ride. This was the first time any community had undertaken a buyout of this scale and at times the project appeared to be seriously at risk. With large funding pots, including £1m from the Scottish Land Fund, having an agreed cut off point and the buyout being heavily reliant on crowdfunding, it would not be where it is today without the drive and ambition of its team coupled with a hefty dose of flexibility from other stakeholders.

“It is not so long ago that, for a variety of reasons, this seemed improbable. It is, first and foremost, a credit to the tenacity of the community of Langholm. I applaud [their] efforts. Over the last few years, all of us at Buccleuch have sought to work in true partnership to enable this to happen,” said Benny Higgins, Executive Chairman of Buccleuch Estates. It is clear that the viability of community buyouts is not only being enabled by local people seeking to take an equitable stake in rewilding, but also by a steady change in attitudes among those landowners prepared to engage with growing environmental and social trends.

Bridging the community buyout funding gap

As global efforts ramp up to mitigate the climate crisis, address land and biodiversity issues, the sustained interest in community-based rewilding signals a growing interest in nature-friendly solutions with an equitable focus. While Langholm has already scored success in buying out land, many communities with similar aspirations are still left scrambling for funding. Understanding how these challenges interact on a practical level is essential to generating breakthrough ideas in areas where communities are best placed to deliver land restoration.

While corporate buyouts by businesses seeking to meet carbon net-zero targets have grown at an impressive rate, they have outpaced their community counterparts because of challenges involved in closing the funding gap. Some have claimed this gap means the two variations of land ownership, despite being united by a firm recognition of the urgent need to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss by improving how land is managed, cannot be complimentary. But others have instead chosen to focus on developing innovative solutions which enable communities to become a more powerful force for change in the rewilding space.

One of the pioneers of this new model is Highlands Rewilding, which manages several areas of uplands including the 1,200-acre Bunloit Estate located on the banks of Loch Ness. The estate’s purpose is to balance nature recovery and community prosperity by adopting a novel model of mass ownership which generates profits to invest back into the rewilding initiative and create green jobs for local people.

Highlands Rewilding has taken on the Bunloit Estate to develop a mass ownership model of rewilding.

“If we want to win the existential battle with climate meltdown and biodiversity collapse we have to demonstrate that repairing nature builds more prosperity for more people than continuing to undermine it,” says Dr. Jeremy Legget, a social entrepreneur and former scientific director of Greenpeace who is leading the project. “And we have to involve the full fighting force of local communities in the struggle. Highlands Rewilding aims to do both these things.”

Although the project has harnessed private finance to get started, it has sold shares in Highland Rewilding to allow communities to subsequently take mass ownership. The idea has proven highly successful with over £7.5 million in shares sold to date. As the initiative continues to grow Highlands Rewilding says more shares will be on offer, with prices starting as low as £10 to encourage a broader base of co-ownership. By working with local people, universities and other partners across rewilding the initiative has also established an oversight board to provide critical advisory support.

Now is the crucial moment

How those who want to see the growth of community-based rewilding engage with these trends may well dictate the extent of the role that local projects play in the future of nature restoration in the uplands. An expansive and ambitious funding platform which will nurture the growth of this alternative form of land management is key for community development and growth in the face of competition while aligning with the longer-term aim of promoting climate-conscious land management.

At a time when financial technology is opening up new avenues for investment on the whole, more focus is needed on exploring and fostering the opportunities this could present for securing early stage and longer term financing for community rewilding. To enable this rewilding needs to up its role as a matchmaker to help connect entrepreneurial communities with new ideas, funding and each other to enable the growth of buyouts. By asking the big questions which nobody else is asking and presenting practical solutions to challenges, rewilding can clearly define itself by not only addressing climate change and biodiversity loss but also enabling community buyouts to play a bigger part in shaping the future of Britain’s uplands.

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