Woodland in the City
The Aultnaskiach Dell is a place of beauty. It has a touch of mystery and feeling of remoteness that is startling to those who first chance upon it, as it is not far from the city centre of Inverness. The wood is in a steep-sided valley, formed by the burn itself, which makes its way down to the River Ness.
In May 2010, a meeting was organised locally by the previous owner, Mrs. Barron, to see if the community were interested in taking on ownership. Two and a half years later, after a full consultation with the local community, endless discussions on gabions, sewage, telegraph poles and many other issues, a group formed to take forward this idea and the Aultnaskiach Dell SCIO was formed.
Further work was undertaken, to ascertain the real costs of this venture, and as the trustees realised the extent of work required, a plan was made to lease the wood for a period of three years to allow time for the raising of the necessary capital. In November 2013, the trustees took on the management of the wood for the sum of one pound rent annually. The goals were to encourage greater biodiversity in the woodland and to facilitate community volunteering.
At first the trustees were real novices, only one of the trustees having a background in forestry, and it was a steep learning curve. Funding came from Highland Council's Common Good Fund for necessary tree work along with support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, local authority wards and the Forestry Commission Seed Corn Fund. The trustees also visited and got advice from other community woodlands to ascertain the priorities for work in the wood.
The wood contains primarily beech, elm, oak, ash, birch and holly and is home to a variety of fauna including red squirrel, sparrow hawk, tawny owl, roe deer, woodpecker and dipper. Initial work consisted in a programme of selective felling and replanting. Over several sessions wild cherry, oak, hazel, chestnut, rowan, alder, willow, wild rose, and blackthorn were planted. Trustees gained new skills in chain-sawing and developed a thriving wood-fuel project to help to boost funds. Membership grew to more than sixty people, some of whom assisted on volunteer days with the cutting back of non-native species and the bagging and selling of firewood. With the sales of firewood, many generous donations, and by running events, the trustees managed to raise over £14000, and were then able to take the land into community ownership.
The wood began to show signs of renewal as it was actively cared for by people: wonderful, contoured paths made by the Victorians opened up once again, and new plants were observed as, with vital work being carried out on trees, many which have had Dutch elm disease, light was able to reach the woodland floor. Cauldeen Primary began to visit regularly, initiating a Forest Schools programme for the Primary Six class, and Millburn Academy used the Dell for Higher Biology lessons where students have identified over thirty-three species of plants. Links were also made with the Inverness School of Forestry who found visits to the wood to be helpful for their students.
The Aultnaskiach Dell went into community ownership in February 2019. In April of that year, we celebrated with a ceilidh at Hilton church with around seventy people attending, which raised a further £700 for the wood. Since then, funding has been received from the Co-op which has enabled some much-needed improvements to the path that runs the length of the burn with a further planting of thirty trees of mixed species. A wonderful sight in the Autumn of 2020 was the fledging of three tawny owl chicks from a nest in the Dell.
Looking to the future
Ongoing projects have currently been curtailed or put on hold because of Covid: these are a photography project of ‘the Dell through the Seasons’, and a project for children from Hilton Primary to build bird and bat boxes with RSPB volunteers. We are hoping these will run more fully later in 2021.
The woodland has proved a tonic for people during these difficult times and attracts several visitors. It will be good to see the schools returning hopefully sometime in 2021.