Getting back nature in East Lothian woods sparks row over huts

An ancient woodland which has been sold off in plots to private buyers is at the centre of a row after some new owners applied to build huts in it.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 7:00 am
Neil and Rebecca Simpson with Peter Carmichael

Bolton Muir Wood was bought by a company called Woodlands.co.uk from Lennoxlove Estate and lies on the outskirts of the villages of Bolton and Gifford in East Lothian.

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But with plots costing between £40,000 and £69,000 each, concerns have been raised about a loss of access to locals and it being turned into a holiday park “by stealth”.

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The noticeboard at Beachfield Wood

Local Democracy Reporter Marie Sharp met a few of the new owners of the wood to find out about the lure of the wilderness and their plans for its future.

Neil and Rebecca Simpson worked with the land throughout their careers and are now living in Aberlady.

The couple, who describe themselves as semi-retired and are in their sixties, searched all over the country for a suitable plot of woodland to invest in.

Botanist and landscape architect Rebecca, who trained with the late David Bellamy, said that they were delighted to find just such a plot so near to their home.

Peter Carmichael in his wood

She said: “As soon as I stepped onto the site, I could tell from the floor we were looking at an ancient woodland.

“It has been full of surprises as we investigate it further.

“We wanted to have an involvement in woodland management and had been all over the country before finding this woodland just nine miles from our home.”

The couple have owned their five-acre plot, called Lyon Wood, for six months.

Each plot comes with a hard-standing entrance of a main track and bench carved out of one of the local trees.

New owners are given grants to train in a course of their choosing to suit their plans for the site, with everything from woodland management to chainsaw training and bushcrafts recommended.

In Neil and Rebecca’s wood, they have already identified a clearing for a campsite and brought in native oak saplings grown from acorns collected from woods in neighbouring Dalkeith to support local biodiversity.

And owners of the plots have come together to meet, mainly online in the current climate, to swap ideas and discoveries in the wide-ranging woods.

Peter Carmichael and his partner have owned Lye Wood, at the other end of the site, for 14 months and spent six weeks camping in it while they were between homes.

Now living in a house in Haddington, Peter is a member of the bodgers society supporting green woodworking and has a degree in ecology.

He has volunteered for the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers for many years, working with the environment.

Both Peter and the Simpsons see their wood as something which can be passed on to generations in the future, as well as giving enjoyment to their grandchildren today.

As well as a vast array of different flora and fauna in their woods, there are deer who regularly pass through.

Peter said: “It is about having something that can be passed on in perpetuity, somewhere for the grandchildren to come and run around and enjoy the outdoors, which eventually will pass to their children and grandchildren.”

The sentiment is shared by fellow owner Scott Richards, an Edinburgh Scout group leader,

Scott has childhood memories of playing in Bolton Muir Wood and, when he saw the plots come up for sale, was determined to capture part of it.

He has put a noticeboard at his plot, Bleachfield Wood, letting everyone know the wildlife and flora and fauna to look out for during spring, with plans to update it through the year.

He said: “I am keen to have local Scout groups come out and use the wood and have been talking to them about how they can get involved.”

The owners have formed a group to support each other with future plans, including the possibility of reintroducing red squirrels into the woods and forest bathing – an ancient Japanese art of relaxing in the trees.

East Lothian Council currently has four planning applications for huts lodged with it for the plots at Bolton Muir Wood, as well as two applications regarding forestry buildings which they have raised objections over.

Last month, the council’s local review body refused to grant planning permission for a hut at one of the plots, despite it being recommended for approval by its own planning officers.

Councillor Norman Hampshire described the hut as more of a “chalet” and councillor Jeremy Findlay raised concerns that giving it the go-ahead would allow a “holiday park by stealth” in the wood.

However, for owners like the Simpsons, the woods are not about development but conservation.

The wood was, in fact, used as a working tree plantation for many years, with non-native species brought in for timber production.

Owners of the plots sign up to a covenant which prohibits shooting or pest control which could cause nuisance or danger to neighbours, use of land for racing, a commercial campsite, or for siting mobile homes or static caravans.

The only business allowed to operate on the plots is forestry and agriculture.

Rebecca said: “Our focus is woodland management and preserving these woods for the future and future generations.”

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