Is hazel a tree or a shrub? That may sound like a question only a botanical geek might care about, but if you are a Scottish crofter it is an important distinction. Grant rules normally limit the proportion of shrubs allowed in a planting plan, and hazel is deemed a shrub. 

But hazel is particularly suited to many crofting areas and Atlantic hazelwood is a special coastal habitat we would like to see more of. Woodland Trust Scotland has worked with Forestry Commission Scotland to improve the grant application for crofters – and one of the changes we have come up with is to give tree status to hazel in crofting areas where it would be naturally dominant.

What is crofting?

Crofting is a land and social system unique to the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Individual crofters typically cultivate their own patch of better land, known as ‘in-bye’, while each township manages poorer ground as ‘common grazing’.

Better and poorer are relative terms here. All croft land is challenging. Most crofters can’t make a full living from the land and have a mixture of jobs, from bus driver to website designer and all points in between.

Crofting is hugely important to the Highlands and Islands. About 10% of people in the area live in crofting households, rising to 65% in Shetland, the Western Isles and Skye. Crofting is a hook on which much else hangs in these communities. ​

How are we helping?

Forestry is not a traditional component of crofting but since we established a dedicated croft woodlands team, there has been much demand for the help of the three advisors, Iona Hyde in Argyll and Lochaber, Donnie Chisholm in Highland and Northern Isles, and Viv Halcrow in Western Isles. Crofters looking for our advice can email us at

Crofters increasingly see the merits of shelter belts protecting buildings and livestock, with the bonus of a fuel source. In the last couple of years the team has helped with woodland creation at 45 sites with 163 more in the pipeline, which will bring the total of new woods under the scheme to some 600ha.

Advice and support on management of existing woods has also been provided at 30 sites covering 500ha. There have been over 400 site visits.

The Croft Woodlands Project is a partnership between:

  • Point and Sandwick Trust
  • Forestry Commission Scotland
  • Scottish Crofting Federation
  • Shetland Amenity Trust
  • Woodland Trust Scotland.

It is supported financially by Point and Sandwick Trust, Forestry Commission Scotland and Heritage Lottery Fund.

The project has been a great success but the future could be even brighter now we have worked with Forestry Commission Scotland to tailor a grant system better suited to croft land and croft businesses.

Specific woodland grants previously only available in the Western Isles and Northern Isles are being extended to the Inner Hebrides and mainland crofting counties where similar conditions to the Western and Northern Islands are found.

Crofting roots

This is all great news for a landscape once thick with woodland and now almost entirely treeless.

Many (not all) of the crofting counties overlap with strongholds of the Gaelic language – whose 18-letter alphabet is derived from tree species. Coll, the Gaelic ‘C’, comes from hazel for instance.

Many place names derive from vanished forest features. In the Western Isles, native tree cover runs at 0.1% yet you don’t have to dig far into the peat to find roots and stumps from the bygone forests that birthed a language and culture.

Now crofters are creating new woodlands in the Highlands and Islands and we’re proud to be helping them.