Ochiltree becomes East Ayrshire’s first ‘Biosphere Community’

The historic conservation village of Ochiltree has become a ‘Biosphere Community’, the fifth to be designated within Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere, and the first in East Ayrshire.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation makes its awards in recognition of attributes which are unique and of global importance, and Galloway and Southern Ayrshire was named a ‘UNESCO Biosphere’ in 2012.  Over the decade since the Biosphere team have delivered projects across conservation, education, and sustainable development, with a strong focus on community-led initiatives that support inclusivity and the celebration of local heritage.

The creation of Biosphere Communities allows villages and towns the region to explore what is special about their locality and the attributes that most inspire community pride.  Residents are invited to take part in a ‘Sense of Place’ workshop in which they share local stories, favourite places, and thoughts on what makes their community unique.  Ochiltree’s workshop took place in October and within days residents had submitted text and photographs for a dedicated Ochiltree page on the Biosphere’s website (www.gsabiosphere.org.uk).  This will promote the village to an international audience: not only the global UNESCO network but visitors around the world who are looking for sustainable, ‘slow tourism’ experiences such as those provided by Scotland’s UNESCO Trail.

Ochiltree locals particularly highlighted the region’s colourful history: the area was first settled during the Stone Age, and since then has been a focal point for Covenanting fervour, a centre of rural industry from cotton weaving to tool manufacture, and a dairy farming and coalmining heartland. Famous names from the history of Scottish literature have made a point of stopping by, including renowned and rambunctious 18th century biographer and diarist James Boswell – who, curiously enough, laid the foundation stone of Ochiltree Parish Church.

Biosphere Communities also promote local life and culture in modern times, and Ochiltree residents chose to spotlight food and drink enterprises such as Wee Broon Hens, The Bakery Box, and Morton’s Milk.  Ochiltree Community Hub is celebrated as a place where all ages can meet, eat, learn and have fun, while for those seeking rural tranquillity the landscapes around the village offer “calm pools or rushing rivers; wild woods or flower covered paths.”  As part of becoming a Biosphere Community Ochiltree has signed up to the Biosphere’s Proud Supporter scheme, demonstrating the village’s commitment to six charter principles that cover sustainability, environmental awareness, support for education, and a ‘love local’ ethos that will benefit Ochiltree’s economy.  As the relationship between village and Biosphere grows residents will be able to call on the Biosphere team for help in developing community initiatives and promoting special events, and it is hoped that others in the area will be inspired to sign up as Proud Supporters too, with local businesses progressing to achieve the Biosphere Certification Mark for sustainability.

The concept of Biosphere Communities is a blueprint for living that will not only help drive Scotland’s Green Recovery and Net Zero goals but will contribute to the Biosphere’s overarching theme: making life better for people and nature.  Jenna Cains, Community & Education Lead Officer for the Biosphere, said, “It has been a pleasure to work with the community of Ochiltree in recent weeks and we look forward to doing much more as the relationship between the Biosphere and the village grows. During the Sense of Place workshop the GSAB team learned so much about the village, its history, and the unique features that make it a fantastic destination in East Ayrshire.  Most of all, it is the local community spirit that really brings the village to life.”

Councillor Jim Roberts, Cabinet Member for Planning, East Ayrshire Council said: “This designation is a huge accolade for everyone who is working so hard to drive positive change to preserve our precious landscape and use sustainable, sensitive development to improve opportunities, quality of life, environment and biodiversity for our communities.

“As a council, we’ve just launched our Climate Change Strategy and working with the Biosphere and other partner agencies we’re determined that everything we do now and in the future will help us reach our climate change targets for the benefit for all who live, work and visit this area.”