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Linking sustainable practices throughout Europe

[EXP] Conserving and promoting the natural and cultural heritage of Foula, Shetland’s most remote island

The example of a community initiative: the Ranger Service

Rural topic(s): (Agri)-tourism and rural heritage, Civic engagement, local governance and dialogue, Conservation and management of natural resources

Type: Success story

Date of writing: June 10, 2009

Author(s) of this page: Isobel Holbourn (†)

Organization(s): Foula Heritage


In the year 2000, the Foula community (about 30 people) founded Foula Heritage, a voluntary community group set up to record and interpret Foula’s very rich cultural and natural heritage before it was completely lost. In 2003 Foula Heritage developed a unique job-share island ranger service to monitor, conserve and interpret the island’s environment and unique culture, and to manage visitors carefully to ensure their visit was enjoyable without damaging sensitive habitats and species.


Regional Background and project objectives

Foula is the most remote inhabited island in the UK, lying 20 miles west of the main islands of Shetland, the most northerly point of the British Isles. The year-round resident population of 28 people is often trebled during the summer months. The island is covered by 4 environmental designations - two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) for its Blanket Bog and its exceptional Coastal Geomorphology, a National Scenic Area, and a Special Protection Area for Birds. Most of the islanders are crofters and Foula has maintained the indigenous coloured Shetland sheep. Some islanders keep a few cattle, pigs, and Shetland ponies. Transporting them to market is challenging, and the locally based ferry with its island crew plays an important role. The ferry has to be lifted out of the water for safety between crossings because the harbour is so exposed.With a very small population, the community in Foula is trying to use its unique environmental and cultural resources sustainably to improve its viability. Any small-scale part-time jobs contribute to an economy made more fragile by continuing shifts and uncertainty in national and EU agri-environment programmes. Town/ country dichotomy within the local civic authority does the island no favours, and the community has to work very hard to maintain the most basic of infrastructure and services. These problems make it difficult to maintain the current population and bring young people back after their education, far less to attract new residents.

Initiators of the project

In the year 2000, as the community was getting smaller, Isobel Holbourn encouraged the Foula community to found Foula Heritage, a voluntary community group set up to record and interpret Foula’s very rich cultural and natural heritage before it was completely lost. In 2003 Foula Heritage developed a unique job-share island ranger service to monitor, conserve and interpret the island’s environment and unique culture, and to manage visitors carefully to ensure their visit was enjoyable without damaging sensitive habitats and species.

Project activities with respect to Sustainable Development

Recording cultural and natural heritage

Everything the members of Foula Heritage could remember from their own experience and from speaking to older islanders was recorded faithfully: local place-names and sayings, archaeology and agriculture, flora and fishing, crofting and crafts, wartime experiences and wells, birds and boats, the sinking of the Oceanic and the Foula film “The Edge of the World », family history and old stories.

Creation of part-time jobs to protect and promote the cultural and natural environment: the Ranger Service.

Thanks to the successful outcome of different funding applications, a job-share seasonal ranger service was established in Foula in 2004, initially for three years. The main aims were:

Ranger guided walk
  • to raise awareness of the value of Foula’s natural and cultural heritage both within and outside the island: several open-days were organised in the summer both for tourists and the local population including exhibitions, guided-walks, and chatting with islanders etc.

  • to increase the socio-economic benefits of sustainable natural and cultural heritage tourism in Foula: the community has a strong cultural tradition of warm welcome and hospitality towards visitors, and to maintain it at least one ranger meets every plane and boat which arrives in the island, and personally greets all the visitors to offer information and guided walks, giving a personal description of the cultural and natural heritage and traditions.

  • to help safeguard the natural and cultural heritage of Foula: the rangers monitor sea-bird colonies, and check flora habitats; managing visitors minimises disruption to local activities and protects the island’s vulnerable colonies of breeding birds and peat bog habitats

  • to contribute to Foula’s viability by enhancing community cohesion and facilitating sustainable community development: primary school children and students have been involved in the project and it is 100% supported by the community. The strong community involvement is shown when other members of the community voluntarily join the 2 job-share rangers greeting the increasing groups of visitors and day-trippers, and large numbers of cruise-ship passengers.

As a result the ranger service soon became the trigger for a whole series of small community wide development projects designed to support the seasonal ranger work

  • training to lead guided walks

  • learning and sharing scientific species-monitoring techniques;

  • developing and sharing computer skills;

  • creating small Foula-specific souvenirs and post-cards;

  • designing and setting up exhibitions on island subjects;

  • preparing interpretive leaflets, newsletters, and other materials;

  • learning how to cater for specialist visitors (eg archaeologists, botanists, family history researchers etc).

Main results, lessons learned

The evolution of the Foula Heritage Ranger Service community development process has become an example of good practice for sustainable community development in small remote communities. The Foula job-share rangers learned new presentation skills and have been invited to other remote communities in Shetland and Orkney to share their experience. This work has led to a number of sustainable tourism awards (Shetland Environment Award.; Highlands & Islands green tourism award.), which have improved the island’s credibility in the eyes of authorities: the rangers were approached by the Shetland Island Council to contribute to a CD of good practice. The main lesson learned from the project was that protected environmental resources can be used as a basis for sustainable community development in a remote vulnerable community.

The Foula Ranger service is currently being funded for a 3-year period 2009-2011 by Scottish Natural Heritage, the body which carries out the Scottish Government’s environmental remit. Two job-share rangers carry out the work programme between April and October with assistance from younger trainees who have been learning the environmental monitoring and people-management skills they need. Trainees are paid by the hour for assistance they provide.

Future Challenges and Perspectives

Foula’s population is very small, and the economy and viability of the community is fragile. So long as the community has the right to use its environmental and cultural resources sustainably, the Ranger project should continue into the foreseeable future. The danger is that European legislation weighted very heavily towards protecting wild species and habitats, if it is not flexible enough to recognise the reasonable needs of the local human species, could damage the chances of survival of a unique community of people.


Foula Heritage can offer the unique experience of a community way of life and values which have almost disappeared in our modern world. The example of how a small isolated community are using their magnificent environment and unique culture - the only resources they have – to preserve their way of life on the absolute periphery of Europe can be an inspiration to others.The shared experience and support the island of Foula has received from membership of first the European Network of Experiences in Sustainable Development (ENESD) and then from Forum Synergies has contributed greatly to the community’s confidence. International partnership working is enabling the Foula community to perceive and understand its situation within the wider context of national, European, and global policies.



  • Foula presentation document for Forum Synergies,

  • Foula Heritage website

  • Isobel Holbourn personal experience






Scale of intervention : Local

Keywords: conservation and management of natural resources, ecotourism, island, local community initiative, biodiversity conservation, locally-based economy, rural-urban relationship, cultural heritage, empowerment of rural communities, job creation

Places: United-Kingdom

Actors: NGO, inhabitant association, local community

Methods: community-led initiative