Mark Walton: The Forestry Commission estimates that 47% of England’s woodlands are unmanaged. If you like to think of woods as wild places and flinch at the idea of a tree being felled, then you might consider this a good thing. But woodlands, at least in this country, need management.

Whilst truly wild woodlands are ‘climax vegetation’ that has achieved a balance between death and renewal, these generally need to be at a scale much bigger than any of our remaining woodlands to thrive independently of humans.

Here in Britain, “the wildwood” has a central place in our culture and imaginations, but the reality is that active management has shaped our woodlands since the ice age, providing supplies of food, fuel and timber, and creating diverse habitats amongst the trees. Unmanaged woodland lacks diversity and can result in poor tree health and increase the spread of tree diseases.

Whilst most of that unmanaged woodland is in private ownership, the future management of our public forest estate also remains uncertain. Attempts in 2010 to sell off the national forest estate were abandoned in the face of a public outcry, but austerity has resulted in many local authority woodland teams being disbanded and the future for the management of the national public forest estate – at least in England – remains unclear.

It is in that gap between the market and the state that we find the commons and, increasingly, a diverse range of community businesses, co-operatives and other forms of social enterprise creating value and livelihoods from its management. So does social and community business have a role in reinvigorating our woods and forests and rebuilding our woodland culture?

In 2012, in the aftermath of the failed forestry sell off and in the wake of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report, a number of organisations came together to discuss alternative approaches to the management of our woods and forests.

There was already a well established sector of community woodlands and voluntary groups involved in woodland management across the UK. There were also some examples of social enterprises managing significant-sized woodlands, particularly in Scotland where community buyouts meant communities in the Highlands and Islands already had ownership and control over their local woodlands and a focus on sustainable local economic regeneration.

Could these approaches provide new models for managing our woodlands in ways that created livelihoods, improved their quality, and produced useful resources such as woodfuel?

That 2012 meeting led to the establishment of the Woodland Social Enterprise Network and, over time, the development of a proposal for a project to support the development of social enterprise in woodlands. In 2015, funding was secured from Big Lottery to deliver Making Local Woods Work, a pilot programme to provide technical assistance, training and peer networking opportunities for woodland-based social enterprises across the UK.

The programme, which runs until Autumn 2018, is providing support to 50 woodland social enterprises right across the UK, each of which embed woodlands or woodland products into their core activity whether that is the production of woodfuel and timber, or delivering educational or health and well-being activities in a woodland setting. It provides technical advice on woodland management and finance, support in developing business plans, choosing legal structures and strengthening governance, and advice on leases, tenure, and a wide range of other issues. It also provides training, webinars and peer networking opportunities, many of which are available to the wider network of woodlands social enterprises as well as those who are part of the formal support programme.

Austerity has resulted in many local authority woodland teams being disbanded and the future for the management of the national public forest estate – at least in England – remains unclear.

Case studies:

Vert Woods Community Woodland in East Sussex is a 171 acre woodland that is owned and managed for community and wildlife benefit. Much of the woodland is recovering woodland, substantially affected by the Great Storm of 1987 and includes mature tall pines, oak and beech, as well as under-managed chestnut coppice, and unmanaged birch and willow. With support from Making Local Woods Work, Vert Community Woodland has registered as a Community Benefit Society (CBS) and is looking to widen its community membership and issue shares to enable the community to collectively own the woodland.

Elwy Working Woods in North Wales is a co-operative and social enterprise set up in 2010 to create sustainable employment by managing local woodland to produce good quality timber for construction and joinery. North Wales has seen the demise of several small sawmills in recent decades and Elwy Working Woods is looking to create new models for the business that can provide sustainable employment and add value to local natural and renewable resources. They aim to provide a one-stop shop capable of supplying everything from complete house frames to kitchen tables, using locally-grown timber and providing local training, employment and volunteering opportunities.

Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park manage London’s most urban woodlands in a densely populated and rapidly growing borough. The park is located in of one of London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries and owned by the local council. The Friends maintain the site under a Service Level Agreement and provide a wide range of public events, short courses and heritage activities as well as managing the woodland. In order to expand their activities, increase their commercial income, and ensure a sustainable long term future for the Cemetery Park, the Friends are being supported by Making Local Woods Work to review their business plan and explore opportunities for more secure tenure on the site with the council.

The forestry and timber processing sector already support around 43,000 jobs in the UK. It directly employs around 14,000 people in more than 3,000 separate enterprises, suggesting that the vast majority of forestry business is undertaken by small and medium-sized enterprises.

Community and social enterprises operate to a triple bottom line, ensuring that the way they manage woodlands is good for people and good for the environment as well as good for the economy. As well as providing social benefits such as health, education and wellbeing through the activities they deliver in woodlands, the very act of managing local land and resources is one that supports longer term community empowerment.

This aspect of community management is recognised and supported by programmes that enable community management, and even ownership, of the public forest estate in Wales and Scotland.

In 2011, Natural Resources Wales launched the Woodlands and You (WaY) scheme, which enables communities and social enterprises to operate long term projects through Management Agreements and Leases. Forest Enterprise Scotland’s Community Asset Transfer Scheme (CATS) provides asset transfer rights for communities who want to take on ownership or leases on Scotland’s National Forest Estate. This builds on the previous Scottish National Forest Land Scheme that gave community organisations the chance to buy or lease National Forest Land where they could provide increased public benefits.

To date, no such scheme exists in England, making it harder for community and social enterprises to secure leases or management agreements. Harder, but not impossible. Neroche Woodlanders are an example of a social enterprise that has secured a 10-year lease from Forestry Commission England to inhabit, manage and harvest wood from 100 acres of woodland near Taunton in Somerset.

Our woodland commons have always provided for basic human needs and securing access to them forms a rich part of our history. This November marks the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest that restored the rights of free tenants to access and use the Royal Forests that were being enclosed. The Charter protected practices such as ‘pannage’ (knocking acorns from oak trees for pigs) and ‘estover’ (collecting wood). Whilst our expectations of what woodlands can provide for us may have changed over the centuries, the issues that the charter sought to address remain familiar.

Celebrations for the 800th Anniversary range from the call for a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People being led by the Woodland Trust, a public meeting under the Ankerwycke yew at Runnymeade to call for a new Doomsday book of the Commons, and a black tie dinner at Lincoln Cathedral. However you celebrate it, the anniversary provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of our woodlands and the potential for communities to manage them in ways that work for everyone.

You can find out more at Making Local Woods Work and on Twitter @localwoodswork. The Woodland Social Enterprise Facebook page is also open to anyone with an interest in the sustainable  management of woodlands and provides a great place to connect online with what others are doing to make woods work for everyone.

The Making Local Woods Work / Community Woodland Association Conference will be held on 20-21 October 2017 in Westerwood Hotel, Cumbernauld, Scotland. More information.

Mark Walton is the founder and Director of Shared Assets, a think and do tank that supports the management of land for the common good. He currently acts an advisor to Defra, and Charity Bank on issues such as working with civil society, asset transfer, and social investment.

Republished from STIR magazine

Photo by FraserElliot

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