Making connections in the wood

Woods are great places to meet. Friends and family come together for a picnic. Dog walkers exchange greetings each morning. Local community members congregate for a walk or volunteering session. The opportunities are many and diverse. Meetings in working woodlands can inspire action – enabling people to see social, environmental and economic change and connect it to the inputs that have helped (or could help) to achieve it. This is true even for people who we might expect to be very familiar with trees, woods and forests.

All this was behind the efforts of Andy Bell of North Devon Biosphere Reserve (and a MLWW advisor) when he organised for a group of FCE’s Forest Services team to visit Hakeford Woods – an education-focused woodland social enterprise based just East of Barnstaple. His goal was to stimulate creative thinking in relation to a new policy initiative. Andy said:

The Policy Advice Team from Forestry Commission’s Forest Services visited Hakeford Woods to discuss the potential for testing new policies in the North Devon Landscape Pioneer project. The multi-discipline team covered a wide range of topics from markets, climate change, skills, public engagement and climate change. We specifically came to Hakeford to discuss social forestry, and to see how woodland social enterprises can develop and be supported.

It’s important to understand that if we look at the value of all the benefits coming from woodlands, timber can be a relatively small part but the social value can be very high. Location is key. To get the best wellbeing benefits their needs to be regular contact with the woodland, therefore having woodlands around and in communities is an important factor. For a woodland owner business viability can often be critical, so seeing a social enterprise business plan where the key income generator is forest education can be powerful.

There is no silver bullet however, and business viability still often rests with multiple use forestry producing both mainstream and niche products. This means that we need to provide a range of skills and support for woodland owners and managers, like that being provided by the Making Local Woods Work project.

Fundamentally demand for the ‘cultural services’ provided by woodlands requires the development of a wood culture within our society, which starts with forest education, and recognition that much  of the demand can be met by innovative local businesses. This positive spiral of change needs to be kick started with investment and support for social enterprises like those at Hakeford Woods.”

Although it often feels like these benefits are widely known and understood, there is still much to do in terms of raising awareness of the models of business able to mobilise the social and cultural values of woods amongst both the ‘public’ and more specialised, influential stakeholders. Making Local Woods Work strongly advocates networking opportunities, such as study visits or woodland meetings, that enable people to make strong connections in our woods.

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