Benefits for all from our precious woods

Sunrise at Hill Holt wood.

Sunrise at Hill Holt wood.

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Much of Yorkshire’s woodland is undermanaged. And yet its value, in terms of both productivity and amenity, is recognised not only by the forestry industry but also by local authorities and communities.

According to experts, there’s a trend towards these three sectors collaborating to make the most of local woods. Spurred on by the spiralling cost of wood fuel - it is rising at the rate of about 10 per cent per year - and renewed interest in the other riches woods can offer, landowners are forging new partnerships to unlock these assets.

Transfer of local authority woodlands is already providing new opportunities. In North Yorkshire, Scarborough Borough Council is in the process of transferring a 600-acre site comprising Raincliffe Woods and Forge Valley Woods, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a popular spot for walkers and mountain bikers.

The preferred bidder is Raincliffe Woods Community Enterprise, a non-profit community interest company formed by local people and community woodland experts. It saw off competition from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust for the management contract and is currently preparing a detailed business plan ahead of official transfer, which is scheduled for the end of the year.

Robert Sword, estates director at the Dawnay Estates, Wykeham, sits on the company’s steering group. “I think we were seen as local and that we represented the community,” he says of the bidding process. “It will be a membership company as well, so members of the public will be members of the company.

“The council also liked our innovative management style. We would lead in the management but we we’re wanting to involve people in terms of paid work but also in terms of volunteers.

“We’ll try to use as much of the existing materials within the site as possible. Any buildings or fencing would be coming out of the woods.

“And we’re very keen to try and develop a biomass service. We’d like to generate power using timber from the wood. We’d provide the installations and charge per unit. The wood would be converted to biomass at Raincliffe and we’d install boilers in buildings in Scarborough.”

In West Yorkshire, Blackbark LLP, a workers co-operative, has been providing management services and learning and volunteering opportunities at woodlands managed by Calderdale Council for three years.

But a new partnership aimed at bringing together the public, private and community sectors has a bigger plan for Calderdale. Forest Culture is combining forestry and community development to create management plans and bring woods throughout the district back into production and create jobs.

Forester Matt Taylor and business development practitioner Mark Simmonds are its founding partners. Mark Simmonds says: “A significant proportion of Calderdale’s woodlands are currently unmanaged or undermanaged, but the Forestry Commission has a target of bringing 80 per cent of all woodlands into UK Forest Standard compliant management.

“This lack of management is perpetuated through a misperception that Calderdale’s woodlands are of low economic value. But we believe a social entrepreneurial approach could and should be viable. In Calderdale we have an exciting opportunity to match owners of undermanaged woodland with engaged communities and businesses.”

The partnership is seeking funding for a programme which will connect woodland owners, forestry contractors and the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. Potential funders include the European Network for Rural Development’s LEADER programme, the Big Lottery Fund and the Forestry Commission’s rural development programme. Project aims include creating sustainable livelihoods and helping communities recognise and realise the potential of their local woods.

The Woodland Social Enterprise Network (WSEN) brings together people and organisations that promote a social, entrepreneurial approach to woodland management. Members include the Forestry Commission, Locality and the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The WSEN estimates there are currently around 100 woods run by communities and social enterprises in the UK, and says the number is growing fast.

Mike Perry of the Plunkett Foundation, which provides WSEN’s secretariat, says transfer of local authority woodlands is one of the major new opportunities. “There are a growing number of communities wishing to get involved in woodland management and ownership. Some are communities near local authority woodlands who are exploring taking on woods that local authorities wish to transfer to them. Others are Transition groups looking to access woodland for a wide range of environmental and social benefits. While we believe there’s a clear need for the public forest estate to remain in public ownership, we also believe that communities and social enterprises can play a role in managing elements of the public forest estate for community benefit.”

Social success among the trees

Hill Holt Wood in Lincolnshire is an example of a social enterprise providing education and training to 14 to 19-year-olds, adult education courses, and countryside and forestry management services.

It offers green space for those suffering from mental health issues and a wood hall available for hire. It employs 40 people and turns over £1.2m.

“Hill Holt Wood is contacted by communities on a weekly basis looking for help to set up their own ways of developing social enterprises, based on applying what they know and what they have developed to the circumstances of individual communities,” explained Mr Perry.

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