Breathing space: Helping Hull get rid of its unwanted UK's least wooded city tag

A decade ago, Hull had the unwanted tag of being the UK's least wooded city. Mark Feather was determined to change that '“ planting 100,000 new trees with the help of an army of volunteers. Chris Burn reports.

Mark Feather from the Woodland Trust who manages Wilberforce Wood in the Kingswood area of Hull. PIC: Tony Johnson

As Mark Feather walks through what is now known as Wilberforce Wood, he can afford a look of quiet satisfaction.

Little more than ten years ago, this site was empty of trees – a vast expanse of little-used open land. Now there are thousands of alder, goat willow, cherry, oak and ash trees, some of which are now over 10m tall.

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It is the largest of 43 sites around the city where around 100,000 trees were planted as part of the ambitious ‘Hull City Green’ project.

The schemes ranged from the creation of a tiny wildlife garden in the corner of a nursery garden to the 14 hectare site which now makes up Wilberforce Wood – named after William Wilberforce, the Hull native who led the movement to abolish the slave trade.

Residents in almost 1,000 nearby homes were consulted before the redevelopment work went ahead on the latter scheme.

Feather, who lives in nearby Beverley 
and works as a site manager for the Woodland Trust, has been revisiting many of the sites 
that he and others worked so hard to plant a decade ago.

“It is the first time I have been around some of the sites for ten years,” he says.

“It is brilliant to see it now after ten years and all the hard work.

“Going around this site and some of the more difficult areas has been tremendous.”

Back in 2005, Hull had just 28 hectares of woodland but that was almost doubled as a result of the project, with an extra 24 hectares planted across the city in an attempt to turn 10 per cent of the city’s green space into woodland.

At that point, fewer than two per cent of people were able to access woodland within 500 metres of where they lived – comparing unfavourably to Sheffield where 44 per cent of its residents had access to such woodland at that stage.

Led by the Woodland Trust, largely funded by a £243,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund and supported by Hull City Council and local community groups, over three years the scheme involving more than 6,000 people – including children from every city school - helping with the planting efforts.

The initial aim was to plant 25,000 trees but in the end more than four times that number were.

But Feather admits it was far from a simple process, with vandalism causing a major headache as saplings were torn down at several sites.

The Woodland Trust was used to planting projects in more rural areas, where the loss of young saplings would be down to rabbits and deers. But those involved had a learning curve to deal with as many of the trees they planted were often deliberately targeted.

“Normally when you plant, you have loss of about 10 per cent,” Feather says. “But we had lots of loss through vandalism. But the second time we planted, they left them alone.

“It involved a little persistence at a relatively cheap cost. The trees were only about 30p each.”

“But we did have some really major challenges. At one site, someone took all the saplings and they were seen on a Sunday market stall. But more of less all of the streets now look really good and it has made a massive difference.”

But as the project progressed, the team involved became increasingly adept at involving the local community, including children in school exclusion units as a result of disruptive classroom behaviour.

Many trees were planted in school grounds, while special planting events were organised with the help of children and parents and public enthusiasm to support the project began to grow as things progressed.

By the end of the planting, more than 6,300 people had been directly involved with it, including 4,700 schoolchildren.

Feather says: “We realised once we contacted organised groups and schools to help, that kicked it off.

“When you do things like Scout groups, the parents come along as well.

“Originally, it was supposed to be something like eight sites. We did about 40 sites in the end.”

Standing in Wilberforce Wood, which sits between housing estates and blocks of flats and was transformed from being arable fields and scrub land, Feather says trees in urban areas are an important social good.

“Considering around 90 per cent of the UK’s population lives in urban areas and most of their spend a lot of time inside, within buildings, creating an attractive environment to encourage people out into nature more is key,” he says.

“A number of these areas were playing fields but when we did initial surveys, even during the summer holidays, there would be nobody there or no children playing.

“There are obviously all the benefits with things like the uplift in air quality.

“That is reflected in urban trees being right at the very top of models for the cities of the future.”

Feather says the project was carried out with a large amount of community consultation and the anniversary may represent an opportunity to seek people’s views on the difference it has made to their areas.

“It would be really good to go back and see what people think – ten years is a great time to see what has worked and what hasn’t worked.

“I have been around most of the sites and 80 per cent of them are doing superbly and good examples of urban woodland planting.”

The importance of urban trees has come to greater public attention in recent months for 
two very different reasons – the ongoing controversy surrounding the removal of thousands of trees and their replacement with saplings in Sheffield as part of a highways maintenance contract and plans for the creation of a new ‘Northern Forest’ which will span much of the North of England along the M62 corridor.

Stretching from Liverpool to Hull, it is intended that around 50 million trees will be planted over 25 years, stretching for 120 miles.

The Woodland Trust is one of the backers of the project, which the Government is supporting with almost £6m of funding.

It is hoped that the project’s benefits will include providing new habitats for woodlands bats and birds and protect endangered species like the red squirrel – as well as providing a tranquil space to be enjoyed by millions of people living locally.

The scheme follows on from the successful National Forest project, which involved the transformation of 200 square miles of former industrial sites in the heart of England into a 
site which attracts more than eight million 
visitors a year to see the otters, water voles 
and dragonflies that are among the flourishing species of wildlife which have made it their 
home.

In this region, planting will be supported by the South Yorkshire Community Forest, the Leeds White Rose Forest and the HEYwoods Project, which covers Hull and East Yorkshire.

Yorkshire will be at the heart of the project, with the Northern Forest covering Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and York, all the way up to Beverley, Bridlington and Hull.

When details were announced in January this year, Prime Minister Theresa May said it was part of Government efforts to “leave our planet in a better state than we found it”.

One person who has already fulfilled that brief is Mark Feather – the man who helped a city plant 100,000 trees.