So foraging for seeds in the country lanes surrounding her Boroughbridge home, she secretly fostered some 500 saplings for a new Nidderdale wood.
At nearly 77, the former teacher laughed, she is too old to go on protest marches inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, or to plant trees. She will grow them instead, in the hopes of ensuring a greener future.
“If children are going on climate protests in all weathers, and having to make up schoolwork afterwards, surely I can do something,” said Mrs Willoner, herself a former teacher.
“I thought ‘if I can’t plant trees, I can grow them’. I didn’t quite know what to do though, so I looked it up on the internet and just followed the instructions.”
Secret collection of trees
A global movement over climate change was sparked by Greta Thunberg in 2019, with thousands of children in towns and cities nationwide walking out of school to add their voice.
Among them was Mrs Willoner’s four grandchildren, aged 11 to 18. She had watched with pride as they joined protest marches in Sheffield and Edinburgh.
She began collecting seeds, hazel and birch, oak, alder, elder and rowan. Each was carefully planted, in pots or commandeered milk cartons.
Some had to be kept warm in the airing cupboard, others cool in the fridge, or bathed in warm water to break their winter dormancy.
“I didn’t dare tell anyone what I was doing, I thought if they didn’t germinate I would look really silly,” said Mrs Willoner.
“Come March I looked at the pots and low and behold there were little shoots coming up. I was so excited. Once they started to come up, they all came up. I was so busy in lockdown.”
Planting new wood
Mrs Willoner’s saplings have now been donated to make a nature space adjoining ancient woodland in Summerbridge, as part of Make it Wild’s Northern Forest project. And she has begun again this spring, with seeds foraged last autumn and planted with the help of her eldest granddaughter, to grow a further 500.
“It gives me so much pleasure and so much joy,” said Mrs Willoner. “I love growing anything, and I love foraging as well.
“What I would love to be able to do is inspire other people to do something similar. We need so many trees.”
The saplings will make a wildlife corridor between ancient forests. From now until June, Mrs Willoner is re-potting and watering, and in the Autumn she will again forage for seeds.
“I shall never see them mature,” said Mrs Willoner. “That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be my forest, as long as we’ve got more trees. If I do this for 10 years I will have produced probably 5,000 trees, so long as I can keep it up. I will be 87. That will be a good contribution.
“It’s something everyone can do. And if we do it, there’s a chance it can make a difference.”
Thousands of schoolchildren nationwide walked out of lessons to protest in the spring of 2019, including in Hebden Bridge, Bradford, York and Leeds, inspired by climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg and demanding greater political action.
The Swedish teenager, who would skip school to protest in front of parliament, inspired a global movement with 2,000 such protests held in more than 120 countries.