There and back again, a Woodland Officer’s tale

The early days of the community forest programme seem to sit apart from the cultural happenings that most of us remember from the early 1990s – neon socks, leggings and films starring Kevin Costner.

Few will say, “the 90s, ah yes, that’s when the 12 new community forests were set up by the Countryside Commission and Forestry Commission.”

Trees and forests have never really been at the cutting edge of fashion or even trendy but I think the woodland sector hasgenerally been better for it.

Old timers

While I’m not the longest serving person in the Red Rose Forest office, I joined a community forestry team, first in Sheffield, in the early years of the programme in 1997.

Each team had its long-term forest plan based on the local characteristics of the area, its needs and what could improve the lives of people, wildlife and the landscape. These large and long produced documents set out the vision for that area and how we were going to get there.

Early days in the forest office

Working in the office was a bit different back then. Advances in technology have altered the way we all work in the office and on site.

Back then, ordnance survey maps were all paper. Site-centred originals were bought from the city centre and then carefully annotated or coloured-in.

If you made a mistake, tough – get the rubber out and hope you don’t make too much of a mess fixing it.

I wouldn’t like to guess how much time I spent recolouring and editing maps.

Thankfully, computer based mapping systems have removed a lot of the pain from correcting mistakes. They are more accurate and produce something neater and easier to interpret. This has resulted in more time spent in the office, studying aerial photos and base maps, and less time on site, wandering about trying to find things.

It wasn’t all pencils and crayons in the 90s. But while we all had computers on our desks, the special PC in the centre of the office had that magical gift of email and something called the Internet.

Nothing seemed to be on the internet back then and email was checked just once a day by one person. When we wanted to let local people know what was going on, we sent letters (lots of them), put up posters and phoned people.

Foresters and woodland folk haven’t been the best at advertising themselves but now we all have some contact with social media – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Technology has given us a longer arm to reach those parts of the community which we may have struggled with in the past.  You could also argue that the quality and detail of that information is better and more up-to-date.

New kids on the block

Donald Rumsfeld talked about ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ and, to be fair, it isn’t always easy to spot the next problem on the horizon.

Blindsided or not, the effects of climate change and the rise of various pest and diseases keep on surprising us on a daily basis.

I write this at the backend of January; it’s 17 degrees outside and the high-water levels have subsided leaving plastic bags in the canopy of riverside trees.

Last week, I was in a local woodland subject to a plant health containment notice because of Phytophthora ramorum and recently discovered that the tree disease, ash dieback, has been found in the 10km grid square that covers Manchester city centre.

Trees can do a great deal for us but at the same time we have to make the commitment to look after them if we want the best from them.

Why are we still here?

While not all of the 12 community forests are still about, at least not in their original form, the rationale for tree initiatives still holds good.

Both for those areas where the community forests were established (around urban centres with a legacy of industrial dereliction) but also in the wider countryside between our towns and cities, the message of more trees, more involvement with people and better managed woodlands still rings true.

The case and evidence for trees and woods to feature more in our lives has never been so overwhelming. Not only does their presence calm us and improve our mental and physical well-being but they keep us cooler in summer and slow the movement of water across and through the land.

We knew most of this back then but didn’t have the evidence or hard science to hand to prove it. The irony now being, that despite all this evidence, we still find it challenging to resource the projects we’d like to get involved with.

Working with others

Another building block of the community forest programme that still holds true is partnership working. Yes, it is a cliché and we all wince a bit when someone says it but we have yet to come up with a better phrase to replace it.

Working with others in different ways to get the job done is something the community forestry sector has had to do and I think has done pretty well.

Right now in Greater Manchester we have the opportunity build on the past 25 years to work with the Oglesby Charitable Trust and a range of new and existing partners to deliver a new vision, Manchester City of Trees.

This will focus on tree planting, woodland management and developing a woodland culture across the city region.

This long term programme to plant 3 million trees over 20 years has strong ties with the original community forest idea but is a clearer statement of intent and opens up the potential of working with more private sector organisations.

Looking ahead…

We’ve come a long way since the 1990s. Lots of woods have been planted, managed and thousands have taken part in tree and woodland activities. Those ‘hidden’ benefits trees deliver have also been silently accruing since then – the biodiversity, the better air quality and improved well-being for those near and around them.

Increasingly more people want to have an active hand in managing their piece of local woodland.  These groups are full of energetic and enthusiastic people but they often fall short of their aspirations for one reason or another.

The Woodland Trust’s new Community Wood Programme will identify these groups and find the best way of empowering them to get the most from their woodlands. We are looking forward to working with the Woodland Trust on this and seeing more folk get better acquainted and skilled in managing their woodlands.

Roll on the next 25 years – who knows what will be in fashion then, but we know it will look better if we all make space for a few more trees and woods in our lives.

Andy Long is the Woodland Officer of the Red Rose Forest.

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