Common Ground are working both locally in Dorset and nationally to widen engagement with trees and woodlands. The project will demonstrate the many inspiring ways that people are redefining woodland use around the country, and how important trees are to all communities. We want explore how community engagement can improve local biodiversity and social well-being.
Since the creation of the Forestry Commission in 1919 access to woodlands has gradually widened, moving away from private landholders towards statutory, voluntary or community groups leasing and managing woodland. More people from a wider social-economic background can run and achieve amazing things in woodlands. More recently, the Localism Act 2011 offers local communities the opportunity to buy ‘assets of community value’ and so increase the amount of woodland looked after by local people. It means that more people living in hamlets and villages, towns and cities from a wide social-economic background are able to run and achieve amazing things in woodlands.
This shift in who manages trees and woodlands has unlocked a change in what trees and woods are managed for. It is no longer just landowners who are able to engage with wooded landscapes. Communities can now come together to create new spaces for themselves and celebrate special local woods and trees.
With a wider variety of people now able to access and manage woodlands, there has been bustling-up of new ideas and woodland practices. We can learn much from how people are using woodlands, and we can stimulate more interest and engagement by letting people know what is going on inside woodlands today. Community woodland and social forestry initiatives are spreading all over the country at the moment, creating more access to woodlands for people and adding more variety to the way we use woodlands. Wildlife conservation, wood fuel and timber for joinery are no longer the only reasons people are managing woodlands today. Care in the community for the elderly, apprenticeships for the young, forest allotments, co-operative fuel initiatives, artistic practice, architectural education, Forest School, woodland permaculture: these are just some of the ways that individuals and communities all over the country are using woodlands today, improving biodiversity, creating new community spaces and bringing woodlands back into the everyday life of more people.
No other landscape matches the complexity and variety of life in a woodland, both above and below ground. Woods are given names on maps, have shaped our language and have had books, poems, songs and artworks dedicated to them. A century ago, when woodlands were at the heart of the parish economy, trees and hedgerows, copses, coppices and spinneys ‘paid their way’ by providing wood fuel, woodland-pasture for pigs and cattle, and wild harvests of nuts and fruit for the home. There was a thriving woodland culture of coppice crafts, charcoal-makers, bodgers, chair-makers, clay quarriers, wheelwrights, boat-builders, cloth dyers, all of which have their techniques and traditions rooted in pre-history.
But the role of woodlands began to decline at the end of nineteenth century. The arrival of cheap coal, improved transport across the country, imported Scandinavian timber, the felling, ploughing-up and poisoning of whole, ancient woods during the First World War, and then the Government policy to plant more conifer plantations and intensify forestry, meant that by the 1920s a majority of small, deciduous woodlands were redundant to the village economy. Woodlands have drifted further from our daily lives ever since.
There is still much to learn about how we value our woodlands. Common Ground would like to help stimulate this learning with creativity and by providing artistic and cultural responses to the work that is being done all over the country. This fascinating and important work needs to reach a wider audience, so it can inspire many more people and show how woodlands can enrich our ever-busying 21st century lives.