An ambitious new project is setting out to develop and make real a vision for the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, one of the largest single stands of woodland in England with a long and little known history. The origins of the project are rooted in the local community which has already begun to rediscover the landscape identity of the local area.
A vision for the Wyre Forest
The Wyre Forest comprises 550 ha of mainly oak woodland much of which was coppiced but abandoned almost a century ago. Many of the place names in the area – Tanners Hill, Buttonoak, Town Coppice – betray its long association with woodland activities. While the wildlife value of the area has been recognised in its designation as a National Nature Reserve, it has so far not been looked after in an integrated way. Natural England, the central government agency charged with promoting the natural environment, and the Forestry Commission each own large tracts of the forest but have until recently not been able to work in a coordinated way. The Commission’s new visitor centre at Callow Hill should play a valuable role in future plans.
A few years ago, on the initiative of a local community land trust, plans began to be developed to promote joint working and the value of the forest area. The aim now is to put in place a strategy for its long term care in ways which can benefit local people.
The plans build on the successes of a recent ‘Grow with Wyre’ project which arose following the damaging impacts of foot and mouth disease and flooding on the local economy. The project was the initiative of a development trust based in the nearest town of Bewdley, and was supported by the local district council, regional agencies, and central government. It has led to the restoration and creation of traditional cherry and apple orchards and hedgerows, and an ambitious plan to restore St Georges Hall, a local building in the town, as part of a plan to promote the town as a local food hub.
A new Wyre Forest Landscape Partnership is taking the project forward and is looking to develop a sustainable economic model for the local area based on the woodland. The value of the natural environment and its wildlife will be at the heart of this new, integrated approach to looking after the land. The involvement of local people has been the key to the success of initiatives so far and the local community will be vital to future progress. A start has been made with the widening of existing paths to improve wildlife habitats and plans to put over 60ha of land back into oak coppice. A national coppice apprenticeship scheme is helping by providing training in traditional coppice skills.
Developing a woodland economy
At the heart of this initiative is the desire to pursue economic and social, as well as environmental objectives. As a result the project will not only benefit the local population of frittilary butterflies but it is hoped it will provide the basis for a new forest economy. A start is being made with the emergence of plans from members of the local community to produce and market ‘biochar’ – a modern form of charcoal produced with the aid of a retort – to gardeners and growers in the locality. The benefits of biochar in locking carbon in the soil and aiding moisture retention are increasingly recognised both by traditional gardeners and proponents of green rooves for which the medium is ideal.