Benefits of a community woodland
A special place for a community
What are the benefits of having a community woodland? The simple answer from groups across Wales would be ‘lots!’
First and foremost is a sense of place – of connecting people to the land. When you walk into a community woodland with someone from the community you can feel that it is a special place, that it is important to them in a way that is different from a woodland managed by an agency or a landowner.
Taking on more responsibility for a woodland means a great deal of work, but it is also an opportunity to be creative, to bring families into the woods and to improve a valuable resource. Put simply, the benefits can be environmental, social and economic.
The first priority for community woodland groups is often nature conservation – ensuring the forest is cared for and that it provides a home for many varieties of trees and plants and animals.
Some woodlands may have been neglected for many years; they may have been vandalized, used for ‘fly tipping’ or simply un-managed due to the owner’s resources being too stretched or it being uneconomic to do so.
Community woodlands are often looked after by enthusiastic volunteers who are prepared to give up some of their time to simply look after the woodlands. The main volunteer activity is conservation or environmental improvement. This can involve routine maintenance, coppicing, removal of invasive and non-native species, encouraging biodiversity, creating paths and maintaining walls and tree planting.
Work done by groups such as The Penllergare Valley Woods in restoring neglected woodlands to be part of a traditional Welsh landscape, is one of the major benefits of community management.
A huge range of recreation activities take place in woods and forests across Wales: bike riding, dog walking, theatre and picnicking to name a few. Many families are content to use the facilities provided by landowning agencies such as Natural Resources Wales, or to organise regular events without taking on greater responsibilities.
A community woodland provides the opportunity to organise a huge range of activities – as much as people’s imagination can come up with! Social activities range from simply walking through the woods and enjoying the peace and beauty to organised events – fun days, theatre, craft workshops, forest schools for children, sculptures and arts and increasingly physical and mental health and well-being events. Examples such as Golygfa Gwydyr community woodland demonstrate how all of these bring opportunities to socialise, to exercise, to feel better, to learn and to have fun.
Over time, some community woodland groups also see the potential to sustainably harvest firewood, timber and other products from their forests – they may want to ensure they are not dependent on grants to sustain their woodland activities or they may want to help create local skills and jobs.
Setting up a social enterprise to help improve skills, create jobs and supply products to local markets is a natural progression for some community woodland groups; there can be an economic benefit from community woodlands as well.
This path is not for all groups and there is an additional level of responsibility as a group becomes an employer and a trading organization. Several community woodlands in Wales have taken this path and their experiences differ depending on their own set of circumstances. There are an increasing number of Llais y Goedwig members who have considered this option and are willing to share their experiences.
Community woodland groups such as Blaen Bran and Llangattock and organisations such as WiseWoods Wales have gained an understanding of markets, and have experience of setting out job descriptions, employer insurance, training and skills. Some of the markets that community woodlands have now entered include firewood, charcoal, greenwood furniture and using the woodlands as a venue for outdoor activities (from a holiday setting to a hands on training environment). There is also growing research and documentation into this area by organisations such as Forest Research UK and Shared Assets.