This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for the winter 2015-16 edition of Ranger, the magazine of the Countryside Management Association.
Woodland covered most of the UK until the Neolithic period around 2,000 years ago. From that time, ever more trees were cut down for agriculture, fuel and timber. This clearance intensified until at the end of the nineteenth century, woodland covered only about 5% of the country. Woodland is now thought to cover 10-12% of the UK, making it one of the least wooded places in Europe.
When woodland cover was thick and continuous, trees would regenerate naturally as part of a natural successional cycle but now woodland is a finite resource, scattered and fragmented. Natural regeneration is made more difficult by factors such as invasive species, poor management and growing numbers of deer which graze on young trees. Climate change and imported pathogens also threaten the health of our woodlands as never before, with new diseases affecting tree populations across the country. Chalara dieback of ash is thought to have the potential to wipe out over 90% of our ash trees.
Ancient woodland is an even rarer commodity in the UK, covering only around 2% of the country. Ancient woodland is woodland that has existed continuously since before 1600 CE, a time before woodland was commonly planted. Some ancient woodland may be thousands of years old and has a rich mix of species and archaeological features that are only found in this type of habitat.
So, where for hundreds of years woodlands were managed to maximise production of fuel, timber and other wood products, now woodlands must also be managed to protect and conserve them. We now also appreciate how vital woodlands are for biodiversity and their value for leisure, education and simple beauty.
Good management of woodlands can achieve many of these things, but it’s not easy. Many woodlands are unmanaged or managed as a monoculture to support specific activities, and restoring derelict coppice or reinstating management regimes may take decades with no guarantee of any revenue.
In early November last year, I visited Oakfrith Wood in Wiltshire, where community organisation Friends of Oakfrith Wood has protected and developed a neglected woodland as a Local Nature Reserve and source of wood fuel for the community. The day was organised by the Countryside Management Association who regularly offer study days for members and non-members in various reserves and green spaces around the country.
Friends of Oakfrith Wood has developed an exemplar of responsible, financially sustainable woodland management which also provides social benefits and amenity for locals and visitors. Trustees Ian Maidment and Steve Russell showed us round the woods.
Friends of Oakfrith Wood
Oakfrith Wood is a semi-natural ancient woodland identified in historical records as ‘Oakfrith Coppice’, where ‘oak-frith’ means ‘oak wood’.
The woodland covers 14.1 hectares (around 35 acres) and was until recently part of the Urchfont Manor estate. Much of Oakfrith Wood was clear felled during the World War I, leaving little of the original ancient woodland. World War I was a time of peak demand for timber to support the war effort, with so much timber felled that in 1919 the Forestry Commission was formed with responsibility for reforesting the UK.
The last private owners of the estate, the Pollock family, replanted the woodland in 1928 with a mix of broadleaf and conifer species. They expressed their vision for the future of Oakfrith Wood on a plaque which is found in the centre of the wood:
The greater part of this Wood was cleared, re-planted and maintained by Rivers and Eveline Pollock of Erchfont Manor between the years 1928 -1938 without profit from the previous felling in 1917 nor expectation of profit from the next felling. It is their hope that those who come after them will maintain this ancient Wood in accordance with the rules of good forestry so that the oak trees will reach maturity in due course.
Urchfont Manor Estate along with Oakfrith Wood was sold to what was then Wiltshire County Council in 1946, with the Manor being used as an adult education college. For many years the wood was only managed intermittently, and fellings left the woodland in a mess, until the woodland was almost completely unmanaged by the 1980s. The Friends of Oakfrith Wood was formed in 1994 by volunteers from the community with the assistance of the County Forestry Officer, Urchfont Manor College and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, to better manage the woodland for wildlife and people.
A management plan was written and volunteer parties started working in the woodland. Access to the woodland was improved, species surveys were undertaken, and in 1996-97 an area of Douglas fir was cleared and replanted with native broad-leaved trees. In 2000, the wood was extended by 0.8 hectares to form the Millennium Copse, which was planted with around 900 broad-leaved trees by volunteers. In 2004 the woodland was designated as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR), and in the following two years a pond was constructed and information boards were installed.
Formation of a cooperative
In 2006, a Memorandum of Understanding was agreed by the Friends, Urchfont Manor College and the County Council, breaking down their respective responsibilities. The Friends of Oakfrith Wood became a charitable trust and a Woodland Cooperative was formed.
The management objectives for the woodland are to provide wildlife habitat, an amenity for the local community and to ensure the stewardship of the wood as an LNR. This includes using sympathetic working methods, providing an educational resource and promoting best practice, enlarging the wood and LNR and promoting community engagement.
Having used forestry contractors for several years, volunteers were trained to industry standards to do felling using chainsaws. Volunteers without chainsaw qualifications can still help, for example by dragging brash and splitting wood with axes, and the cooperative has an arrangement with a local contractor for any climbing work.
The cooperative started thinning the woodland in 2006. As Steve said, with the woodland not having been actively managed for so long, the approach is gentle and not too much is taken out when an area is thinned. The 14.1 hectares of the woodland is divided into 11 compartments; progressive thinning breaks up the structure of the woodland so that there is greater diversity in the age and size of trees. Some standing deadwood is left for its value as habitat.
When the volunteers started felling, Wiltshire County Council purchased chainsaws and the volunteers paid for personal protective equipment (PPE). Chainsaw manufacturer Stihl has provided some replacement chainsaws and safety equipment, and continues to support the cooperative. The cooperative started off using a tractor to remove wood but found that it created large ruts in the woodland floor; they now use a quad bike with a trailer using walking beam suspension. The footprint of the quad bike and trailer is much smaller than the tractor.
In keeping with the wishes of the Pollock family, the aim is to allow natural regeneration of the oak that the wood is named for. A gap in the canopy equivalent to one tree height, or around 25 metres, is needed for enough light to come in to allow oak to establish; though brambles proliferate when there is enough light, they should protect natural oak regeneration. Steve noted that while ash may also come up quickly in a clear area (there were several young ash trees at the ride edge), the likelihood was that Chalara dieback would kill it before it reached maturity and the oak would continue to regenerate.
Wood fuel production
Extraction of wood from Oakfrith Wood is a by-product of managing the woodland rather than a core aim, but sales of wood for fuel and timber support the cooperative and the delivery of the management objectives for the woodland.
Most of the felled wood from thinning is taken for firewood by the local community. All of the wood stays in the village; Urchfont is not on mains gas, and many residences have wood burners. Villagers, some of whom are ‘passionate about their wood’ as Ian put it, start enquiring about wood from July. Many villagers take their wood green – this means less work for volunteers in stacking and seasoning it.
The cooperative produces enough wood fuel for the whole of Urchfont. Steve suggested that 90 cubic meters of wood can be extracted from the wood each year and the wood can still gain mass.
Asset transfer of Oakfrith Wood
In January 2012, Wiltshire Council announced that Urchfont Manor College was to close and that the estate including Oakfrith Wood was going to be sold off to the highest bidder. There was concern that the woodland would not be available to the community if it was sold into private ownership, so the Friends of Oakfrith Wood entered into negotiations with the Council to remove Oakfrith Wood from the sale.
The Friends of Oakfrith Wood put a considerable amount of work in to the negotiations, dealing with access issues such as redrawing permissive footpaths and agreeing access routes and requirements. In August 2012 the Council confirmed that Oakfrith Wood would not be part of the sale, and would be transferred as a community asset. Following further negotiations, the Council agreed to transfer the woodland to the Friends of Oakfrith Wood.
The Friends of Oakfrith Wood, which had been reconstituted as a charitable trust in 2006 was converted to become Friends of Oakfrith Wood, a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), in 2014. The Council then transferred ownership of Oakfrith Wood to Friends of Oakfrith Wood. One of the main differences between a charitable trust and a CIO is that in a CIO structure, trustees have limited liability and the organisation is a separate legal entity, similar to a limited company but regulated by the Charities Commission. Ian stressed the importance of managing trustee liability in this process.
Friends of Oakfrith Wood actively communicates with the local community through newsletters and the local press. The small size of the Urchfont community however means that most people know who the trustees are, and as Ian mentioned, often stop them in the street to share their thoughts.
The Friends encourage volunteering and involve the local school and other voluntary organisations. Working alongside the Woodland Cooperative are conservation volunteers who complete species surveys and work on general conservation tasks. The local school runs Forest School in the woodland. The hope is that younger people who have developed an interest in the woodland may be able to take over responsibility for managing it in the future.
The community has had some influence on how the woodland is managed. Paths are maintained throughout the woodland but the volunteers quickly noticed desire lines being formed where visitors walked around the perimeter of the woodland, or with the outside in view. The community expressed a desire to see bluebells in the woodland, so some compartments are kept clear of brambles and weeds as far as possible to allow them to flourish.
Oakfrith Wood has been fortunate enough to see low levels of antisocial activity and vandalism compared to many sites – being relatively isolated, some effort is required to reach it.
Wellbeing and mental health
After lunch, the group heard more about a project working in Oakfrith Wood using woodcraft to help people with mental health problems. The Richmond Fellowship, a national mental health charity, runs an outreach programme based at Greenacres, a six-acre garden and workshop in Devizes. Danny O’
Danny stressed the importance of their work being cost-effective as well as socially and therapeutically effective. With only limited resources and initially a limited skill set, the group has learnt and refined skills and built its own equipment. They use excess wood from thinnings to burn charcoal in Oakfrith Wood, which they then use in a forge made from an old car wheel. The forge is fanned by pedal power, using a leaf blower attached to a bicycle. On the forge they make tools for woodcarving from scrap car parts, and they turn bowls on basic pole lathes they have also made.
Richmond Fellowship clients have worked hard on conservation and woodcraft tasks at Oakfrith Woods and other sites, developed good relationships with other local voluntary groups, and made a positive difference to the community. Richmond Fellowship have a Memorandum of Understanding with Friends of Oakfrith Wood, and the community are kept informed of what is happening. All this has helped to counter any perceptions of people with mental health issues being a drain on society.
The physical and mental health benefits of conservation work are numerous, from developing motor skills and fitness to communication and problem solving. Simply being out in woodland is proven to be good for mental health. All of this is hugely beneficial to Danny and Nick’s clients, who move on with greatly improved employment prospects and experience of voluntary work in Oakfrith Wood and at other sites, for organisations including the Forestry Commission, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and the National Trust.
Friends of Oakfrith Wood have received numerous awards recognising their work, including the 2012 Royal Forestry Society Excellence in Forestry Award in the Community Woodlands category. To arrive at this point has taken over twenty years of hard work by a group of dedicated volunteers.
The trustees and volunteers have brought with them considerable knowledge and experience useful for running a community group, and have benefited from professional advice from within the group and outside, including Wiltshire Council and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.
While not setting their management objectives to fit funding criteria, the Woodland Cooperative has nonetheless worked to a management plan which is approved by the Forestry Commission and is reviewed and updated regularly. Funding and support has come from donations, Stihl’s sponsorship, friendly local professionals and not least the sale of firewood. There is no interest in expanding wood fuel production – the amount produced at the moment is enough for the community, and the capacity of the cooperative to produce it.
The Charitable Incorporated Organisation structure adopted by Friends of Oakfrith Wood is relatively new but limits the liability of the trustees and underlines the credibility of the organisation. Last year’s transfer of Oakfrith Wood to the ownership of Friends of Oakfrith Wood ended uncertainty about community access to the woodland, and ensured that it will be managed for the benefit of wildlife and the community in future.