Local woodlands across the UK are receiving support for projects to transform unmanaged area for jobs, leisure, education and services with help from the Plunkett Foundation.
In 2015, Plunkett was awarded a £1.15m Big Lottery Fund grant to help support and grow woodland-based social enterprises. Now the Making Woods Work project is working with 43 woodland social enterprise groups across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The aim is to work with 50 groups in total, giving each a range of support tailored to its individual needs. Each group will receive four days of specialist support to help realise its woodland vision, creating opportunities for jobs, leisure, and education, and to improve the health and wellbeing of local people.
There will be some additional support available for 30 of the groups, which is likely to take the form of a further 12 days of support each.
Plunkett is also arranging a series of training and networking events to help anyone interested in woodland social enterprise to achieve their ambitions. In August, the organisation is running a tweetchat with @growninbritain and @LocalWoodsWork using the hashtag #woodswork (4-6pm, 31 August 2016).
On 26 August, Plunkett is launching a Making Local Woods Work microsite – an online space for sharing information relating to the project. “The site will also showcase some of the fantastic examples of woodland social enterprise happening all over the UK, to inspire others to get involved in one, and to share best practice,” said Norman Dandy, Making Woods Work programme manager.
“We’ll also be uploading useful tools and resources – things like top tips for engaging your community and marketing tips through to bespoke information on woodland management for social enterprises and legal structures.
“It will be focused on encouraging others to send in their events, news and other content and to really view the microsite as a way of engaging with the wider network of woodland social enterprises around the UK.”
One of the groups receiving support is Vert Woods Community Woodland in the village of Laughton, East Sussex. Just over 170 acres of woodland, set within a total of 850 acres, it is owned and managed for community and wildlife benefit.
There are mature tall pines and pockets of beautiful tall oaks and beech, as well as under-managed chestnut coppice and unmanaged birch and willow.
Much of the woodland is still recovering after suffering substantial damage in the great storm of 1987. In June 2015 the wood was purchased for community benefit after a campaign to secure the finance.
“A lot has happened in the 12 months since we heard that our final bid for the 171 acres of woodland in East Sussex was successful,” said committee member Stewart Boyle.
“Local philanthropist Roger Ross, who fronted the purchase, has stuck with the project and is one of the 12 members of a Steering Group set up to guide us to a new legal entity and agreements.”
The steering group has been developing the legal structure, implementing principles and a working ethos, and engaging the local community in helping them define their vision for the next 25 years. The steering group’s aims are to enable the wider community to access nature, develop and maintain the woodland in a way that balances environmental, social and economic needs.
“Our vision day helped steer our direction towards a ‘working community woodland’ that has a strong emphasis on being a social enterprise, with nature at the heart of everything we do,” added Mr Boyle. “With critical help from Plunkett Foundation we’ve worked through key governance issues and settled on the community benefit society model. We also have a draft woodland management plan and business plan.”
The group runs different activities, including monthly volunteer days which help people learn new skills such as felling, crowning, coppicing, axe work and general firewood skills.
Mr Boyle also paid tribute to the willingness of people to get involved. “What has been humbling has been the magic of discovering what is in this wood and the support of groups like the Sussex Wildlife Trust, Woodland Trust, Butterfly Foundation and Plumpton College. With a portable sawmilling course coming up and three sub-committees working hard, the next 12 months promises to be busy.”