I’m here in the middle of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, coming to see the first day of a new community tree planting project. The Worcester Walk Community Project, near Coleford, has starting an exciting project of landscape restoration in the heart of the forest.
The journey here from Oxford was mostly through industrial farmland, and yet the last few miles have been surreal – miles of roads through forests of towering trees that feel unusual – even exotic – here in the UK. But the question I couldn’t help ask myself: why, of all places, are we planting more trees here?
This project aims to protect one of the rarest habitats in the forest – semi-wooded pasture. After miles of continuous trees cover, I’ve arrived here in a clearing – four small grassy fields in the heart of the forest. With most of the surrounding area either ancient woodland or commercial forestry, very few areas like this one are left from the former estates and forest communities. Hundred year-old oaks grow in the middle of the field surrounded by long meadow grasses. So we’re not here to plant a woodland as such, rather we’re planting to keep this space open.
The current project is therefore to plant a long continuous native hedge along the edge of the enclosure. This will introduce extra diversity of plant life to this part of the forest, which in turn will attract hosts of insects and invertebrate life. This hedge will then improve the meadowland and vice versa. Added to this, the community has come together and turned out to plant these trees, bringing a whole other dimension of positivity here.
With the very common presence of wild boar and deer in this part of the country, small trees are very vulnerable to being grazed or damaged. With this in mind, the group have erected a fence around the perimeter to effectively ‘exclose’ the boar; the deer can still come and go, but the new trees will be protected by tree guards for the first few years after planting out.
The Challenge now is to get the necessary permissions to allow animal grazing here at certain times in the year. With appropriate management, semi-grazed areas such as this can be biodiversity hotspots, with many leading conservationists in the UK now supporting the positive role that livestock can have on the land.
There are many types of tree planting projects, not all of them about planting great mighty oaks. Sometimes you have to plant the smaller, more overlooked trees, like hawthorn, blackthorn, and crab apple. These ‘understory’ trees provide vital nutrients and support for our larger and more well-known forest giants, as well as habitat and food for many forest-dwelling birds and mammals. And in the case of this project, it feeds the community too.