Whilst truly wild woodlands are ‘climax vegetation’ that has achieved a balance between death and renewal, these generally need to be at a scale much bigger than any of our remaining woodlands to thrive independently of humans.
Here in Britain, “the wildwood” has a central place in our culture and imaginations, but the reality is that active management has shaped our woodlands since the ice age, providing supplies of food, fuel and timber, and creating diverse habitats amongst the trees. Unmanaged woodland lacks diversity and can result in poor tree health and increase the spread of tree diseases.
Whilst most of that unmanaged woodland is in private ownership, the future management of our public forest estate also remains uncertain. Attempts in 2010 to sell off the national forest estate were abandoned in the face of a public outcry, but austerity has resulted in many local authority woodland teams being disbanded and the future for the management of the national public forest estate – at least in England – remains unclear.
It is in that gap between the market and the state that we find the commons and, increasingly, a diverse range of community businesses, co-operatives and other forms of social enterprise creating value and livelihoods from its management. So does social and community business have a role in reinvigorating our woods and forests and rebuilding our woodland culture?
In 2012, in the aftermath of the failed forestry sell off and in the wake of the Independent Panel on Forestry’s report, a number of organisations came together to discuss alternative approaches to the management of our woods and forests.
There was already a well established sector of community woodlands and voluntary groups involved in woodland management across the UK. There were also some examples of social enterprises managing significant-sized woodlands, particularly in Scotland where community buyouts meant communities in the Highlands and Islands already had ownership and control over their local woodlands and a focus on sustainable local economic regeneration.
Could these approaches provide new models for managing our woodlands in ways that created livelihoods, improved their quality, and produced useful resources such as woodfuel?
That 2012 meeting led to the establishment of the Woodland Social Enterprise Network and, over time, the development of a proposal for a project to support the development of social enterprise in woodlands. In 2015, funding was secured from Big Lottery to deliver Making Local Woods Work, a pilot programme to provide technical assistance, training and peer networking opportunities for woodland-based social enterprises across the UK.
The programme, which runs until Autumn 2018, is providing support to 50 woodland social enterprises right across the UK, each of which embed woodlands or woodland products into their core activity whether that is the production of woodfuel and timber, or delivering educational or health and well-being activities in a woodland setting. It provides technical advice on woodland management and finance, support in developing business plans, choosing legal structures and strengthening governance, and advice on leases, tenure, and a wide range of other issues. It also provides training, webinars and peer networking opportunities, many of which are available to the wider network of woodlands social enterprises as well as those who are part of the formal support programme.