Your country’s woodlands need YOU!

I recently became a volunteer for VisitWoods, a charity who’s stated aims are, “to protect existing native woods, to create new areas of native woodland and to inspire people to visit the woods and reap the many health benefits of doing so.” Volunteering fits in with my lifestyle as I’m out and about in woods weekly with my energetic young family, and I often write about our days out, so why not share it with VisitWoods’ audience and hopefully help inspire some other folk to get out, get about and get healthy at the same time.

I wrote the article below for a competition run by the writer’s group I belong to. It was judged by journalist and author Roddy Martine, who had been the club’s guest speaker earlier in the month (see my post on the AWC blog). *

Four thousand years ago 80% of Scotland was covered in native woodland. When the first known comprehensive record of UK woodlands was made – a military map commissioned in 1750 – coverage had fallen to 17%, mainly due to the intrusion of agriculture. Today the figure is estimated to stand at a mere 4%.

Gnarled treeA range of different organisations and charities are working in the field of woodland conservation. One of their biggest tasks has been to record where native and ancient woods still stand. (In terms of Scottish woodland ‘ancient’ refers to woodlands which have been in existence continually since at least 1750.)

One of the major players involved is the Woodlands Trust. The Trust has three main objectives; to protect existing native woods, to create new areas of native woodland and to inspire people to visit the woods and reap the many health benefits of doing so. As well as the physical activities available in woodlands, from walking to mountain biking and horse riding, one of the largest proven benefits of visiting woodlands is the positive effect it can have on emotional and mental wellbeing. In Scotland, the Trust’s partners range from large landowners like the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and the National Trust to Scouting Scotland and various groups promoting physical and mental wellbeing.

Last year the Trust launched VisitWoods, a new project which aims to let us, the potentially wood-going public, know where to find woods that are open to the public and what to expect when we get there.

VisitWoods was born from an earlier project, Spaces for People. Conservation groups had built up a huge database with information held about UK woods for the purpose of campaigning, lobbying and applying for grants. The focus had been very much on trees and not people. When the government sponsored Spaces for People project identified the health benefits of spending time in woods it was decided to use the database information to encourage the general public to use their local woodlands.

Rouken Glen ParkHowever, the information needed to be presented differently, so people could research their local woods; how to get there, facilities and accessibility. Making the existing database useful for potential visitors to woodlands is an enormous task, and one which will mainly be done by volunteers.

Over the past month VisitWoods Scotland has held several induction days for new volunteers, training them on how to collect information on woods, either by visiting in person or by collating existing material held by landowners and others.

With a focus on attracting more people with young families, elderly people and people with physical and mental health problems to woods, volunteers are encouraged to add information which will help these target groups decide if a certain place sounds right for their needs.

Scotland has a higher percentage of woodland than the rest of the UK and the Trust already has 2000 Scottish woods registered on the website ready to be explored, recorded and described. As well as noting how to get there and the site facilities, volunteers may record other details, like local flora and fauna or points of particular interest about the wood they have visited. There are some fascinating woodland facts out there. Arran, for example, is home to two species of native trees which do not exist anywhere else in the world. The UK’s only unique species, the Scottish Crossbill, is only found in Caledonian Scots Pine forests. Some of Scotland’s Scots Pines are estimated to be over 560-years-old.

There has always been a relationship between people and woodlands, whether for shelter, fuel or a place to forage. The earliest record in Scotland of people using woodland products comes from Islay where a material made from hazel and dating from 5,800BC was discovered.

VisitWoods’ Scottish Projects Co-ordinator Jillian Donnachie is enthusiastic about the positive effect going to woods can have: “As well as the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in woods they’re a great place to just spend time with family.”

And you don’t have to be a trained volunteer to add content to the site. Jillian would encourage anyone who goes for a walk in the woods (or a cycle, horse ride or buggy-push) to share their experience on the website: “Anybody can register on the website and add content about their experience. We’d love to get feedback on woods from as many visitors as possible to help us spread the word! There is no restriction on comments being straight descriptions – poetry and prose are welcome too.” As well as text the public can upload photos, audio or video files.

Anyone who visits a wood can register on the website and share their experience and opinions. Already a bit of a wood-goer myself, I decided to visit a wood near my home and record the experience on the website. My walk was relaxing; beautiful trees, a fresh breeze, dappled sunshine and the soothing noises of a babbling burn, bees buzzing and birdsong. After my walk putting the information onto the site, including the free parking and wheelchair accessible toilets, was straightforward. The information will now stay up on the website hopefully encouraging other people to visit and enjoy their woods too.

I’ve been volunteering for about a month now and have uploaded comments and photos and facility information on half a dozen or so woods including the Muirshiel Centre, Kelburn Castle and Country Centre and Rouken Glen.

* I didn’t win. 😛

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