Working Together, Individually

This article first appeared in Winter 2008 issue of Smallwoods, the journal of the Small Woods Association, and appears here by its kind permission. The SWA can offer help and advice in setting up a woodland group – [email protected] or 01952 432769

Woodland owners don’t always know their neighbours. They may rarely see each other. But at Hyden Wood an informal group has been formed, taking advantage of the resources of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

As balances go, few are more delicate than the debate regarding woodlotting. At the 2006 Small Woods Association conference George Peterken voiced a concern that smaller woodlands may not be good for biodiversity. “The key thing about small woods,” he said, “is that they should be larger; above a threshold of 3ha to include rides and management.” Now an SWA member Roger Thomas has raised the issue again, concerned that the sponsorship of the 2007 SWA conference by Woodlands for Sale endorses the splitting up of larger woodlands. “This policy of splitting into small ownership blocks is totally contrary to good woodland management,” he writes.

The obvious response is that some management is better than no management; a little love can go long way for a woodland chocked full of brambles. That’s not to say that woodland owners aren’t recognising the need for co-operation between neighbours, and in one case a number of owners who bought their woods from woodlands.co.uk have formed a group to liaise and to maximise their efforts.

The Hyden Wood Group comprises 13 woodland owners who bought plots over the last few years. However the idea to create a group was inspired by Nick Heasman and Jonathan Bills, who work for the South Downs Joint Committee, who were concerned about the management of woodlands in small lots, and thought they might be able to help. “They [the owners] keep themselves to themselves,” explains Jonathan Bills.

“Our work with them started as soon as the blocks were sold, by calling in and visiting them to introduce ourselves. Word of mouth spread and we found ourselves becoming a contact with all the owners.”

Nick and Jonathan called a meeting in 2006, inviting the owners, and asking what they wanted of their woods.

“We wanted to know if there was any scope for them working together,” says Jonathan Bills. The owners proved to be very enthusiastic for the purposes of encouraging wildlife, getting back coppice, pooling resources and using traditional techniques.

Small chance of meeting

The initial meeting was successful in breaking the ice. The chance of meeting their neighbours in the woods is pretty small. The owners said that they wanted to find out more about what they’d bought, and so a woodland walk has been planned early in the year. “We should have an archaeologist followed by a gaggle of woodland owners!” explains Jonathan. There was a bird walk in spring 2007.

The group is completely informal. There are no positions. No hierarchy. Just occasional communication.

“Sometimes they ring up, occasionally we send out course details, and we are thinking of setting up a website. We can help make sure there isn’t a Christian meeting going on at the same time as a shoot, and we can help provide grants to fund deer fencing.”

The woodland owners have responded to the help. “Some have streaked ahead, restoring coppice for example. Others that aren’t so hot off the press can see what has been done, see who got to do the work, and see how fast it has grown.” Many of the owners were new to woodland management and so have benefited from being collected into a group. They’ve been able to exchange contact details; a simple act that can be surprisingly awkward and difficult to manage between woodland neighbours. Jonathan and Nick have helped to create a newsletter, the first issue of which was written by the owners, as a further conduit to share knowledge about anything from fencing to fly tipping. “We give advice, we signpost other information sources, we give grants towards woodland management and we also get our Volunteer Ranger Service in to help.”

Hyden Wood owners are pretty well all new to woodland ownership, says one of them, Alan Maunder. “Without the group we would have all struggled to find the best advice and the right contacts. The group has enabled us to get to know each other quickly, and it has been most surprising to hear the wide diversity of reasons why each of us purchased our plots. I don’t feel any pressure. I believe part of the group’s success is that recognition that we all have different objectives and wish to work at our own pace.”

Fellow owner Angela Morley agrees. “I know that several woodland owners were worried that they would be ‘preached to’ by the Hyden Group, and the individual owners certainly did not want that. However this has not happened.” The group, she adds, is just there in the background. “I like to know that I have the backing and encouragement of Nick and Jonathan for the work I do in my portion.”

Grazing ideas

The benefits to Hyden Wood can now be viewed as a whole, rather than separate entities. The group is looking to return grazing to a large glade, and can do so in one go rather than approaching the different owners separately. “Restoring biodiversity needs a whole wood approach,” says Jonathan Bills, “as species can’t thrive in small areas. This is reflected in the ride network that woodlands.co.uk still own, and we undertake and encourage the management to maintain migratory routes, particularly for the fritillaries and the bats.”

The Hyden Wood Group is working well because it has a third party to act as catalyst, sounding board and messenger. It seems to suit the woodland owners as they can get all kinds of help, or have nothing to do with it at all. “We don’t own any wood, we’re not making money out of this. It is purely to address the aims of the protected landscape. The ultimate aim is to step away from the group once it is sustainable and self-running,” says Jonathan Bills.

The group has been set up because the woods are in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). “All AONBs and National Parks can do this sort of thing,” says Jonathan Bills. You can contact your county council or district council to find out whether you are in an AONB or a National Park, and to contact someone who can help. Or you can visit their websites (aonb.org.uk or nationalparks.gov.uk). Every AONB is different, and only some may be able to help. But there may be scope for asking the Forestry Commission, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) or a local Wildlife Trust to act as that vital third party to get things going.

Many local authorities will have strategies to improve the countryside, and this sort of innovation will probably tick a number of their boxes. It encourages good land management; it continues traditional woodland crafts and management; and it allows quiet, appropriate enjoyment of the area.