Time for a career change? Volunteer in the woods

‘Malaysian by birth. Chinese by race. Welsh by location. Nature lover by discovery. Running by choice. What else is there?’

This is Ai-Lin’s Twitter profile. Ai-Li is an inspiring volunteer leading mindfulness and woodland walking sessions in Merthyr Tydfil with Actif Woods Wales, a woodland health and wellbeing programme run by Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales). Volunteers like her make a significant contribution to this programme, helping to run groups, bringing with them enthusiasm, time and skills. But, why volunteer? There are many different reasons why people from all walks of life decide to volunteer. Here is Ai-Lin’s story.

Time for change

Ai-Lin has lived and worked in Wales for over 16 years. She moved from a stressful career in PR and events in Malaysia to work in the tourism sector in the UK. Then eight years ago she laced up her trainers and did a trail race on Brynna Hill in south Wales and discovered a new vocation. Ai-Lin decided she wanted to ‘inspire and encourage others to get outdoors, to explore, and to feel that sense of well-being and liberation that I have often experienced when I am out in the woods, or on the trails’. And she has certainly done that.

Sharing skills

Volunteers like Ai-Lin have a huge amount to offer. In May 2018 Ai-Lin retrained, completing a Higher National Diploma in Environmental Conservation Management. She now shares her passion for the outdoors, and knowledge of the importance of woodlands, trees, plants and nature with others. She also practices mindfulness meditation, and during woodland sessions is helping people to understand what it means and how it can benefit them. Volunteers have the opportunity to learn new skills to help support the running of sessions, such as hand tool use, woodland skills and social forestry.

A new career

She has gone on to work for RSPB, volunteer for our Actif Woods Wales programme, lead mindfulness and nature walks for local organisations, and become a Park Warden at Taff Bargoed Park. Ai-Lin says, ‘I would not have thought of venturing to do this if not for Actif Woods Wales. Meeting, volunteering and working with you all has opened my eyes to a whole new world. Thanks so much for setting me on a path!’. What an amazing volunteering journey, taking her into a new career path!

Finding community and confidence

Giving is receiving. Volunteering has given Ai-Lin huge rewards. She says, ‘volunteering is a way of adding a different dimension to my life so that it is not just all about work. It is also an opportunity to meet like-minded people who may enjoy being out in nature as I do, an opportunity to use some of my skills or knowledge to help and inspire others, and to learn new things for myself’. She is now very involved in her local community, has a wider social network and is aware of so many more inspiring community projects than before. ‘Volunteering has also helped me build my own confidence in delivering sessions and speaking to groups about nature. Before this, it had never occurred to me that I could do this!’.

Putting life in perspective

Our Actif Woods Wales programme is helping to make a crucial difference in people’s health and wellbeing according to woodland research by Bangor University. A three-year study by Heli Gittins,

PhD Researcher in the School of Natural Sciences, is beginning to reveal connections with woodland activities, confidence and career building. The fact that programme participants are aged over 25, long-term unemployed or economically inactive, and either experiencing a work limiting health condition, are a carer or aged over 54 years, makes these early results even more profound.

Ai-Lin says, ‘It is inspiring to hear stories of how people have over-come mental health issues or how despite personal struggles, people have continued to strife and get better. It has helped me put my own life into perspective. A natural setting like a woodland is a salve for the mind and the soul. It helps people to ‘re-set’ their busy lives. An escape and respite from the hustle and bustle and just feel at peace’.

Finding volunteering opportunities

Coed Lleol welcomes volunteers from all walks of life to volunteer with the Actif Woods Wales programme. Find out more on the Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales) website, and contact local staff directly to discover volunteering opportunities in your area: www.coedlleol.org.uk


Small Woods Contribution to Welsh Brexit Debate

Small Woods has contributed to the debate in Wales about how land management support schemes should change following our departure from the EU.

Wales is looking to chart a distinctive course for land based payments after Brexit and this consultation sets out some ideas about how.  The ineffectiveness of CAP schemes has been well rehearsed; however, the raw profitability figures are striking.  Whilst Total Income From Farming (TIFF) in Wales is €274m, the combined value of the current payment schemes is €289m.  The current farming schemes equate to payments in excess of Welsh agriculture’s total profitability.  In summary, the Welsh Government have concluded that “The current Basic Payment Scheme has not been a targeted intervention and is in essence a payment for holding land. It is too blunt a lever to improve economic performance, is too poorly targeted to keep farmers on the land and does not contribute sufficiently to our environmental resilience”.

So there is a clear basis for fundamental change.

In the woodland and forestry sector, we have a further issue and that is that the CAP has taken all land management resources, leaving little for forestry support.  The various consultations on the land management schemes in the UK have made it clear that a greater role can be and should be expected for our woodlands.

The Welsh Government proposes phasing out the current Basic Payment Scheme and replacing it with one that is based on two principles “Economic Resilience” and “Public Goods”.

Small Woods has welcomed the consultation and the direction of travel set out by the consultation.  However, we have asked for clarification that the overwhelming focus on farmers in the document does not lead them away from providing support to all land managers on a level playing field.  One of the issues with the previous support regime was that it led farmers to record woodlands as grazing land in order to maximise support; which also reduced natural regeneration, as it led to grazing in woods.

Our response emphasised the importance of hands on support at the local level to help deliver the change that will be required.  As well as making the best use of the local and national support networks that already exist, we suggested using organisations such as The Small Woods Association/Coed Lleol.  We have over 300 woodland owner members and represent over 3000 hectares of woodland across Wales.  We provide Information, Advice and Guidance to woodland owners and could play a very positive role in any advice and facilitation system.  We also work closely with other woodland organisations in Wales and meet regularly with at the Small Woodlands in Wales Working Group, whose members also include Coed Cymru, Llais y Goedwig and the Woodland Trust.

We particularly support the Public Goods argument for public support of land management.  We also support the idea that this should be structured and recommended that the public goods scheme should have a relatively easy access tier to encourage wide participation by land managers; however, the main “rewards” should be reserved to those who are providing higher levels of benefit.   We also encouraged consideration of Coppice restoration, alongside other forms of woodland restoration, such as PAWS.  Although other sorts of woodland restoration have been supported, we would welcome a specific reference to coppice restoration as desirable.  Re-establishing historic coppice management will help increase endangered and declining flora and fauna, such as woodland butterflies and the vascular plants on which they depend.

Our response covered a number of other issues, such as the role of collaboration, the need for long term contracts, the need to ensure that woodland management is given as much encouragement as is planting; and supported the idea that those providing multiple benefits, such as woodlands that are improved through management and whose products are then used in green infrastructure should be given particular support.   Our full response is accessible here.


A Visit to Lady Park Wood

“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Inversnaid, Gerald Manley Hopkins

Hopkins would have been in his element at the recent members visit to Lady Park Wood, where “wildness and wet” were both in plentiful supply.  As well as its status as a nationally important monitoring and experimentation site, Lady Park Woods also provides wild(er)ness.  It was a characteristic also recognised by Wordsworth on his visit to the lower Wye Valley 2 centuries ago.  It is to the credit of many that this sense of the wild has been maintained.

Moving onto woodland management.

When George came to the 2017 AGM, he explained that the effect of 70 years’ non-intervention now meant that the site was now darker, less accessible and less welcoming and less biodiverse.  On our visit, we saw that at first hand, and George used another resonant phrase, describing Lady Park now as the classic “hollow wood”, where the life is concentrated in the canopy and under the ground, but little in between.  Those familiar with such sites will know they have a beauty of their own, similar to the beech hangers of the Chilterns and Cotswolds, woodlands that are thought to have inspired the medieval cathedrals, such as Gloucester.

One of the striking aspects of the visit was the more or less complete absence of bird life.  When compared to managed woods we have visited this month that have been teeming with our feathered friends, it brings to life the statement George Peterken made at the end of our visit……..whilst Lady Park Wood is incredibly important as a place from which to learn about woodland development processes, “it’s not necessarily how to manage a nature reserve”.  It is not however correct to view the Biodiversity of Lady Park Wood as being in a state of decline, as the fungi are doing very well and Lady Park is becoming an increasingly important site for its mycology, as this aspect is better understood.  Lady Park Wood is simply moving on, as all woodlands do, whether managed or not.

One of the things that we were able to see first hand was “pit and mound” topography.  Characteristic of undisturbed older growth forest, the pit is formed when a tree falls and the mound is then formed of the upturned root plate.  We were able to observe relatively widespread “pit and mound” formation, we were then also able to have our agility tested in climbing under and over the fallen trees.  Given that it is non-intervention, that means trees are not cleared from paths and tracks. We also saw that fallen trees in a steeply sloping site tend to have a domino affect, resulting in relatively long narrow canopy gaps, which perhaps close quite quickly, given their narrowness.

All woodland management is about making informed choices as this where sites such as Lady Park come in. Its significance goes some way beyond the site itself.  It is a reference site, where the decisions made and the consequent dynamics within the Wood are now so well recorded that we are able to understand this woodland at a really intimate level.  Although some aspects, such as the fungi, are clearly important in their own right, its greatest value lies in the fact that it is so well understood and the role that knowledge can play in informing the decision making processes of others.  It would be very easy to write at much greater length, however, George Peterken and Ed Mountford have already done that.  Their book should be on the reading lists of all those wishing to inform themselves about their woodland management.


Small Woods 30th Birthday Celebration

Its the Small Woods Association 30th birthday this year and we are celebrating this after our annual AGM and Skills Share at the Greenwood Centre 5pm to 9pm. We are partnering up with the Greenwood Cafe, food and wine will be available for purchase including a streetfood festival and a venison BBQ! We invite you to join us, and take the opportunity to come along to meet some of our staff and a look around the Greenwood Centre.


Woodland Photography Competition

Show us the very best of your woodland and photography skills.

After the success of our previous photography competition, we will be running it again this year… with a twist! This years competition will be looking at the incredible hawthorn, challenging you to make what you will of a tree of incredible contradictions, a tree that is both valued and under-rated.

The competition is open to all members and the entries will be displayed at the Skillshare event on September 15th. Those attending will be able to vote for the best image.

The first place prize will be a carved bowl made from the beautiful hawthorn!

Entries (a maximum of two per entrant) should be sent to communications@smallwoods.org.uk by Monday 27th August 2018, and should be a minimum of 2MB in size. A selection of the best images will also appear in Smallwoods magazine.


Small Woods Association Response to the Defra Command Paper “Health and Harmony” – May 2018

The government has produced two major papers in the early part of 2018 that aim to pave the way towards post-Brexit land management policy, both of which have implications for Small Woodlands and Small Woodland Owners.  Small Woods Association have responded to these consultations and our submission is attached. (Small Woods Health and Harmony Consultation response 8-5-18)  The submission is based on the following principles.

Woodland management policy should be objective-led, i.e., it should be designed to achieve a clear outcome that delivers benefits to woodland health and harmony, and the economic, social and environmental goods that flow from them.  It is critical that these three elements of sustainable development, economy, environment and society are on an equal footing within any support arrangements, as to favour one over the other would be to unbalance the policy.   

An integrated approach based on the Common Countryside Policy principle would necessarily lead to more woodland work being done by farmers, both for woods on farms and potentially beyond.  However, we are very aware that most woodland management is currently undertaken by non-farmers; i.e., by woodland owners, managers and contractors, and this is likely to remain the case, for reason of skills, equipment and qualifications (including the need to ensure any work carried out is safe and covered by the appropriate forestry “tickets”).  They are also more likely to have the skills required to devise a woodland management plan and to be able to undertake their implementation. 

Within this integrated approach, SWA supports the policy direction to have a single land management menu available for all land managers, regardless of who they might be.  All land managers, including farmers, woodland managers and those managing for other objectives (such as biodiversity, soil conservation or flood defence), should have access to a range of options that cover the full range of land use public goods in England.   

Specifically, in relation to the nature of small woodlands the national menu of options should include: 

  • Management for sustainable production – conversion of existing unmanaged woodland into productive multi-use woodland is an ongoing process, which is very challenging to start when woodlands are unmanaged.  A one off grant to bring woodlands into management, that enabled a planned approach, which introduced thinning cycles according to a sustainable and locally appropriate management system, such as Continuous Cover Forestry, along with the introduction of infrastructure, such as hard standing.  We would also support a declining schedule of payments that recognise the ongoing costs of this stage of management. 


  • Size limits set the threshold for support at a level that can benefit small woodlands, for example 1ha. 


  • Promotion of collaboration – the scheme should be designed with collaboration in mind, with specific measures to facilitate equipment and skills sharing, as well as support for owners to collaborate on management. 


  • Equipment for sharing – small woodlands are by their nature not of a size to justify investment in the full range of machinery needed for their management. Hence, we would propose support for equipment purchase where it was to be in shared use across a number of sites.  


  • Shared forester approaches – we propose support for woodland management undertaken by a shared or ward forester across a number of sites in a number of different ownerships. 

Read the full response here: Small Woods Health and Harmony Consultation response 8-5-18


Planning Policy Wales Consultation Response

For those who have an interest in Small Woodlands in Wales, we have submitted a response to the planning policy consultation that closed on Friday.


Whilst we supported the overall framework which is founded on good forward looking principles, as a charity concerned with the sustainable management and use of woodlands we however felt it was inadequately elaborated with regard to the special qualities and requirements of woodlands, their use and management.

We for instance found it surprising that the framework was better developed with regard to intangible environmental characteristics, whilst the very tangible 15% of Wales’ land cover that our woodlands and forestry represent was undeveloped.

The pigeon-holing of woodland-related businesses as either rural or woodlands as simply a resource that needs protection is an inadequate reflection of their importance and potential and can lead to difficulties and misunderstandings between woodland managers, planners and communities.

At a minimum, Wales needs a framework that acknowledges and facilitates the following range of pressures and opportunities with regard to its woodlands:

1. Valuing woodlands equally for their social, environmental and economic aspects and potentials

2. The fact that woodlands are living entities and that embracing change is all part of understanding and achieving healthy woodlands

3. The place of active management in order to maintain woodland health and progression – understanding that communities can find this challenging, as it will involve superficially destructive practices involving chainsaws and other machinery

4. The stresses and pressures which are placed on our trees and woodlands which will lead to greater change in future – and the fact that managing these changes is likely to be very costly as well as leading to significant landscape change. Ash Die Back is likely to be significantly more challenging than Dutch Elm Disease was.

5. Social Forestry is a growing and is a really important movement that is making a real and measurable contribution to improving the health and wellbeing of our population and should also lead to healthier woodlands

6. The really important role that is played by coppice and the parlous state of 90+% pf our historic coppice woodlands. Restored coppice can provide jobs, products, carbon sequestration and replace the plastics in our lives.

7. The need for appropriate structures in woodlands to facilitate their use and management (i.e., to protect people, wood products, production and equipment) and the need for guidance around those structures, how to vary the approaches depending on the sensitivity of the individual woodland site.

8. Awareness raising for planners, woodland owners and managers to support all of the above.

Finally, our response relates to those woodlands that are largely outwith the forestry sector. Forestry has very effective advocates in organisations such as Confor and whilst we largely support their actions and activities, our remit is different and relates to those woodlands that a generally outside the forestry sector’s management and interest due to their size, nature (generally broadleaves) and other management challenges that mean that large scale forestry objectives are generally not realistic or desirable.



25 year Environment Strategy – What does this mean for woodlands?

The government has recently issued its 25 year environment strategy.  A weighty tome, the plan sets out plans across a range of government spheres of influence; land use, landscape protection, health and wellbeing, resource efficiency, marine conservation and the global environment.  Importantly, the document is a strategy for the whole of government, not just the Environment Department (Defra), as shown by the Prime Minister’s Foreword.

The Forestry sector as a whole has welcomed the plan, due to the fact that it appears to give a higher profile to forestry and woodland management.  The aspect that caught most attention in the press was of course the Northern Forest.  This proposal is very ambitious (as well as being unfunded), and there is much detail to be fleshed out.  However, it might offer opportunities for woodland owners in the areas between Leeds to Liverpool, so it will be worth becoming involved.  We will be hearing more about the plans at the Community Forest event in March and so will be able to update members in the next available newsletter.  The plan offered support for community forests in general, so there may be new life for woodlands around the larger cities across the Midlands and the South, in addition to the Northern Forest.

Two other aspects of the plan that we will be watching very closely are the new woodland creation scheme and the Tree Champion.  The strategy commits Defra to a new woodland creation scheme – we would urge government to give the management of woodlands equal importance.  There is little point in an increase in tree planting, if they simply become the abandoned woodlands of tomorrow.  In another Innovation, a National Tree Champion is proposed to encourage joined up thinking, so will presumably seek to work across government, engaging departments on tree and forestry issues.  An early area with which the Tree Champion should get involved would be the planning issues being raised by Neil Parrish currently in the House of Commons, on behalf of Small Woods members.  Unlike some other organisations in the sector, we do not believe this role necessarily needs to be carried out by a forester, what is needed is a first class advocate who knows how to develop influence across government.

Overall, the plan sets out a direction for Multiple Objective Forestry – which is very much in line with Small Woods thinking – as we believe that all woodlands do and can play a number of functions, for environment, economy and people.  To see woods simply in terms of their final crop value is to miss 90% of their real value.  There is much to be welcomed in the new strategy, and we look forward to working with Defra and others to realise its ambitions.


News from Actif Woods Wales

Actif Woods Wales, the woodland based health and wellbeing Social Forestry project run by Coed Lleol, runs woodland well-being projects in 9 locations throughout Wales. This month we hear from Neil and Maggie, who are the Woodland Mentors for Neath Port Talbot (NPT).

The last 12 months have been a whirlwind for us in Neath Port Talbot where we have been combining brand new Actif Woods programs with an NPT council project titled ‘Working With Nature’, where we have been engaging with local communities and encouraging wider use and interaction with local wild spaces throughout the borough.

The Working with Nature project complements the Actif Woods program and provides a viable exit route for participants. Having the ability to encourage a cross-over between projects has really benefited our group as the variety of activities and regularity between programs offers continuous, and much needed support.

The Working With Nature project is a 3 year project run by the Countryside and Wildlife team of NPTCBC and supported by the Welsh Government Rural Communities RDP which is jointly funded by the European Union as part of the Common Agricultural Policy through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government. Welsh Government Single Revenue Grant, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council and 2 local Councils: Dyffryn Clydach CC and Pontardawe Town Council.

The Actif Woods project continued in earnest in June 2017, where a new program was carried out in Banwen, a more isolated region of the borough. It was an immediate success, reaching out to and involving over 30 people and introducing new skills, activities and a passion for spending time in the woods.

After a short break, we are back in action and in the middle of a second program in Banwen that will see us run through until March 2018 and will link in with a new Working with Nature ‘Well-Being group’ that will provide regular activities for the group that will keep the benefits of nature working for the group in the long term.

Feedback from the group has been wonderful and shows how much Actif Woods is needed and how much of a benefit it can have for some people. One of our participants told us they would be sitting in a corner under their duvet if it weren’t for Actif Woods and we have seen a huge difference in some, with confidence growing and anxiety reducing.

Coed Lleol also continues with work developing and promoting the Social Forestry OCN courses, as well as shorter woodland skills training

For more information on the Neath Port Talbot project, or any of the Actif Woods Wales projects, please visit the Coed Lleol website or email jocooper@smallwoods.org.uk. You can also follow us on Twitter @ActifWoodsWales and Facebook.


Deer Initiative Events

The Deer Initiative are currently working with the Woodland Trust as part of their Ancient Woodland Restoration Project and are delivering a number of awareness raising events nationally.

There are 2 events coming up shortly, the first in Bewdley, Worcestershire on the 16th January and the second in County Antrim on the 25th January.

These are both free full-day events and lunch will be provided.

Click below for flyers with more information about the events (including how to book).