The growing value of England’s urban woodlands
England’s community forestry movement kicked off in the 1990s – which means many woodlands are now maturing and coming into their own as venues for recreation, habitats for wildlife and as drivers of tourism and economic growth.
One of those original community forests, The Mersey Forest Partnership, has worked closely with local people since 1991 to create new areas of accessible woodland close to where they live, reclaiming derelict land or making use of underused land. More than 9 million trees have been planted in the past 25 years, creating thousands of hectares of new woodland. The area of woodland has increased by close to 75%, bucking the national trend.
Paul Nolan, Director of The Mersey Forest said, "We have dramatically increased the availability of accessible woodland in hundreds of urban sites across Merseyside and north Cheshire over the past 25 years.
“Based on the Woodland Trust's Woodland Access standard there is clearly a large increase in woodlands close to the places people live. We know from surveys that 65% of people close to these new woodlands are using them for recreation at least once a month."
Boosting health and wellbeing
Increasing opportunities for access to and recreation within woodlands is especially important near to where people live and work. It’s these local woodlands and green spaces that can have the biggest impact on people’s health and wellbeing. Many people live a long distance from National Parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty but can benefit from a well planned local green infrastructure that brings the countryside into town.
The positive effect of nature and a green environment on health is now well documented. The maturing woodlands of The Mersey Forest are a great resource for health – the task now is to engage more people with their local woodlands and provide more recreational opportunities. The Mersey Forest’s ‘Natural Health Service’ is providing opportunities for people to get involved in activities such as walking, conservation work and mindfulness in their local woodlands.
Other sites are becoming venues for activities such as parkruns, with local ‘Friends of groups’ also organising regular events. The annual ‘Walk in the Woods’ month in May is also used to promote local woodland walks.
Attracting tourism and transforming image
In parts of The Mersey Forest area the changes to the landscape have been dramatic. In particular, the beautiful Northwich woodlands, covering a large area once scarred by salt and chemical industries, are now recognised as one of the Cheshire town’s key assets in attracting visitors. The extensive woodland walking and cycle routes complement and connect the waterways of the River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal, providing a landscape where recently established tourist attractions of the Anderton Boat Lift and the Lion Salt Works can thrive.
Bold Forest Park, a collection of interlinked woodlands south of St Helens are also changing the image of the town and attracting new visitors, especially to the ‘Dream’ sculpture that dominates the local landscape. The ‘grim up north’ stereotypes are finally beginning to fade as former coalfields burst into new life as recreational and environmental hubs.
The Northern Forest and the future
The greening of the north has only just begun. The Northern Forest is a new 25-year vision to plant 50 million trees across the North of England, stretching from Liverpool to Hull with the M62 as its spine. Working with the Woodland Trust, five Community Forests (The Mersey Forest, City of Trees, HEYwoods, The White Rose Forest and the South Yorkshire Forest) will play a key role in planning and delivering this ambitious plan to reforest the area.
It’s ambitious – but also essential. There is an urgent need to plant more trees. The IPCC report on Climate Change in October 2018 highlighted the need to plant billions more and make some hard choices globally about how land is used.
The target of 50 million trees equates to trebling the current rate of planting and will create a productive forest across the Northern Powerhouse area that will provide a range of social, economic and environmental benefits.
In thirty years time that means many more northern communities will be able to enjoy the benefits of local woodlands. Anticipated hotter summers are likely to make outdoors recreation and tourism increasingly desirable – and mature trees will be highly valued for their shading and cooling effect. Urban areas that plant trees now will reap the rewards in decades to come.
You can find out more about The Mersey Forest at www.merseyforest.org.uk.