I was once asked in an interview, “Why does it benefit people to have access to woodland?” I’m afraid I stuttered and looked completely lost. I don’t think I’d ever even considered the possibility that access to woodland might not be a good thing. Fortunately, plenty of (other) people have looked at the question with a bit more insight, and there is a growing body of evidence showing that woodlands are very good for us.
The clearest benefit of being in woodland is our general health. Woodlands provide a calm, (usually) quiet environment where we can exercise. Exercise in woodlands has been shown to relieve physical problems such as high blood pressure and obesity, as well as the mental problems of stress and depression. This exercise may be walking or cycling, but a wide range of bodies encourage volunteers to get involved in woodland management activities. This provides a positive social atmosphere in addition to the exercise of physical work. TCV have pioneered a Green Gym concept and the NHS actively supports work to develop an NHS Forest . In addition to these personal benefits, woodlands provide an important venue for social activity. This can range from concerts and other large events to simple dog walking and picnics. One of the brilliant developments in recent years is the use of Forest Schools as an educational resource. There is plenty more on this in Woodland Trusts’ space for people policy document.
But why do we need to manage the woodland for these activities? Well, there are several good reasons:
- For starters, woodland management is often the tool used to gain the social benefit providing, exercise, training, and social interactions. The actual physical activity of working in a team to improve access, prune a tree, or repair a fence can be the social benefit that we wish to see.
- Many woodland activities require some management to incorporate them into existing forest uses. For example: mountain bike trails, concerts, equestrian use, and paintballing (all forest uses near me) have very different requirements and don’t tend to interact particularly happily together, though they all provide clear social benefits.
- For people to use a woodland environment, they need to feel comfortable in it. This may be simply maintaining rights of way and removing litter; but there is good evidence to show that people from different demographics have markedly different preferences for woodland type. More vulnerable groups can find woodland environments quite scary, with fear of getting lost and fear of being attacked high on the list (waymarked paths and more open high forest environments may mitigate this problem). Other groups may be walking in woodland specifically to escape other people and might prefer secluded areas within thicket stage planting give a feeling of privacy.
There are clear social benefits to people by providing access to woodland, but we do need to actively tailor our woodlands to meet their specific needs. Ultimately the more people who enjoy benefits from woodland access, the more people will support a UK forestry industry.
Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here