Community woodland is a hub for new skills

Warren Woods, in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in North Wales, has been transformed, tree by tree, into an award-winning ‘community woodland’.  

It is attracting many visitors  providing permissive public access to the woodland, the opportunity to learn about woodland management, trees and the outdoors, a range of courses in traditional crafts and health and wellbeing programmes in the outdoors.

Apart from the natural beauty of the setting, its founder Rod Waterfield has had the vision to harness so much more, to maximise the benefit that the woodland can offer to the surrounding community.  This includes live music in a natural setting, learning woodland crafts, the tree nursery, heritage orchard and woodland walks focusing on mindfulness.

Over the next few issues of The World of Trees, we’ll be exploring how the journey began, how The Woodland Skills Centre was created, and the keys to successfully establishing a healthy woodland.

Small beginnings

Rod Waterfield has had a passion for woodlands all his life.  In the early days, living in the South-west of England, he owned a two-acre plot.  Later, he purchased a plot of 10 acres in Bodfari, North Wales and then in the 1980s, he was able to buy 21 acres of naturally generated woodland next to it.  He now owns 50 acres including the original 21 acres.

Rod has grown in appreciation of the contribution that woodland makes to the quality of life.  He has always been keen to encourage community engagement and enjoyment.  He has also appreciated that, in order to be sustainable, a woodland needs to generate income.  His experience has also demonstrated to him that, contrary to the view of some people, woodlands need to be managed.

The 21 acres were originally rough grazing with mature trees on the hedgerow boundaries. Some time in the 1940s the site was no longer used for grazing and left ‘to nature’.  The trees in the hedgerow seeded and, 45 years later (when he took on the site), it had become thick with Sycamore and some Birch.  No active management (thinning) had taken place, so there was no ground flora, just a canopy of thin, over-crowded trees.

There was little wildlife, no diversity in species or age of the trees, no clearings and also little harvestable wood of any value. The work involved heavy thinning (the removal of individual trees to reduce the overall density and create space), creation of access tracks and open areas and planting a wide range of native species to create, eventually, coppice with standards – a mixture of groundcover and individual trees. 

There was also much wildlife monitoring and recording with new habitat creation and habitat management. Because the land is light sandy soil there was no surface water and so 4 ponds have been created attracting all 3 species of newt as well as frogs, toads, dragon-flies and a host of other creatures. Much of the harvested wood was burnt to make charcoal, and soon there was demand for this product, with the site supplying 40 branches of B&Q in the North Wales and North of England.

The site also included a small plantation of pine which had been planted for timber but then left.  It had not been thinned and so the trees were too tall for their diameter and so prone to wind damage and of little commercial value. This was clear-felled and brought into the overall woodland as native coppice with standards.

An adjoining 4 acre plot was bought. This was a mixed Norway spruce and beech plantation from the 1960s which had not had any work done since planting. It was on a steep slope, probably a PAWS site, and is being clear-felled and replanted with mixed native hardwoods. 

A third adjoining plot was added of 17 acres of an old sand pit which had silver birch on the banks and gorse in the bottom. The gorse was cleared and the site planted with mixed native hardwoods with significant blocks of hazel.

Now managing 50 acres of woodland, much of which was low value timber growing on poor quality land, the original management plan continues with three management objectives – Social, Environmental  and Sustainable.  

The charcoal production was going well, providing a good source of income.

However, Rod was keen to be more creative with the site.  He ran a course in making charcoal which was popular, and repeated, and other greenwood courses were added.

Rod’s workshop was a helpful base from which local crafts people could share their skills running courses in their specialisms.

Today, the site hosts 80-100 courses in woodland management and traditional craft courses including basket making, countryside skills, hedge laying, chainsaw operations and bushcraft skills.  It is a regional hub for the National Botanic Gardens of Wales.  

In part two, Rod shares about the variety of activities the centre hosts and how he secured its future

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