Our neck of the woods

Image Credit: Alex Turner

South west England has some of the lowest levels of tree coverage in the UK, so charities Avon Needs Trees and
Forest of Avon Trust are working together to get more trees in the ground. We spoke to them about new woodland habitats being created around Bristol, and how you can get involved.

It’s taken a few hundred years, but Bristol and the wider Avon region has now lost most of its woodland, meaning the area dons the rather unenviable title of one of the most deforested parts of the UK. No amount of sugar coating this lack of trees can detract from the very real consequences of this for the land, which now endures increased flooding, and declining biodiversity.

Though the climate emergency can feel like a heavy weight of impending doom, it’s not all bad news. Because thankfully, there are incredible organisations doing what they can to establish new, diverse woodland on otherwise unproductive land – creating hope for future generations while providing opportunities for local communities to work together for their own physical and mental health, as well as to support the recovery of our natural world.

It’s a big, ambitious target, but we need to take action quickly”

Avon Needs Trees and Forest of Avon Trust are combatting climate and ecological emergencies by creating new, permanent woodland throughout the Bristol-Avon catchment area. Last year saw the two charities partner to purchase and start planting Great Avon Wood (located two miles south of Whitchurch, Bristol). The land spans more than 100 acres and will see 40,000 new trees planted – more on that in a moment. Avon Needs Trees has had proven success with similar schemes in Wiltshire, when it purchased two sites of 47 acres, planting and caring for 22,000 native trees. The team has also planted 10 acres (4,000 trees) at Ed Woods near Shepton Mallet as part of a Land Partnership Venture, working with site landowners, rather than purchasing the land itself.

Image Credit Canopy and Stars

A nationally significant project
But the next project on its list has the potential to be nationally significant in terms of woodland creation. At the time of writing, Avon Needs Trees was close to completion on a 420-acre farm between Pensford and Marksbury. The sheer scale of it means the organisation is taking on what will quite possibly be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) woodland creation project the south of England will have seen in a generation.

For Avon Needs Trees’ CEO Dave Wood, this unique opportunity will have long-reaching benefits: “The region has less than 8% woodland cover, and that’s worse than the UK average of around 12%, which is pretty poor compared to the rest of Europe,” he says. “So, not only is the farm massive in terms of the scale of woodland we can create on that site, it will also have a huge impact on flood mitigation and on wildlife. Bristol communities can come onto the site to volunteer and plant trees, improve their skills and boost their health and wellbeing by spending time in nature.”

Wood’s team is spearheading the project, working in partnership with Forest of Avon Trust, which is helping with access to funds via Trees for Climate – and the Woodland Trust and Forestry Commission are also supporting to help get this nationally-important purchase over the line.

Though if successful, the woodland will be planted on Avon Needs Trees-owned land, the benefits of additional planting will be felt beyond its boundaries.

Image Credit Chris DAgorne

“There’s obviously been loads of local flooding recently, which is a topical issue,” Wood notes. “The Environment Agency has been getting quite excited about the positive impact this project will have on flood mitigation. It will have a very significant effect on downstream flooding; houses and roads that would usually flood won’t anymore if we do this project. It’s a great thing for the community too, in terms of volunteering, tree planting, free kids’ events, forest schools, wellbeing days. It will become a real base for that type of activity, with lots of potential public engagement for everyone.”

The tree planting season starts late November and ends in March, so the aptly-named Wood plans to plant the woodland – with the help of volunteers – across the next two winters.

“It’s a big, ambitious target,” he says, “but we need to take action quickly. There’s a climate and nature crisis and we can’t hang around. Owning the land ourselves gives it permanence, and means young trees won’t get cleared if it were to otherwise change hands.”

Diverse trees for generations
Creating permanent woodland on previously unproductive land is central to the Forest of Avon Plan, launched in 2021. And projects like Great Avon Wood are a far cry from simply planting a monoculture of trees. Schemes are carefully thought out and designed to promote biodiversity, working with the existing landscape and species that live there. They’re also planted with curved boundaries to avoid unnatural straight lines (which are also a pet hate of butterflies, too).

Speaking of Great Avon Wood, Forest of Avon Trust’s CEO Alex Stone says: “This regeneration of the land at Great Avon Wood focuses on nurturing a mosaic landscape made up of woodland, wood pasture (with low-density planting), orchards and hedgerows. We tend to go for a wide-ranging mix of trees; a blend of broadleaf, some conifers, and in wetter areas we may plant willow and alder. The aim is to have tree nursery areas that will allow us to regenerate local seeds for future projects. By working together, we can double tree cover across the west of England by 2050.

Being out in woodland is one of the best things people can do”

“Great Avon Wood is within a strategic woodland area, which sees us trying to connect the Cotswold and Mendips Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty with woodlands of various habitats. This mosaic-like approach will help new and existing species thrive, while retaining the landscape’s character.”

Stone, like Wood, stresses how important woodland creation is for economic benefits and improving people’s health.

“Evidence shows that being out in woodland is one of the best things people can do for their heart health, wellbeing, and physical and mental health,” she says. “We support people living with dementia, their carers and young people with learning disabilities by giving them the opportunity to spend time in woodlands. There are social and practical skills to learn too – we offer activities like coppicing and orchard-pruning sessions to keep our trees healthy and resilient.

“We did a survey five years ago, which showed that if we doubled the tree cover here, it would provide an additional half a billion pounds’ worth of value just through water improvements, carbon reduction, and air and soil quality. There’s huge economic value in this across the region. It’s all about having the right balance of trees in the right places.”

Both organisations are seeking support and engagement from local communities, who can join these meaningful missions to combat climate change together. From helping to raise funds to purchase land and ensure the permanence of plantings, as well as physically planting trees, there are ways we can all play our part. Both organisations can also support access to woodland for groups who might otherwise face barriers to these environments, as well as corporate team-building packages for businesses.

People who own land in and around the West of England who are interested in planting trees can get in touch with Forest of Avon Trust and take advantage of its Trees for Climate fund – England’s Community Forest grant scheme.

It’s one of the most generous and flexible grants available for tree planting, and is only available through Community Forests. This fund gives our region a huge opportunity to plant trees and support nature recovery. The grant offers expert advice to landowners and community groups, full support for the tree planting and up to 15 years’ maintenance costs to ensure the trees are cared for.

Visit forestofavontrust.org for information on how to apply for funding to plant trees, for company sponsoring and for volunteer opportunities across the region. To get involved with the Great Avon Wood, visit avonneedstrees.org.uk