A forest at the heart of England

The goal of the Heart of England Forest is to create a 30,000-acre broadleaf forest for the benefit of the environment, wildlife and people.

So far, it has planted over 1.9 million trees and is 23% of the way towards its goal – it already has 7,000 acres of land in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, including 4,000 acres of new woodland and 600 acres of mature and ancient woodland. 

This makes it the largest new native broadleaf woodland in England. Not only that, but its acreage also includes grassland, heathland, farmland and wetland.

Sally Moss spoke to Jonathan Saunders, the organisation’s Volunteer Manager.

Jonathan Saunders, Heart of England Forest Volunteer Manager, a young man with a beard, smiling at the camera and crossing his arms over his green gilet, which has the HOEF logo on it.
Jonathan Saunders, Volunteer Manager. Image via Heart of England Forest

What does your role involve, Jonathan, and how did you come to be doing this work?

It’s my responsibility to create, develop and grow our volunteering programme, ensuring we offer engaging and interesting activities for our volunteers to take part in, all while supporting our vision of creating a 30,000-acre forest.

I work both on the ground and behind the scenes to keep our activities running, so I can be found all over the Forest.

I previously worked for a variety of organisations managing established, mature and ancient woodlands, including the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), the City of London’s Burnham Beeches Estate, and Essex County Council’s Thorndon Country Park.

I have a huge passion for trees and woodlands, watching them grow and develop in both natural and human-modified environments. I find it incredible that a single pollarded tree could have been worked for well over 400 years for its timber and tree-hay, all while creating diverse habitat for wildlife. What could the future have in store over the next 400 years for the trees we are planting today?

Having worked for local government for a number of years, I was keen to return to a charity and put my skills towards something new and different. The Heart of England Forest was not an organisation I was familiar with at all, but I was drawn in by the incredible vision and foresight of the charity and its work. I was absolutely delighted when I was invited to join the team and have been enjoying the work and its challenges ever since.

What work has the Heart of England Forest been focusing on over the summer and early autumn? What’s coming up next?

A common misconception is that we either continue to plant trees during the summer, or that we have absolutely nothing to do. This is far from the truth: the reality is that we have plenty to keep us busy across the summer months as we maintain and manage the woodlands that have been planted in previous years.

During the summer the volunteers focus on a wide variety of activities that support the existing woodland, helping to maintain it for people and wildlife.

For the past six weeks, several groups of volunteers have been working their way through some of our older plantations, removing tree guards from trees that have already reached a significant size and girth. For each generation of trees planted, there is a generation of trees that needs its guards removed 10–15 years later. The volunteers make quick work of acres upon acres, and leave behind them a wonderful forest of nothing but trees, free of the tree guards that protected the young trees in the early portion of their lives.

In the coming weeks the volunteers will be moving on to working along our footpaths to manage the excessive amounts of growth we have seen during this gloriously sunny summer! They will be opening up gateways, cutting back overhanging branches and brambles, and ensuring that the footpaths remain as accessible as possible for our visitors.

Later this year, the volunteers will collect seeds from across our existing woodlands to help grow a new generation of trees in our nursery. Last year, our volunteers gathered 144 kg of English oak acorns, which are now growing in potted cells and in the soil within our tree nursery. Now we have a new tree nursery team in place, and the seeds we gather this year will be planted in pots by a new team of volunteers, as well as visiting school groups and special interest groups, who are interested in managing and maintaining our nursery.

The staff and volunteers are also gearing up for our 2021/2022 planting season. Between November and March, we will be planting over 90,000 trees across two sites, adding another woodland to the Heart of England Forest. It will be a race against time to ensure that all the trees are planted before the end of March, but we are truly confident that we will be able to achieve this as well as fitting in the other activities in our winter work plan.

Who are your volunteers?

Our volunteer workforce is made up of a wide array of people from all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances. Although many of our volunteers are retirees who want to find new ways to engage with nature and do their bit for the countryside, we also see many employed individuals fitting in a volunteering session or two around their working lives.

 If there is one feature that unites all our volunteers, it’s that they are all wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic, and keen to work and spend time together. Everyone has something they want to gain from their volunteering experience, and I am delighted to see how they all come together to achieve it.

In 2020/2021, despite the challenges of the pandemic, volunteers gave a total of 2,345 hours – the equivalent of more than one full-time member of staff!

Here are comments from a couple of our volunteers about their experiences with us:

‘Living in the heart of Birmingham, I have truly appreciated the opportunity to continue to do voluntary work in the great outdoors. It was truly restorative, and I came away with an intense feeling of being at peace.’ 

– Pete, volunteer

Pete, volunteer. Source

‘My favourite things about volunteering are the camaraderie of the volunteers and staff, the variety of jobs we get to do and just getting to be in the outdoors – no matter what the weather! There is an ever-expanding need for more volunteers to fulfil the amount of activity required to maintain the growing Forest. Becoming a Volunteer Leader seemed like a great opportunity to support the charity in achieving its long-term goals.’ 

– Ramsay, Volunteer Leader

Ramsay, Volunteer Leader. Image via Heart of England Forest

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