Back to nature: The social enterprise helping British woodland thrive

Devon-based social enterprise The Woodland Presents is hoping to reframe our relationship with forestry and woodland culture.  

The Woodland Presents collage 2
Credit: Fergus Coyle Photography (central image)

What happens when you transplant the burgeoning maker movement from urban centres to rural areas? Is it possible to reconnect with British woodland? Can woods become relevant in today’s digital driven culture?

These are some of the questions being answered by The Woodland Presents, a social enterprise devoted to helping native British woodlands thrive by connecting people with trees in new and meaningful ways.

Situated in the North Woods on the edge of the Dartington Hall Estate in South Devon, The Woodland Presents encompasses a maker-space, social forestry and a community woodland group. The social enterprise approaches woodland culture from both a craft and social perspective, inviting communities to reframe their relationships with woodland.

“Everything we do comes from the wood, whether it’s our social forestry programme or our attempt to reestablish a processing chain that goes from British trees to British products, keeping them local,” explains The Woodland Presents director, Alex Tempest.

“We want to develop a model that works for British woodlands across the country.”

The Woodland Presents was founded in 2015 as a response to the current state of British woodlands. Roughly half are left unmanaged, which makes the woodland grow dark, preventing sunlight reaching the forest floor, harming the biodiversity. A proactive way the social enterprise is seeking to address these problems is to tackle the falling number of young people entering the forestry profession.

“The average age is roughly 50-60 years old for a forester and we’re importing 95% of our timber and growing very little of our own. Of the woodlands that we do have, there are very few that are managed productively,” Tempest explains.

“We’re just getting accustomed to leaving woodland in that state and that becoming the new norm.”

The route into social forestry, especially for young people, does not really exist as yet, says Tempest. Studying forestry at university or college is very much focused on mainstream techniques, he explains. These techniques also typically rely on large scale machinery, which is expensive to maintain and far from inspiring for foresters, makers and creatives alike. 

Woodland 3
Credit: Fergus Coyle Photography

By contrast the approach being taken by The Woodland Presents is to offer aspiring foresters an opportunity to experience the multi-sided life woodland management can offer.

“We want to package a route into forestry where one minute you’re in the workshop making things and being creative, tying into that maker movement. Then the next minute you’re in this amazing space and you’re running groups and working with people, then the next minute by yourself planting trees in the middle of the forest,” Tempest explains.

The Woodland Presents recognises that there are many different routes into social forestry, rather than simply following the mainstream path. Tempest, who has been woodcarving for nearly 17 years, describes falling in love with the grain of the wood before the woodland. After finishing a degree in international education, Tempest went on to study the economics of transition, where he focused on what the future of social forestry could look like.

Back to nature

The Woodland Presents is hoping to create a woodland hub’ centred on a woodyard, which will work with whole trees and large sections of timber. Next to this will be a community workshop where makers can hire a bench to work with the local wood.

Known as The Woodlab, this will be a place where people can share machinery, knowledge and skills to craft their own products. It is designed to be a community wood workshop, uniting small wood-based businesses with timber suppliers, processors and foresters. As well as tuition and courses, The Woodlab will offer professional services like a timber drying kiln, as well as access to a network of experienced makers.

“We’re seeing what happens if we introduce cutting edge technology with timber from British wood. I don’t think that’s happened too much in this country in a rural setting. It’s an experiment,” Tempest explains.

Aside from the crafts element, The Woodland Presents is also committed to offering a woodland lifestyle for anyone in the local area to enjoy. At its heart is the Nest, an insulated, all-weather structure made from local timber and renewable materials. Designed by the Workshop Collaborative, an architectural design company based in Totnes, the Nest is seven metres in diameter and can seat 24 adults.

The Nest
The Nest. Credit: The Workshop Collaborative

“The Nest is a space where we’re trying to bring things that are happening outside the woods into the woods. So the kinds of things people would be doing on a Saturday night, we want them to do them in the woods like theatre, pop up restaurants, yoga classes, performance. All the things that you normally do,” Tempest explains.

“We have set up a reliable and attractive space that people want to spend time in. We want to kinder the relationship between people and trees implicitly rather than saying ‘come and spend time in the woods’.”

To combat the stereotypical image of the wood being a scary place to visit at night, The Woodland Presents runs a number of evening events from star gazing to short film screenings, live music and an on-site bar, welcoming upwards of 150 people at any one time.

Going national

Tempest grew up in a village on the outskirts of the Dartington Estate and spent his childhood exploring the woods. Alongside the personal connection, these woods also have an important history from a woodland culture perspective, making them a perfect location to establish The Woodland Presents. 

That being said, he strongly believes the concept could translate to other native British woodland across the UK. It is primarily about understanding the character of each woodland and what activities would suit the space. 

“Each woodland has different opportunities. Some of them are tucked away, some are really sloping and you can’t have social sites in them or some of them don’t have any passing trade. Every woodland needs a different approach and it needs thinking about creatively in terms of how it can be brought back to flourish,” says Tempest.

“It just happens that the one we’ve chosen has good parking, good passing trade and it’s just outside some towns that really thrive on the arts so we’ve deliberately made ourselves accessible to those things. But ultimately the model that we’re pioneering is flexible enough to adapt to different sites.”

Woodland 4
Credit: Fergus Coyle Photography

Once the whole site is fully up and running, The Woodland Presents plans to launch a tree planting campaign know as the Devonian, named after the geological era when trees started growing on the planet. The target is to plant 5,000 native British trees to help recreate the eroding woodlands.

Looking longer term, The Woodland Presents ultimately hopes to train people to work in an ecologically sensitive way, create biodiversity in British woodlands and reframe the woodland vocation. 

“We have to create new environments, that’s really our goal here,” Tempest adds. “We need to think about how people can do the same and create a model that works in a rural countryside area to experiment with other woodlands.”

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