Every dreamed of owning your own woodland? Oliver Bennett meets the growing band of tree-loving folk whose leafy idylls have had a transformational impact on their lives.
And now the pandemic has put muddy boots on this already upward trend. “This year, sales of woodland have been very buoyant,” says Judith Millidge, co-ordinator of the Small Woodland Owners’ Group (SWOG).
woodlands are a natural playground for children
It helps that the government actively wants us to plant trees to mitigate climate change. “Their hope is to increase woodland cover from 13 to 17 per cent,” says Dr Gabriel Hemery, co-founder of charity Sylva and author of The New Sylva (Bloomsbury, £54). “It’s a good start.” In the UK there are 47 trees per person, he adds, while in Canada it’s about 8–9,000 trees. So we’ve got some catching up to do, and small woodland owners are part of the effort.
Most of the UK’s 8m acres of woodland are private plots under 25 acres, and bagging one of these is a short leap for gardening aficionados – one that also helps offset our carbon footprint and connects us to something primordial.
Angus Hanton, who runs woodlands.co.uk, an agency for small woodlands owners, is encouraged. “Woods are eternal,” he says. “They can seriously enhance your lives, they help the environment, and create a wonderful legacy.” Moreover, families love them, as woods are catnip for kids. “I remember the bliss of playing in the woods as a boy,” adds Hanton. “I was bitten by the forest bug then. It never leaves.”
To that end, new owners often find that a hobby wood rapidly becomes their raison d’être. But if you’re tempted, reflect awhile. As Hemery says, “A wood carries an inherent responsibility. Do some planning. Do you want cover for shooting, family recreation or as a habitat for wildlife? All of this makes a difference.”
Think also of your tree choices: many new woodlanders want native broadleaf species: the “oak and ash and thorn” of Rudyard Kipling’s A Tree Song. “But don’t forgo productive non-native species,” says Hemery. “Douglas firs grow rapidly and mix well with broad-leaved trees like walnut and wild cherry.”
A key thing to understand is that woodlands normally have strict planning restrictions, which is why they’re cheap compared to land for development – mostly between £8,000 and £10,000 an acre. That said, if all you want is weekends-and-evenings woodland, don’t be discouraged. “In a quarter hectare you can create glorious woods to get lost in,” says Hemery.
Either way, you’ll be doing your bit for the landscape and wildlife habitats. “Woodland changes the landscape from a prairie to a mosaic,” says Jason Sinden, a director at forestry agency Gresham House. “Plus you’ll attract hares, foxes, badgers and deer – even lynx if it’s in Scotland.” In the design of your wood, you can also set free your Game of Thrones imagination and create dramatic paths, glades and viewpoints.
Ruth Pavey, whose book A Wood of One’s Own was published in 2017 – her next, Deeper into the Woods, comes out in May – has had a woodland in Somerset since 1999. “I bought it simply because I love trees and lived in London,” says Ruth, whose four-acre wood, once two orchards, is now replete with hazel, ash, elder, cedar, oak and holly. “It’s a mishmash,” she says, “and although not particularly tidy, it’s the perfect getaway.” Ruth bought a cottage nearby just to tend her wood. “It has changed me – and now one of the great things is that it will outlive me.” And that’s one particular joy of having woodland: while it may be for private pleasure, it also leaves a legacy that helps the health of the planet.
Rose and Chris enjoy a glass of their home-grown cordial
MEET THE WOODLAND FOLK
Chris and Rose Bax
When Rose and Chris Bax bought their 18-acre Pilmoor wood by Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire in 2004, it was a bit cluttered. “It had been MoD land with bomb storage, then planted with soft wood, then became a Christmas tree plantation.”
The couple took this raw material for £2,500 an acre and planted it with oak, ash, hawthorn and hazel. Rose, an artist, sculpted with the wood, which then inspired a new business.
“It’s given us huge opportunities,” says Chris, 54. “I was a chef and began picking wildflowers in the wood, which opened our minds to the idea of foraging for wild ingredients, and we started running courses, tastethewild.co.uk. The woodland flora then led us to make a distillery for alcohol-free plant cordials, Bax Botanicals.”
“Management involves quite a lot of work,” says Chris. “Running a woodland is not a whimsical exercise. Although 18 acres seems large, it’s small for timber so its value is in amenity.” To that end, he and Rose have put in the hard yards, adding ponds, paths and an open-sided shed for gatherings with a pizza oven. “It can be cold, but the pleasures are great,” says Chris.
The couple live about 5–10 minutes away and the wood lures them most days. “Space is the ultimate luxury in the modern world and we have 18 acres of it,” says Chris. “It gives us an awful lot of positivity. A lot of people have discovered nature in the difficult past year or so, and I can completely see why the interest is greater than ever.” Plus there’s another reward: “I’d guess it has quadrupled in value. Not the point, but helpful.”
Ali and Caroline Wigham, and their children Harry and Emily
The Wigham family are a picture-perfect advertisement for the pleasures and benefits of contemporary woodland ownership. They bought their five acres of predominantly beech woodland just outside the Wiltshire village where they live in 2017 and haven’t looked back since. Part recreational, part environmental project, and – possibly most importantly – part emotional and psychological resource, it’s clear that the woods play a major role in the family’s life.
So how did it all begin? “My son went to a forest school party about four years ago and really enjoyed it. I’d been brought up on the edge of the moors in Cornwall and Caroline in Berkshire and we both really enjoy the countryside. So when Harry went to this party, I suddenly thought, ‘This is really nice, to be back out in the open,’ and it coincided with seeing an advertisement.”
Wigham, who has a busy job in a global travel risk management company, and Caroline, who works part-time for a telecomms company, bought their woodland through one of the major players in the market, woodlands.co.uk. As Wigham explains, “They’re a bit Marmite in the woodlands community, because their business model is to buy up a large area of woodland and parcel it into smaller plots to sell on. They have definitely opened up owning woodland to more people, but it’s pushed up the price too. Traditional coppice workers, for example, are being priced out of the market.” The Wighams paid £59,000 for their five acres but reckon the price has risen 20 per cent since then.
However, the real benefit of that investment is the part the woodland plays in supporting Wigham’s mental health. A former Army officer who saw active service in Iraq in 2003/4 and 2006, Wigham suffers from PTSD and finds the woodland vital in managing his stress. “It’s a huge part of it for me. I go there and relax and get jobs done. It’s a really good counterbalance to a busy job. Nothing actually has to be done up there – if I didn’t do anything for two years, the world wouldn’t fall apart. There’s time to slow down and reflect.” And the physicality of the wood management brings its own benefits: “I don’t need gym membership, I’ve got logs to shift!”
The whole family are equally enthusiastic and regularly camp out there (owners are allowed to stay overnight at their woodlands up to 28 days a year). “The kids [Harry is eight, Emily is six] love it. We put in some quick fixes, such as swings, to make it more fun for them, and we built them a mud kitchen. But they’re also really happy playing in a ditch making fairy houses out of tree stumps. They’re both firm fans of sleeping in hammocks now. We put trail cams out to see what’s happening – we’ve got roe deer, muntjac deer, tawny owls, nuthatches, badgers, foxes. One of our woodland neighbours is going to get some rescue hedgehogs and reintroduce them – and dormice are coming back here too.”
Wigham has ambitious long-term plans to improve the biodiversity of the woodland. As we speak, he is looking at a pile of books behind his desk, a mini-library of woodland erudition. He is also beginning to make furniture and shelving with his felled wood. “Yes, there’s a lot to learn. I’m putting in plans to create a better habitat for wildlife, open up more glades to let sunlight in and create edge habitat, which makes great growing conditions for insect life.” He goes on to explain the importance of coppicing, the centuries-old woodland industry of rotationally cutting back trees to promote new growth, harvested for building materials, beanpoles and so on. “Because coppicing has gone on for so long, the ecology has adapted to having that mix of open areas, regrowing areas and fully grown areas, so that’s what we are working towards.”
Hearing Wigham talk, it’s clear that his woodland fulfils so many important roles in the family’s life: a wonderful outdoor playground, a private nature reserve, the source of fuel for the three log burners in their house, a space to relax and simply be in the present, a place that connects to the ways of life of the past, but also a place to calmly and constructively make plans for the future. “I like the slower pace of life here. It’s not a commercial, waste-producing life. You can achieve a lot of the same things using natural products and without producing waste. Circular economy is one of the big things in industry at the moment – designing things that have an end of life but which can be recycled back into something we can use again. People have been doing that for years in woodlands.”
Follow the Wigham family’s woodland adventures – @small_family_wood
Mike and Tracy enjoy an al fresco meal with friends
Mike and Tracy Pepler
The financial crisis of 2007 gave Mike and Tracy Pepler the incentive to buy their eight-acre wood near Rye in Sussex. “I’d inherited a bit of money,” says Mike, “and wanted to do something of value with it. I chatted with my father who reminded me of the Mark Twain quote: “Buy land: they’re not making it any more.”
The couple then alighted on the £39,000 wood, which instantly changed their lives. “We moved from Oxford to near Rye to be near the wood – it tends to be easier to buy the wood, then move.” It has been central to their lives since then.
The Peplers’ wood is an ASNW – Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland, which is thrilling. As Mike says, “Woodland in the UK has been managed for thousands of years, so none is totally natural.” But among the sweet chestnuts, birches and hornbeams are oaks that are 200 years old.
Mike, 46, works for climate change charity the Ashden Trust, and Tracy, 49, is a primary school teacher. In less restrictive times, they’ve brought the schoolchildren to the wood several times a year. “It’s an incredible learning resource,” says Mike. “Science, physics, PE – even trading with acorns – there’s masses to learn in a wood.”
Packed with flora and fauna, like this dragonfly, the wood is “an incredible learning resource”
Then there’s the Peplers’ own work, which takes about 30 days a year: coppicing and logging. “We sell firewood to friends,” says Mike. “I’d urge all new woodspeople to do a course in chainsawing,and remember: falling trees can really cause injuries.”
That said, adds Mike, “The great thing about woodland is that you can devote as much or as little time as you like towards it.” And the Peplers bring their wood right back into their home. “We heat our whole house with our own wood.”
They often camp there (bearing in mind, of course, the 28-days-per-year rule). “We have a firepit and benches so I wouldn’t call it ‘wild camping’. But you’ve got to be fairly self-sufficient. I sometimes camp on my own, which is spooky but primal. Even a rabbit passing in the middle of the night makes a huge amount of noise.”
Over the past year the wood has helped them cope with the pandemic. “In the summer we met up with parents and grandparents outdoors. My parents now have a four-acre wood attached to ours.”
If you’d like to find out more about investing in a private woodland, visit these sites for information: