Foresters' Forest

As England’s largest oak forest, the Royal Forest of Dean has always been at the heart of the community. For centuries, it has been an important source of timber, food and even iron, coal and minerals.

Today, however, any signs of the Forest’s industrial past are long buried underneath the cloak of greenery that covers the forest floor. Stewardship of the Forest falls as much to the local ‘Foresters’, the people who live in and around the Forest, as it does to the many conservation groups that operate there, but they all have a common goal – to celebrate the Forest’s unique heritage and preserve it for the next generation.

In recognition of this, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded £2.5 million to the Foresters’ Forest, an exciting programme that brings together 32 separate partners to deliver 38 projects within the Forest area over the next five years. Whittled down from an original list of 80, the 38 projects have all been chosen to celebrate the Forest’s natural, built and cultural heritage, helping people to reconnect with the area’s past while creating ways to preserve the Forest’s future.

“The range of projects comes from the local community,” says Sue Middleton, the Foresters’ Forest Programme Manager. “It’s about what the local community want to see.” To help the 32 partners reach their goal of delivering 38 projects over the next five years, the programme relies heavily on volunteers. In fact, over the next five years, £474,000-worth of volunteer time must be recorded. Sue isn’t worried.

“Local people care about the Forest and want to help,” she says. “In order to qualify for funding we had to show £110,000-worth of volunteer time in 18 months – we over-achieved and recorded £160,000. We also have such a diverse range of projects that people can get involved in that there really is something for everyone.”

Indeed, the sheer variety of projects is astounding – projects run by national organisations such as Natural England, RSPB and Butterfly Conservation run alongside those run by local groups, such as Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society and Dean Meadows Group, and even individuals, such as Dr Andrew Hoaen, who is spearheading a project to help conserve the Forest’s veteran trees.

The projects are organised into five themes: Our Stronghold for Nature, Revealing our Past, Celebrating our Forest, Securing our Future and Exploring our Forest but it’s the first of these that is most exciting for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

“The Foresters’ Forest programme will help us significantly increase the size and quality of our nature reserves in the Forest of Dean,” says Adam Taylor, GWT’s Head of Land Management. “We currently manage 537.57 acres in the Forest of Dean but we will take on another 341.13 acres. This will allow us to expand some of the most important wildlife habitats in Gloucestershire, making them much more sustainable for wildlife.”

Many of the projects have overlapping aims and goals, none more so than GWT’s Conservation Grazing project which aims to create and link open habitat, especially heathland, over a large area of the Forest of Dean by managing habitats using traditional grazing methods. This will directly benefit wildlife such as birds, butterflies, bats and reptiles while improving the overall environment for the local people.

By encouraging local people to get involved in projects now, the hope is that by the end of the five years, they will want to continue what they have learnt and continue to care for the Forest beyond the funding period. This is certainly the aim of GWT’s Community Study Group project. Working in partnership with Gloucestershire Centre for Environmental Records, the project aims to create a self-sustaining study group that will be able to maintain a comprehensive record of the Dean’s wildlife over the next five years and beyond.

Another way of achieving longevity is by engaging with young people. Forest Explorers is a project set up by GWT and RSPB that will help young people aged 4-13 connect with the Forest and its wildlife through a programme of events and activities. The project aims to encourage a closer understanding, connection and engagement of young people with the heritage of their local area.

“We want local people to appreciate the Forest, to see that it is a special place, but we need to let the next generation look after the Forest too,” says Sue. It is this sense of stewardship, of encouraging people to connect with the Forest now and in the future that is so exciting and so ground-breaking about the Foresters’ Forest programme. As the saying goes, ‘out of acorns grow mighty oaks’ – if that’s true, then the future of the Forest of Dean is in very safe hands.

Forest of Dean facts

  1. The Royal Forest occupies an area of 204 square miles. Oak, beech, ash, birch and holly make up some of the 20 million trees found in the Forest of Dean
  2. People who live in and around the Forest are known as Foresters. True Foresters are those born within 'the Hundred of St Briavels', an ancient administrative area
  3. The Forest is home to a number of important species including small pearl-bordered fritillary, sphagnum moss, great crested newt and adder
  4. In 1939 the woodland became the first park in England to be designated as a national forest. It is one of the remaining Royal forests in England
  5. Is it thought that the Forest gave JRR Tolkien his inspiration for the setting of Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy
  6. The Normans introduced Forest Law and 'Verderers' to look after the Forest. The Verderers' Court, the oldest court in England, still meets in the Speech House four times a year
  7. In the 13th century, King Edward I granted the original Foresters a free right to mine that exists to this day


Conservation Grazing

For years we and our volunteers have grafted to restore and maintain these tricky open heathland habitats. The Foresters’ Forest project has now enabled these restorations to leap forward with the ability to sustainably graze these habitats as they would have originally been maintained. We have worked with our Exmoor ponies and Hebridean sheep on trial projects at Wigpool and Edgehills nature reserves and now the project has provided funds and expanded areas for us to make the most challenging leap of using rare breed cattle like the Highland cows our grazier uses at The Park and Poor’s nature reserves. The expansion of Woorgreens and Edgehills is the most complex project we have undertaken as yet on our Forest of Dean reserves. We will be making sure the cattle munch and trample just enough to create the conditions for a variety of micro habitats to flourish.

Key Forest of Dean species that will benefit from conservation grazing: nightjar, woodlark, goshawk, great crested newt, sphagnum moss, adder, heather, small pearl-bordered fritillary

Kevin Caster, Reserves Manager West

Forest Explorers

Forest Explorers is a collaboration between GWT and the RSPB in the Dean, funded by the Foresters’ Forest Heritage Lottery Fund programme. The aim of the group is to immerse children and families in the various heritage elements of the Dean, so not just wildlife, but also industrial, archaeological and cultural, covering things like the area’s free-mining and commoning rights. This reflects the broad nature of the Foresters’ Forest project. We aim at families with children between the ages of 4-13, and try to ensure that each session includes hands-on activities, learning and an element of play. Sessions so far have been on geology, hibernation, traditional orchards and free-mining. During the past 18 months of the development stage of the project we have been running every other month; now that the delivery stage has started we are running every month.

Rosie Kelsall, GWT Forest of Dean Community Widlife Officer

Community Study Group

Through the Foresters’ Forest programme, GWT will receive funding to set up a survey group in the Forest, as well as funding to complete a range of biological surveys across the Forest. The programme will give us the opportunity to engage with young people and volunteers to create some really great new teams of recorders and enthusiasts. The aim of the project is to help volunteers to get out and about with project leaders to learn new skills so that at the end of the five years we will have created a selfsustaining study group. They will then be able to continue and build on the work of the programme to create and maintain a comprehensive account of the Dean’s wildlife. The project is being run with the Gloucestershire Centre for Environmental Records, so it means we will have one core place where we can record and store all this amazing data.

Adam Taylor, GWT Head of Land Management