Thursday, 5 February 2015

Creative Landscapes; An Opportunistic Approach

Clearing for a shelter belt of new planting

After a long period of blog inactivity, I have recently been reflecting on how well a ‘forest school’ approach can work within the context of land/ woodland management. Our management aim at Hallr Wood is to improve the woodland for wildlife through increasing habitat diversity wherever possible and also to enhance the amenity value to users and the community.

The advantage of managing a non precious and undermanaged plantation is that whilst the long term aspiration is still to convert to primarily native broadleaves, there is also some scope to think experimentally within the parameters of our Woodland Management Plan.

At Hallr Wood we have always responded to suggestions from the young people who attend long term forest school programmes with us. At first this was usually a request to install some steps or a new swing. As we saw the benefits that practical ownership could have on individuals, we almost unintentionally adopted it as a specific approach. Any long term participant, whether adult or child, could invest their ideas and get help to see them take shape in the woodland. Sometimes, sadly, they aren’t still attending when the project comes to fruition. The kiln build in 2013 was originally an idea from a troubled teenager who was fascinated by clay and wanted to fire it. She followed our progress even though she wasn't there for the actual build.

Margie’s Orchard and our growing area are especially significant because we started to use the land in a different way and for food growing. It began because one of our volunteers wanted to donate some fruit trees in memory of her mother who had (at a very advanced age) loved coming. I had not considered food production when I wrote the Woodland Management Plan but it emerged as a perfect complement to our other activities. Growing food and harvesting it for healthy cooked lunches on the camp fire is now a key part of our programme and the benefits to everyone are very evident. To support the garden, we have since built compost sections and reviewed our water collection processes. The garden was never anticipated or planned for. It has become a transitional area where full sun and cultivation have created something new. It is invariably less wild but it does seem to flow seamlessly to the rest of the woodland and connect as part of an undisputed whole. 

A beautiful bug hotel to encourage pollinators in the orchard and garden
I believe our 'opportunistic' approach to land management often replicates the forest school ethos in a fascinating way. 

We recently built a new wildlife pond. This was the culmination of several interlocking factors; a young man interested in landscaping, the donation of a pond liner and a suggestion from a visiting expert that another pond would enhance the habitat diversity we are aiming for. Of course the pond liner then proved too small for the pond but we were by then determined and had to think laterally around the issue to solve the problem.

Isn't this exactly what happens in a forest school situation? The ability to problem solve is crucial and without flexibility and resilience, we cannot tackle the invariable obstacles which beset many of our endeavours, indeed life itself. Most children need help and practice to cultivate the ability to use initiative and cope with the unexpected, especially those on the autistic spectrum for whom change is deeply de-stabilizing.

Planning is important, especially in the boadest sense. Sometimes it is tempting not to plan because the child led approach means too often the plans are abandoned and side tracked. But each participant, including the adults and staff do need a direction and firm idea of where they are going on their own forest school journey. So how do we make our plans flexible enough too support an unanticipated interest or opportunity without losing sight of our more overarching and anchoring objectives? By being open always to options we can end up with a surfeit of 'projects' which we then struggle to complete. We begin one thing and find that some threads are so interwoven, we are forced into another direction before we can return to our original purpose. 

This can prove frustrating but I do think that provided you keep sight of the main priorities,and check that any tangents do still meet the broad objectives, the results are hopefully well worth the effort.
We will soon find out!

Our new pond at dusk...


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