On a mission to learn more about trees and help with woodland management, I discovered that a short tram ride from my neighbourhood in Manchester city centre gave me access to woodlands in Wythenshawe, where I could listen to the soothing chorus of birds, surrounded by vibrantly green foliage, giving a feeling of complete separation from the stresses and strains of the urban environment outside the woods. I was in awe of the peace and calm the trees bestowed on me while evoking happy childhood memories of playing in wooded areas.
I was amongst a group of volunteers helping the charity City of Trees tackle the climate emergency with its work of planting trees and managing woodland, while also providing the social, mental, and physical benefits of being outdoors to a diverse range of people across Greater Manchester. Shannon Brady, City of Trees assistant project officer, joined us in the woods and explained the charities work:
“Tree planting and management of existing green spaces are particularly important, now more than ever, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, trees are important to sequester carbon and help mitigate climate change. Green spaces, such as parks and woodlands, have been proven to be beneficial to mental and physical wellbeing. This has been emphasised by the pandemic which has highlighted the value green spaces have to those living around them.”
Working with the community
Also experiencing the healing power of the woods was Kate Hardy, wellbeing coordinator at Back on Track, a Manchester charity that enables disadvantaged adults to make lasting, positive changes in their lives. Kate said:
“Working in partnership with City of Trees gave us an opportunity to offer something quite unique to our learners and being out in the woods, and all the elements, every week was not only interesting because we learned about sustainability, preservation and conservation of the area, but we also got our hands dirty by helping to clear paths, planting wildflowers and litter picking.”
A small group from Back On Track were participating in a Green Heritage Course with City of Trees, which took place in three of the eighteen Wythenshawe Woodlands – Ash Wood, Sandilands, and The Brundrit. With some trees identified as being more than 150 years old, the woodlands are considered to be part of the heritage of the area and some show on maps as far back as 1762.
Despite some rainy weather days on the course, there was a great outdoors feeling while we learned how to identify trees, such as birch, sycamore, oak, and wild cherry, alongside wildflowers such as St John’s wort, bluebell, devil’s-bit, scabious, and meadowsweet. Woodlands provide a fabulous habitat for minibeasts and we observed, snails, millipedes, beetles, and ladybirds. Minibeasts make great meals for birds, and looking up we identified robins, magpies, and woodpeckers, while looking down we scanned for evidence of small mammals such as foxes, squirrels, and field voles.
One learner on the Green Heritage Course said: “I loved doing different things every week.” The course included building a bug hotel, a footprint tunnel to see what mammals were in the woods, and the construction of a birdhouse.
Invasives are non-native plants that have a negative impact on their environment, Shannon from City of Trees said: “If we let them grow uninhibited, they’d form dense layers of ground cover meaning fewer native plants could grow leading to fewer animals leading to lower biodiversity within the woodland.” During the course, Back On Track learners removed invasives such as rhododendron and snowberry which both outcompete native species as well as planting wildflowers in cleared areas.
City of Trees is one of England’s ten community forests, managed by a Manchester based environmental charity originally launched as Red Rose Forest in 1991 which then rebranded as The City of Trees in 2016.
They are part of the Northern Forest project which aims to plant 50 million trees between Hull and Liverpool over a 25-year period. For Manchester, this means one tree for every person over 5 years. Endeavouring to create greener healthier cities, they work primarily on tree planting and woodland management in tandem with members of the community.
Since 2016, City of Trees have planted 537,173 trees, 1,612 street trees, and 101 orchards, as well as creating 2,237 metres of hedgerow with 12,956 volunteers and 19,186 school children making this possible.
Most of the practical work of tree planting and woodland management is carried out with the public, within Greater Manchester, on a range of different sites such as parks, recreation grounds and old landfill sites, including the city centre and more rural areas, always making sure that they put the appropriate type of tree in the right location.
City of Trees aims to be inclusive, working with all members of the community regardless of age, skill level, and physical ability. Volunteers only need suitable clothing and enthusiasm, City of Trees provides the tools and guidance required to carry out the work. Community volunteers may be individuals or part of a community group as well as councils, landowners, schools, vulnerable groups, and partner organisations.
City of Trees also works in partnership with other organisations, on more complex topics, such as sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), mapping, and nature-based solutions tackling socio-environmental issues.
Shannon explains, “Tree planting and environmental management are long-term investments which benefit people and the planet…. You can’t grow a new woodland overnight but sometimes you can see the benefits of a project relatively quickly.” She gave examples of City of Trees working with partners to install dams to reduce flood risk at Crompton Moor and a campaign at Boz Park in Bury to clean and maintain the space.
Each project has its own funding stream which includes various sources such as government, councils, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund and recently secured Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) funding for the Trees for Climate project which involves all community forests.
City of Trees has corporate sponsors but also relies on individual donations through direct contributions and fundraising. Their Dedicate a Tree initiative gives donors a meaningful way to bestow a tree in memory of a loved one, celebrate a wedding, birthday or anniversary, or support the environment.
Getting through Covid
When Covid lockdown started in March 2020, all events were cancelled meaning the community missed out, but staff were able to continue progressing and developing projects. There have been a few virtual events but normally the public would have planted trees during the last planting season, but City of Trees had to do it without the community help and so all the mental health benefits that go with this were not possible.
“Understandably, the most difficult challenge we have faced has been not being able to work with public at a time when people were experiencing more need for the social, mental, and physical benefits of being outdoors,” Shannon explained.
Events are slowly returning with limits on attendance numbers keeping within government recommendations.
Support and Plans
City of Trees is always on the lookout for volunteers and potential new sites for planting. With the restart of public events, they need volunteers this summer for woodland management activities, invasive removal, and clean up events and then by the October tree planting season, volunteers can assist with the continuing work on the Trees for Climate project.
They plan to continue their work with schools, the Northern Forest and IGNITION project – a community based initiative to make Greater Manchester a healthier, wilder, and greener city. As part of the Trafford Countryside Management Partnership, City of Trees recently began work on Wellacre Country Park, which will result in new paths, habitats and signage. They were also recently chosen as a partner in Greater Manchester’s green social prescribing pilot which aims to improve community health and wellbeing by connecting people with nature.
Also returning are the dementia friendly walks on the second Tuesday of every month. These walks are open to those living with dementia and their friends/family/carers/support network.
Contributing to the environment with the benefit of improved wellbeing makes the perfect combination, according to Kate from Back On Track referring to the Green Heritage, and went on to say:
“The wellbeing aspect of the course was so important too, being out in nature, learning new things and working as part of a team was all really valuable for everyone involved!”
A Back On Track learner sums it up, “City of Trees staff were very knowledgeable, and I learned a lot of things that I never knew before. Unfortunately, I now get in trouble with my wife for stopping to look at trees.”
To volunteer and obtain more information about City of Trees – click here
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: @CityofTreesMcr
This article is part of the Mancunians Going the Extra Mile to Help Those in Need series, focusing on the essential work charities are doing in Manchester. For other articles in the series – click here.
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Featured image and in article images: Dale Anne McAulay