Witney Tiny Forest, 17 months after it was planted. Credit Witney Tree Keepers.
On 14 March 2020, Earthwatch Europe, in partnership with Witney Town Council and volunteers from the Wychwood Project and Witney Land Army, planted the UK’s first ever Tiny Forest in Witney, West Oxfordshire. A Tiny Forest consists of 600 native trees densely planted in a tennis court-sized plot of land. It provides a nature-rich, accessible green space and outdoor classroom for communities to reconnect with nature. In the year since the Tiny Forest was planted, we have seen:
- Many saplings double in size
- A huge variety of wildlife within the forest, including: hoverflies, beetles, a green woodpecker and four species of butterflies
- An engaged Keeper Team who have been involved in planting day, ongoing maintenance and our citizen science monitoring days
The location in Witney was chosen because of its proximity to local schools and because it is adjacent to the busy A40.
Vicky Gwatkin from Witney Town Councils says, “It has now been over a year since our Tiny Forest was planted and its been fantastic to see it being used by the whole community. Following on from the large community planting day, people often go and visit it and spend time in the classroom area. Back in September, local residents and families helped to collect scientific data on our forest at the first citizen science monitoring day. As our Tiny Forest continues to grow, we are looking forward to our next monitoring day, to see how the forest’s ecosystem services have changed.”
Steps to Establish a Tiny Forest
Site assessment and species selection
Once a location had been proposed, Earthwatch conducted a site visit to ensure the area was appropriate for a Tiny Forest. The site visit looks at nearby infrastructure, site access and utilities. A soil survey was also completed in order to understand the characteristics of the soil which, alongside data from a regional reference forest, went on to influence our tree species selection. The soil at this site was predominantly clay, therefore very dense and compact. Because of this, the site is frequently waterlogged. Following the Miyawaki methodology, which Tiny Forests are based on, the soil information was used to tailor the specific supplements that were added to the soil. We used chopped straw to help reduce compaction and break up large aggregates and green waste compost to provide additional nutrient.
The design of each Tiny Forest is decided, with input from our partners, early on in the process. We can tailor each forest’s shape and add paths and seating areas. Witney Town Council were keen to replicate the octagonal shape of their Church steeple and also include a woodchipped outdoor classroom area that could be used by both local residents and schools.
Witney Tiny Forest design
A key part of the Tiny Forest methodology is the soil preparation before planting day. This is to reduce the soil’s compaction, ensure there are enough nutrients for the saplings and to improve the water holding capacity of the soil. At Witney, we excavated the site to a depth of 1 metre, returning this soil to the excavated pit whilst mixing in our soil supplements.
Testing the soil at Eton Close, Witney, February 2020.
On Saturday 14 March, prior to Covid-19 restrictions, Witney’s Tiny Forest was planted by 50 volunteers, of all ages, from the local community. Following an introduction to the project, groups of friends and families took bundles of saplings and planted them 30cm apart, throughout the area. In just a few hours all 600 saplings of native species had been planted. By the end of the afternoon the forest floor had been mulched, and the benches and plaque had been installed. A few days later the fencing was finished and the UK’s first Tiny Forest was complete!
Witney Tiny Forest at the end of planting day, 14 March 2020. Credit Earthwatch Europe.
To maximise each Tiny Forest’s chance of success, we engage a group of 4-5 local volunteers to act as Tree Keepers. They take ownership of the Tiny Forest and its development, and help to maintain it for the first few growing seasons. Volunteer Tree Keeper Mark Aitman says, “Being part of the Witney Tiny Forest Tree Keepers is a great opportunity to work with other community members, to ensure the success of our forest. Since it was planted in March 2020, we have regularly visited the Tiny Forest to check the saplings, the mulch layer and to remove any litter. We have been able to watch the Tiny Forest grow and develop over time and we often meet up with friends and family in the outdoor classroom area.” Witney’s Tree Keepers have been a delight to work with and regularly send photos of the trees growing and changing over the seasons as well as pictures of local wildlife in the forest.
Citizen Science Monitoring
Following the planting day, one of Earthwatch’s main goals is to continue the community’s engagement with their Tiny Forest. We use our expertise in citizen science to engage local communities/ schools/ businesses to monitor Tiny Forests’ dynamic nature and quantify their social and environmental benefits.
With the help of our citizen scientists, we are monitoring five key benefits across each Tiny Forest. Specifically looking at how the forests change over time and how they differ per location. We are researching:
- Thermal comfort: the cooling benefits of the trees
- Flood management: the forest’s ability to store water
- Biodiversity: focussing on butterflies, pollinators and soil-dwelling organisms
- Carbon capture: how much carbon a Tiny Forest sequesters and stores
- Wellbeing: conducting social surveys with volunteers
In September 2020, Earthwatch ran the first monitoring day in Witney’s Tiny Forest. Due to Covid-19 restrictions it was smaller than planned, but we were still able to work with several members of the local community to collect data from the forest. The Mayor of Witney, Joy Aitman, said, “It’s been really interesting having been here right from the beginning on planting day and through the Summer, to see how much our Tiny Forest has grown. Its fascinating now, to look at the scientific data that we’re collecting today.” The volunteers helped us to collect information on tree growth, showing that some individual trees had more than doubled in size, growing well over half a metre in the first six months. Pollinators from six different groups were observed in a 6-minute pollinator-count survey. Many butterflies and even a green woodpecker were also spotted in the forest during the day. At this point there was little difference in the temperature recorded inside and outside the forest.
However, we are excited to return to Witney in 2021 to repeat our monitoring to see if, now in its second growing season, the Tiny Forest’s thermal comfort levels have changed, and see how the other environmental services may have changed.
Earthwatch scientists and local citizen scientists monitor the Tiny Forest
Tiny Forest across the UK
Since Witney’s Tiny Forest was planted, Earthwatch has gone on to establish another 16 across the UK. We will be running monitoring days at each of them during Spring and Summer 2021 with local school groups and communities.
By 2023, we aim to have built a network of 150 Tiny Forests in the UK. By doing this, circa 35,000 people will directly benefit from a Tiny Forest in their local community.
If you are interested in donating to support the Tiny Forest programme, or simply want to find out more, please visit our Tiny Forest webpage .