By PK Khaira-Creswell

10 Jan 2020

Work to oversee the nation’s woodlands has changed a lot over the past century. PK Khaira-Creswell looks at how non-ministerial government department the Forestry Commission marked its centenary

2019 was quite a year for trees. The climate emergency has moved tree-planting to the forefront of the public agenda, fires in California and the Amazon have caused global concern, and numerous studies have underscored why forests are crucial for our health.

In England, we’ve been marking a century since the creation of the Forestry Commission, reflecting on our history and looking to the next 100 years.

Over the past 12 months we’ve carried out the largest ever survey of England’s forest wildlife, released a book on British forests, campaigned on the importance of forests for wellbeing, and planted new areas of woodland.

We’ve also worked with poet Carol Ann Duffy and Turner Prize-winning sculptor Rachel Whiteread, organised a running series, and partnered with Royal Mail to create a collection of stamps inspired by UK forests. At the Chelsea Flower Show, our award-winning Resilience Garden put climate change and plant health centre stage at the same time as celebrating the importance of trees in gardens and landscapes.

Our celebration has been diverse, challenging and exciting. It has also enabled us to engage with different audiences at a time when our work has never been so important.

Planning for change

When we started talking about the centenary a few years ago, we asked ourselves lots of questions: What were we going to do? Who was going to do it? Who was it for? The last of these really helped us get the ball rolling.

Over our century, the Forestry Commission has evolved from focusing on production to championing the landscape, supporting wildlife and encouraging public access.

Similarly, the kinds of people within our organisation, those we work with and welcome to our forests have changed. It was essential that what we did this year reflected the breadth and scale of what we do, and the huge variety of people engaged in our work.

Understanding your audience is an essential first step to creating a successful project and ensures what you are doing is relevant to the needs and changes in society.

 Collaboration is key

While this year has been a celebration of our centenary, it’s been about much more than the work of one organisation. The milestone provided us with a platform to recognise the support of our partners, and forge new relationships to take us into the next 100 years.

We couldn’t have launched the Big Forest Find without the backing of conservation organisations, wildlife experts and communities. The Resilience Garden at Chelsea would not have been possible without support from colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Kew Gardens and the Scottish and Welsh governments. And we couldn’t have written British Forests without the insight and expertise of our employees old and new.

Our celebration year has brought people from different work areas, locations, organisations and generations together. It has given people opportunities to do things differently, get creative and think outside the box. I’d like to think it has benefitted not only the Forestry Commission, but individuals, other organisations and the wider forestry sector.

Moving forward, we want to harness the enthusiasm generated to continue growing and improving our forests, advancing our workforce, and encouraging more people to enjoy spending time among trees. Our research has shown how positive forests can be for mental health, and we wanted this year to amplify that message.

 Getting creative in the forest

We’ve invested in creating high-quality content for our digital channels and been a lot more proactive in our communications. As a result, we’ve had a greater presence in the media, improved our volunteering offer and inspired new visitors to forests.

We also wanted to make sure the centenary gave us an opportunity to thank our past and present staff for their dedication, passion, expertise and diligence.

We unearthed and shared fascinating stories from employees over the years and ran an internal campaign to encourage staff volunteering. It’s been a privilege to see the centenary programme gain momentum among colleagues who are rightly proud of where they work and what we achieve together.

Of course our milestone year hasn’t all been plain sailing. But we are absolutely delighted with what we have achieved. I’m very happy we took the opportunity to celebrate how much forests and woodlands offer society. Here’s to the next 100 years.

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