Farmers and landowners in south Oxfordshire are being encouraged to join a project to improve the management of their woodlands.

The aim is to increase productivity and to reinforce the biodiversity of their environment to the benefit of everybody.

The two-year programme is being handled through the Sylva Foundation, based in Little Wittenham, in partnership with the Oxfordshire Woodland Project and is part of a wider objective by the South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse district councils to help support rural commujnities in their combined area.

Funding of £1.89m has been obtained by the councils from the Government and the European Union.

For some years, the Sylva Foundation has been running a myForest project as a sustainable forest resource service to provide woodland owners with a free online management plan.

Alistair Yeomans, forestry director for the Sylva Foundation, said: “For centuries trees have formed an intrinsic part of our cultural landscape.

“Since antiquity, woodlands have been managed and worked by woodsmen supplying timber as the most noble of building matgerials and for firewood for heating homes and cooking food.”

Growing trees and using their wood has become increasingly recognised as one of the most environmentally sustainable land uses.

“Yet in recent decades our relationship with our trees and woodlands has waned with the United Kingdom importing an estimated 80 per cent of its timber while only 20 per cent of the country’s woods are actively managed,” he said.

This was demonstrated by Cambridge University’s Department of Land Economy’s long-term study investigating trends in the management of private woodlands on traditional estates in England and Wales.

The study began in 1963 and continued through the 1980s and 1990s, and the findings from the latest survey in 2006 strongly suggested that there had been a deterioration of the financial performance of many estate woodlands to the point where management had been reduced or even suspended.

“Oxfordshire is reckoned to be the least wooded county in England and south Oxfordshire may be even lower when compared with west and north Oxfordshire, which includes the Blenheim estate and the Wychwood Forest,” said Alistair.

He added that Blenheim was a well-managed woodland estate.

So, with south Oxfordshire having less woodland than elsewhere, farmers and landowners are being invited to join the project, which is called “enhancing the southern Oxfordshire (South Oxfordshire District Council and Vale of the White Horse District Council) forestry sector project”.

Alistair said that to assist farmers and landowners to make the most of their woodland the Sylva Foundation had some time ago started the myForest programme.

The myForest service enables woodland owners to create a free woodland account to map their woodlands using online photography, record inventory information and then market timber and wood products on the myForest map. Photography of each woodland can be uploaded and all the information can be easily converted into a management plan.

After a landowner has made an initial contact, Alistair can visit the site to assess the trees in a woodland. “For example, I recently visited a woodland in the area which at first looked like a wood of Austrian pine, which were affected by a blight. But, on further investgation, I discovered a plantation in the middle of native deciduous trees in magnificent condition,” he said.

When visiting a woodland he can assess which trees should be felled and which left standing as cornerstones, such as examples of veteran oaks.

Other trees, such as larch, might be felled, while neglected hazel coppice that had earlier provided materials for hurdles, hedge-laying and pins for thatched roofs, could be brought back into production.

“Through myForest we can put landowners in touch with sawmills, joiners and furniture makers and even specialists in providing woodchip for heating boilers, all in the locality and helping rural communities,” he said.

Woodlands left unattended can damage wildlife and plants.

The Wildlife and Countryside Link — an organisation connected to such bodies as the RSPB, Woodland Trust, wildlife trusts and Butterfly Conservation — has produced data on the loss of biodiversity due to neglected woodlands.

Between 1990 and 2007, it was estimated that ancient woodland plant species had declined by 34 per cent, butterflies by 74 per cent between 1990 and 2009, while between 1970 and 2009 woodland birds had declined by 32 per cent.

“Well-managed woodlands can increase the biodiversity and the environment in general,” said Alistair.

For the future, he would like to see the southern Oxfordshire project replicated in the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs areas of outstanding natural beauty.

l To contact the Sylva Foundation, send an e-mail to: or telephone 01865 408018.