Prior to 2020, the strip of boggy land sandwiched between the A40 motorway and a local housing estate in Witney was about as unremarkable as one might expect.
Plans to convert the area into a slip road were long ago abandoned, and the land was, for many years, an under-utilised public field.
Last year, however, this distinctly ordinary field became the site of an extraordinary project: Britain’s very first “tiny forest”.
“When I heard ‘tiny forest’ I said, ‘we’re having it’”, recalls Vicky Gwatkin, a town councillor in Witney, Oxfordshire, who brought the project to life with local volunteers last year.
To Vicky and other Witney residents, the idea was totally novel. But by the time they laid the first shrubs into the ground on March 14, 2020, tiny forests had already been travelling the globe for more than 40 years.
Conceived by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki in the 1970s, the “tiny forest” does what it says on the tin: sprouts a forest in a space around the size of a tennis court.
Miyawaki devised the planting method after noticing that protected areas around Japanese shrines produced a diversity of trees and plants, in turn nurturing resilient ecosystems.
Unlike monoculture forests, which attract a limited range of species and take centuries to mature, Miyawaki realised that planting a dense mix of native species could supercharge a forest’s potential for biodiversity, maturity and carbon capture.
Perhaps most importantly of all, these forests could be planted in very small spaces - making them perfect for increasingly jam-packed urban environments.
The concept quickly took off around the world, hopping from India across a continent to Europe, where the Netherlands have been particularly enthusiastic practitioners. Since 2015, 111 tiny forests have been planted in the country, each “adopted” and looked after by a local school.
“The UK is actually little bit behind when it comes to tiny forests”, explains Bethany Pudifoot.
She adds, however, that we’re beginning to catch up - with 15 further forests planted since Witney became the first in March last year.
From Barnsley to Glasgow and London, communities across the UK have been “really positive” about tiny forests, says Bethany - a byproduct of people being “far more aware of the environmental challenges we’re facing”.
Forests largely appeal because of their multiple environmental benefits, says Bethany.
Though qualitative data on their impact in the UK is limited, studies from the Netherlands hint at huge potential - with researchers establishing that just one 200m2 forest can sequester 250kg per year: the amount emitted by a car journey from Amsterdam to Barcelona.
Modelling from Earthwatch, meanwhile, approximates that a single tiny forest will improve air quality and attract more than 500 different animal and plant species just four years after planting.
At maturity, estimates Professor Stuart Haszeldine, carbon capture expert at the University of Edinburgh, each UK forest “could store the carbon from 10 present day cars each year.”
Crucially for urban areas, where the effects of warming are felt most acutely, tiny forests can also act as a “green lung”, says Prof Haszeldine - dampening the impact of rising temperatures.
Of course, tiny forests could do this wherever they were - but situating these forests in urban areas is a calculated decision, explains Bethany:
“One of the biggest offerings [of tiny forests] is to really get people who aren’t normally engaged with nature to reconnect with nature”.
Tiny forests, she adds, grow at an accelerated rate compared to traditional planting methods. It’s this aspect that aids public engagement with the environment, avoiding frustrations with slow progress:
“That accelerated development means people get to see really quickly how a forest changes and grows over time...local children can plant trees and see a forest by the time they’re leaving school”, Bethany says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Vicky, who latched onto the Witney forest as a “tangible” way her community make a discernible positive impact on the environment:
“Sometimes the climate thing can seem so big...you’re asking yourself, ‘what can I do to make any difference beyond recycling?’
“While it’s not going to save the world on its own, it’s a little thing - and enough people doing little things will make a difference,” she says.
Communities go hand-in-hand with tiny forests, says Bethany, with each one planted and looked after by local people. As they mature, local schools will also use them for outdoor learning around biodiversity and the environment.
The idea is to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility over the forests, with local people themselves planting and looking after the site for the first two years.
Vicky herself describes feeling a strong attachment to the forest which she helped to plant in Witney, where some trees have already “doubled in size” since last year:
“Certainly speaking for myself, but probably others in the community, I have this massive attachment to the forest because I was part of it, I got my hands dirty creating it,” she explains.
After the first two years, when forests are expected to become self-sustaining, community involvement won’t stop dead: benches and clearings have been carved out for locals to come and use the space for leisure and learning.
Unlike the planting of street trees, or faraway forests in local areas, the ecosystem of the tiny forest provides “excellent engagement opportunities” for children to learn about nature, fostering sustainable behaviour later in life, explains Bethany.
From here on out, Earthwatch has ambitious plans - with a target of 100 tiny forests planted in the UK over the next two years.
“One of the things that’s really exciting to people is that it’s not just about planting trees and leaving them”, says Bethany.
“There are ongoing engagement opportunities - they can come and help collect data, see the forest grow and change and learn more about how it works,” she adds.
As the project grows and expands, Prof Haszeldine sees an additional opportunity in connecting forests to local animal migration routes in more suburban areas:
“If connected to nearby copses or hedgerows, these tiny forests could be really useful for squirrels, birds or deer.”
For now, the vision of a tiny forest in every city is some way off - but, having celebrated its first birthday, Witney’s game-changing tiny forest is already beginning to flourish.
“We had our very first monitoring event last summer where we went to measure the trees, test the soul and look at what species were there,” Bethany explains.
Trees had sprung up rapidly, with some beginning to flower. Most memorably of all, however, the forest had become home to some brand-new guests:
“When we first arrived, we were confronted by a green woodpecker down on the ground, having a forage in the soil for food,” Bethany recalls. “It was just so heartening to see”.