Sirhowy Woodlands the story of how a community group has reclaimed the neglected woodlands. From spoil tip to fruit orchards

orchard_treeThis case study sets out the journey of a new group, how it formed and their future plans. The Friends of Sirhowy Woodlands is a very newly formed group only becoming constituted in January 2016. The woodland area is a reclaimed spoil and refuse tip which was used as until the 1970’s, after which it was reforested in the 1980’s. Lots of money has been poured into the area over the years but due to funding cuts Blaenau Gwent Local Authority has been unable to manage it as it would like and has been only able to maintain statutory commitments. Without management the woodlands has become neglected, attracts off roaders vehicles and bikes and is subject to anti-social behaviour. That said it is remains a popular area for dog walkers.

The community group is made up of local residents, who want to make the most of the woodlands, they are going to help look after the woodlands and are in the process of drawing up a management agreement for the LA. This way the group can apply for funding to improve the woodlands that the LA cannot whilst not having the burden of full liability for the site.

History of the Woodlands

IMG_7586The woodland and surrounding areas that make up Sirhowy Woodlands cover about 85ha Sirhowy Woodlands in Tredegar, Blaenau Gwent. This area is managed as a community woodland and the land is mainly owned by the council, although it also includes two relatively small areas which are in private ownership. The sites lies within the South Wales coalfield at an altitude of between about 320m AOD to the south, rising to about 395m AOD at the highest point near the centre of the site. The solid geology is dominated by the Westphalian Coal Measures which are overlain by Upper Carboniferous sandstones, the latter of which are locally exposed at the surface throughout the southern part of the site.

IMG_7316The site was extensively mined for coal in the past, and free-colliery shales arising from coalmining spoil now cover the majority of the site. There are few areas of native soil remaining.

The site is a designated Local Nature Reserve (LNR) the majority of the site was historically worked for coal, both as patched mines and from deep mines, whilst the remainder of the site was used as a depository for steel industry waste, together with a household refuse tip. The refuse and shale tips were closed in 1973-74 and subsequently landscaped as open grassland with small-scale tree planting, although the majority of the grass species which were sown failed to take. More extensive tree planting has subsequently been carried out on the site since the early 1980s, in an attempt to afforest the site.

The majority of Sirhowy Hill was planted in phases between 1985 and 1990, predominantly with common alder (Alnus glutinosa), grey alder (Alnus incana), Italian alder (Alnus cordata), Norway spruce (Picea abies) and various pines (Pinus spp), willows (Salix spp) and poplars (Populus spp). Subsequent planting with broadleaves has taken place in selected areas, with species including sessile oak (Quercus petraea), beech (Fagus sylvatica), birch (Betula spp), common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

How the group came about

bgcbc_logoA resident contacted the Blaenau Gwent County Council Local Authority in the summer 2015 and complained about the litter in the woodlands and asked what they were going to do about it. The LA had heard that a Cynefin Place Coordinator* was working in the area and asked for assistance in getting a litter pick organised. The Cynefin officer organised a litter pick and managed to get lots of other organisations to join in and contribute in some way.

Cynefin was a Welsh Government funded project run by Severn Wye Energy Agency- An asset based approach to community development, that brings together different parts of a community – local residents, community groups, local businesses, youth groups and organisations that deliver services – to help to improve the places where they live or work, making it cleaner, safer and generally nicer to live in as well as helping to provide more opportunities for business and for people to work and improve their incomes.

Our partners

These are the organisations that has joined in or offered support in some way:

Other organisations als include, Communities First, NRW, Residents, Gwent Wildlife Trust, Renew, Groundworks, Nick Smith (MP) and Alun Davies (AM).

The first liter pick

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The first liter pick held on a wet winter’s day succeeded in getting 18 people to attend and most of them were residents of Tredegar, numbers have increased as the group now holds regular litter picks. At the litter pick the Cynefin Officer went around talking to people finding out why they were there and how interested they were in the woods. At the end of the litter pick the Cynefin officer asked if anyone there was interested in starting up a woodland group, they gathered the contact details of interested parties and set about arranging a meeting in a local pub. At the first meeting it became clear that there was plenty of interest and the residents were interested in forming a group. The Cynefin officer acted a s broker and coordinated all the relevant people and paperwork that is needed to start up a group. ReNew provided a mentor to assist with the writing of the constitution. Llais Y Goewig peer groups provided support and advice. As a direct result of the litter pick a woodland group has now formed “Friends of Sirhowy Woodlands” with a view to taking on some of the management of the woodlands and getting it better used and more accessible to local residents. All of the following groups helped either in creation of their constitution or provided support the local Keep Wales Tidy Officer, Space Saviours and Llais y Goedwig. People of all ages from 7 to nearly 70 have joined the group and numbers are growing month on month.

The County Council has been very supportive of the group; one of the council officers is a Director of Llais Y Goedwig so the group has benefitted from having this additional support. The committee of this group is made up entirely of Tredegar residents, there are councilors and LA members, even the local MP, that are part of the group but it is Community lead by residents. The Cynefin Officer has sped up the process she acted as a connector, catalyst and broker to enable the group to be able to take itself forward with the tools, materials, support and funding to go forwards. Currently the group and the local authority are working out the details of a management agreement which would formalise the arrangement and clarify roles and responsibilities of the group.

Chris Engle-Service Manager Green Infrastructure

Blaenau Gwent County Borugh Council started working on the Sirhowy woodlands (85 Ha)in the early 1990’s funded by the then WDA through section 15 grants. At the start of the project the main objective was to increase the biodiversity value of the site by diversifying the woodland areas and habitats on site. It rapidly became apparent that local community support for the site would be essential if the site was to achieve its full potential. Despite early attempts by BGCBC, Communities first and Tredegar Development Trust, assisted with various funding opportunities such as Cyd Coed and Play Wales for many years there has been a failure to establish a true community interest in the site.

The historic lack of interest has been to the detriment of the site. Incidents of anti-social behaviour, vandalism, fly tipping and illegal vehicular access has been a constant problem for the Local Authority. The evidence of neglect being a constant concern for the communities surrounding the site.

In the summer of 2015 following a spate of incidents on the site and vociferous locals expressing their concerns regarding the appalling state of affairs, Jayne Hunt the Cynefin Project Coordinator was challenged to transform the local communities concerns into positive action for the benefit of the woodlands. Through the considerate handling of the local communities concerns and needs, the use of an appropriate network of organisations and holding suitable engagement events, the successful outcome has been the establishment of a constituted ‘Friends of’ Group for Sirhowy woodlands, with 25 members and 83 people “liking” their facebook page.

The group have demonstrated their enthusiasm and passion for the site by completing two major litter pick events and the planting of a heritage orchard within the woodland. With further plans to develop and improve the woodlands further, this is considered a remarkable success. These are early stages in the project but already the future for the Sirhowy woodlands looks much more positive.

Barbara Anglezarke Team Leader, Communities and Regeneration at NRW said:

“The main thing is that there is a group – it’s not just led by interested LA officers!  Local motivation and commitment is key – and means that efforts are more likely to be sustained in the longer-term.  Without local enthusiasm and connection, top-down rarely works.”

2nd Steps

The Tredegar Partnership Forum has proven very useful for the group as members of the group attend and this has assisted in making connections with useful people and led to the group’s first non-litter related project, setting up a community orchard. From just one meeting the group was offered free trees (heritage) from Groundworks, then free fencing, manure and the local ecologist offered to find a suitable site, Cynefin organised with the group a planting date, rallied the troops and found out what trees they wanted and hey presto, there is now an orchard in Sirhowy woods.

Future plans include: