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Forestry England

What we've learnt over the last year of coronavirus restrictions and how we're reopening from the third national lockdown.

29th March 2021

Name of project / organisation

Forestry England

Sport / activity


With the second phase of step one of the government's roadmap out of coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions begins today, we've spoken to a number of clubs and organisations about their experiences during lockdown and what they've learnt over the last year that'll help them to reopen. 

Here, we talk to Bridgette Hall, the head of recreation and visitor experience at Forestry England.

A family cycle on a forest trail

  • What’s the past year been like for you, as an organisation and your users?

    It’s been both challenging and motivating.

    The first lockdown period saw our visitor facilities close whilst our forests remained open for local exercise. Some of our teams were on furlough and those remaining working had the task of keeping exercise opportunities including trails and Public Rights of Way, open and safe. Alongside this, the demand for timber grew, meaning teams were still working proactively to provide raw materials for the nation.

    As restrictions lifted, the number of users and eventually visitors to the nation’s forests grew enormously. New and infrequent visitors sought a release from lockdown and all locations, whether remote with little infrastructure, or close to communities with the full range of facilities, were soon at capacity.

    Over the winter period, including the post-Christmas lockdown, numbers have remained high with some larger sites regularly reaching capacity by mid-morning. This has resulted in a range of management challenges from waste and litter, to antisocial behaviour and lack of social distancing.

    However, these challenges have been more than offset by the many people who have sought space, exercise and a greater connection with nature during lockdown

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  • How have you engaged and communicated with the people you serve, through the coronavirus pandemic?

    During the first lockdown, after the initial stay at home order was announced, we were, like many organisations, in the difficult position of encouraging people not to visit our forests.

    We had to put very clear information out to let people know that our facilities were closed and that people shouldn’t be making unnecessary journeys to our forests.

    However, we wanted people to stay connected to our forests and continue to be able to engage with our visitors. We switched our focus to communicating ways to stay connected to forests and nature from home. We did this by:

    • developing a ‘forests at home’ section on our website with a range of resources and content for people to access – including virtual forest bathing and activity sheets including things that could be done in the garden or local greenspace.
    • producing blog content, including stories of wildlife projects and work that was still carrying on in our forests during lockdown e.g. work at our tree nurseries.
    • developing a new ‘forest fix’ email that families could sign up to receive, free of charge, which had lots of ideas of activities for families, which again could be done in their garden or local greenspace.
    • promotion of our range of resources, including our Shaun the Sheep app which again can be done anywhere.

    As the initial lockdown eased and we started to welcome people back to the forest, we were keen to ensure they were supported to visit safely. We developed ‘welcome back’ signage and digital content detailing things to consider when visiting a forest environment and what to expect.

    We worked with other partners to help get these ‘visit safely’ messages out to people, including Defra. We also created ‘welcome back’ video content and encouraged people to really think about times to visit and what to expect – and we kept our ‘forest at home’ content going for those who were unable or unwilling to visit.

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  • How have you tried to keep people active, despite the challenges faced?

    Across the nation’s forests we have aligned with government guidance and responded to the varying degrees of lockdown required, however forests have always remained available for local people to be active and exercise within.

    During periods of lockdown, local communities have made use of the network of cycling, walking and running trails to such an extent that usage has increased by 33% over the previous year (total 620,000 visits).

    But our network of activity providers has been severely constrained and, for the most part, unable to engage with customers during the last 12 months. However, between 27 June and 28 November 2020 as restrictions eased, we worked with providers to re-start some activities. Across the country we were able to provide Covid-secure opportunities for small groups and individuals to take part in activities such as cycling, walking, running, orienteering, archery, fitness classes and buggy fit. During this period 110,000 visits where recorded.

    Digitally, as part of our ‘forests at home’ focus we included content that encouraged people to get active, including:

    • blog content encouraging keeping ‘forest fit’ at home with ideas of ways to be active.
    • encouraging families to be active using resources in the Shaun the Sheep app and Forest Fix.
    • a Christmas ‘active advent’ social media campaign with ideas on how to be active in the run up to Christmas – in the nation’s forests, at home or in local greenspaces.
    • For new bike owners we created content to give them more information about what to expect when forest cycling.
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  • Have there been any positives/opportunities emerging from what you’ve experienced over the past year? If so, what are they?

    The main positives and opportunities presented by the past year are:

    • Many new or infrequent visitors creating a real opportunity to engage with these audiences and turn them in to life-time forest visitors.
    • Research has shown that more people now value our natural spaces, enabling us to harness and promote the benefits of spending time in the nation’s forests, both for physical and mental wellbeing.
    • Greater home working and remote working by the national workforce is meaning many companies are now seeking volunteering and health/wellbeing opportunities for their employees. Forestry England is well placed to accommodate this business need.
    • The lockdown period has given Forestry England the space to review and reset some of its operating principles and relationships – for example motorsport activity has been reviewed and reset for the future.
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  • How have you planned for the reopening after this lockdown and what are the key elements your setting and users are having to do, in order to reopen and return safely?

    As the nation’s forests have remained open throughout, the main steps we have for the easing of this lockdown at the end of March are focussed around additional facilities, activities and events.

    Therefore, we have:

    • Produced a roadmap that plots our facilities, activities and events against those anticipated in the national government roadmap.
    • Due to the high numbers of visits predicted from the start of the Easter holiday period we have taken the decision not to start any new third party events until September.
    • Forestry England will work with existing stakeholders and those who may have had their events deferred from 2020, first.
    • We are working with NGB’s to ensure that messaging and ‘trial’ events/activities are agreed, planned and achievable against the backdrop of high daily visitor pressure.
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Litter in a forest - photo credit: Trach Free Trails

Photo credit: Trash Free Trails.

  • What have you learned from the reopening process you went through after the first lockdown in 2020?

    The three main things we learnt are:

    • Expect and plan for large numbers of people who are not used to visiting forests.
    • Ensure that communications, especially those that visitors access at home before their visit, are targeted at this new audience.
    • Be clear about saying ‘no, not yet’ about the restart of additional events and activities due to site capacities and staff resource.
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  • How are you reassuring your users it’s safe to return?

    For many of our users they have not stopped exercising, and therefore visiting the nation’s forests. The open and unrestricted nature of forests means that they naturally feel safer in terms of coronavirus, than more urban environments.

    However, to overcome some perceptions around over-crowding at busy sites Forestry England have limited numbers in some locations. In addition, on our website we've created a ‘Know before you go’ section to help educate and inform forest users on what to expect, how to behave and what to do when they arrive.

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  • Have forests encountered any specific problems that other sports/activities may not have encountered? If so, how have you worked to solve these problems?

    The main challenge has been dealing with the continued high demand seen across the nation’s forests for the past year.

    Infrastructure has been wearing out more quickly and there has been little breathing space to be able to carry out additional repairs and maintenance. The amount of litter and rubbish left behind has also been a challenge, adding significant additional cost and disposal challenges.

    Each time lockdown eases there is huge latent demand for event and activities to be hosted within the nation’s forests. Ensuring that requests are handled in an equitable, fair, open and consistent way across England is a huge challenge. Investing staff time in facilitating events is also challenging as they are consistently dealing with large numbers of regular visitors.

    We have dealt with this by being clear about how and when we are restarting activities and events; not promising event space and time until we are sure that we can accommodate them safely and site capacity is available. This continues to be frustrating for event and activity partners.

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  • What does the future look like for your woodlands?

    The future looks very positive as new people have discovered the joy, health and wellbeing benefits of recreating and exercising in the nation’s forests.

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