3. Attracting People
The Forest is a sanctuary for people and creating more opportunities for visitors to benefit from time spent in nature is vital, for both their physical health and mental wellbeing.
In-person events were back
In late May 2021 with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, we were delighted to be able to host groups of supporters in the Forest for various guided and ramble walking events led by members of the Forest team. This included our first series of family guided walks, aimed at engaging children and their parents on different Forest themes during the school summer holidays.
“Particularly struck by how much the guides/speakers believe in and love the work they do. The info they shared deepened my understanding of all that the Heart of England Forest does.”
- Event attendee
Public access was extended
Funding from the Green Recovery Challenge Fund (GRCF) enabled us to expand the permissive footpaths around College Wood in Studley, making permissive access routes available around two wetland areas and through the beautiful mature woodland of Studley Thorns for the public to enjoy. To improve access from our nearest car park at Haydon Way Wood a new footpath linking the Arden Way (Public Right of Way) with College Wood was opened and waymarked to allow easier visitor access.
First audio trails were launched
The first-ever audio trails in the Forest were developed thanks to funding from the Green Recovery Challenge Fund (GRCF). Visitors can download the GPS-assisted app and choose from three themed trails to hear about the habitats, wildlife, and history of the Forest as they walk in the woodlands. Developed with various members of the charity and an external specialist company, and tested by our Forest Focus Group and volunteers, the Forest Trails app has already been downloaded over 100 times.
Year in Review
In-person events were well received after a 14 month break during COVID-19 with 94% of attendees who offered feedback giving a satisfaction score of 8 or more out of 10. A virtual event on ‘Careers in the Environment’ hosted by current staff who had completed internships with the charity attracted our largest online event audience to date.
In addition to the permissive paths being extended around College Wood, the replacement of a former cattle bridge across the Noleham Brook, closed previously for safety reasons, was rebuilt and reopened alongside a popular route with much appreciation from local residents and visitors to Noleham Wood.
We undertook our first in-person visitor surveys across 3-day weekends in both July and January. Stationed in each Forest car park, staff and volunteers completed a questionnaire with visitors so we could better understand who is coming to the Forest, how far they are travelling, and their main motivations for visiting. This information will help us to identify communities and groups who are perhaps currently less aware of what the Forest has to offer them, while continuing to make the publicly accessible woodlands somewhere our regular visitors and current supporters enjoy.
The improved Visit the Forest area on our new website, which includes an interactive map of Forest walks, is helping people plan their visit to and around the Forest. Consistently in the top 10 web pages viewed each month, the visit pages had over 53,000 visits in 2021/22.
On-site improvements were also made for visitors thanks to Green Recovery Challenge Fund (GRCF) funding. Seasonal interpretation boards were rolled out in all Forest car parks, enabling people to make the most of time spent in the woodlands in whichever season they visit, and the Forest’s first audio trails were launched. Downloaded via a GPS-enabled app, the themed audio trails provide an enhanced, interactive experience for visitors, who can hear about the habitats, wildlife, and history of the Forest as they walk in the woodlands. Finally, walking route maps were installed in our remaining car parks, ensuring all now have these important references for visitors enjoying a first-time or regular walk.
The uncertainty around the COVID-19 situation meant that for a second summer we did not hold any larger scale public events in the Garden of Heroes & Villains, which are key fundraising events for the Forest.
The growth of the Forest and interest in everything being achieved has led to a notable increase in contact from a large range of stakeholders. This has sometimes created slower-than-ideal response times to these enquiries from our small team, who always appreciate the patience of our supporters when we are dealing with a high volume of enquiries.
The Year Ahead
As we enter the next year, we find ourselves in the midst of a cost of living crisis. With an expectation that this will impact on people’s ability to donate regularly, we will work hard with our communications to ensure that our current Friends of the Forest feel valued while looking for ways to inspire new regular donors to support our work. This year we will hold our first satisfaction survey for Friends of the Forest to help us gain a greater understanding of our key individual supporters to grow our active supporter base.
Growth of the supporter engagement team this year will allow us to continue to offer a consistently high level of customer service when fulfilling tree dedication donations and responding to the increasing number of enquiries from a wide variety of stakeholders. This additional support will also help expand the number of engaging activities we offer to attract new audiences to the Forest, both in-person and virtually.
Permissive access within new woodland creation areas will improve links to existing Public Rights of Way through the Forest creating new and varied walking routes for neighbours and visitors.