Volunteer Woodland Planting Engages Young and Old: Who is doing it and why are they bothering?

Native tree planting has featured highly in the public eye as of late in Ireland. The recent battering the country has taken from storms like Frank and Jonas is most likely the culprit for bringing this important topic under the media spotlight. Ireland has gone from being heavily forested to one of the least wooded countries in Europe. There has been plenty of discussion about how trees can help with flooding mitigation; I am writing about our native woodlands from a slightly different perspective.

Woodlands support lots of different species. Even in winter months there's so much to see. Photo- Rebecca Doyle
Woodlands support lots of different species. Even in winter months there’s so much to see. Photo- Rebecca Doyle

Every day I watch articles popping up in my Twitter feed about how people are losing touch with nature. I have seen alarming figures about the percentages of adults who have not stepped foot in the woods in over a year or the numbers of children who couldn’t identify a robin. Community woodland planting can help this nature deficit in peoples’ lives.

As Reserves Officer for the Native Woodland Trust I have watched native woodlands planted by hundreds of volunteers, some of whom had never planted a tree in their lives before that. And I have never met a person who, after planting some trees, said “well that was an awful experience, I’d never do that again.” I do however, constantly get mud-spattered volunteers approaching me at the end of a planting session to ask when the next one is, or to request that we keep going for another few minutes so that they could hit their tree planting target.

Part of my job is tree planting. I get up early to go planting on Saturday mornings when many of my 20-something year old friends are tucked up in bed, recovering after a night of partying. I was brought up to be fascinated by nature and it’s something in me that I can’t shake (not that I’d want to). While many of my days are filled with grant applications and project administration, there are days where I can stand in front of a reserve and see that I am making a difference. Every week that I drive up to the event meeting point and I see volunteers waiting there, pulling on their waterproofs and packing sandwiches into their bags, I think why are you here? I don’t mean it in a negative way. I genuinely am interested in what motivates people to shake off the cobwebs on a Saturday morning, wrap up and head off to improve the great outdoors not just for us, but for generations to come. What differentiates these people from the money-hungry politicians who disregard the vital importance of our environment on a daily basis? The only conclusion I can come to is that those money-hungry, poorly informed politicians haven’t been out for a tree planting session.

Unlike the stereotypical tree-hugger image you might have; that is most definitely not the case. The volunteers I meet each week are many and varied. On my most recent planting day I chatted with volunteers who were office-based all week long, to parents who wanted to give their children the opportunity to get involved, to landscapers who can’t get enough of the outdoors. So being a volunteer tree-planter definitely isn’t motivated solely by employment. I do find however, that often many of our volunteers are office-based and relish the opportunity to get out and do some physical work surrounded by nature.

For some, it is a love of nature that motivates them. With the General Election in the spotlight, I think most politicians of the country fail to recognise the importance many Irish citizens actually do place on the environment. I talk with people every week who despair at the lifeless approach to the environment that many of the people in power have. When they hear of shocking decisions such as that of the Minister for Heritage to try to extend the hedge cutting and vegetation burning season to the detriment of many of our bird species, people want to take action. They value the environment and appreciate the economic benefits it has for the country. They want to help nature.

A young alder in late winter with gorse flowering in the background. Photo- Rebecca Doyle
A young alder in late winter with gorse flowering in the background. Photo- Rebecca Doyle

Volunteering to create a community woodland also brings social benefits. Often people who have moved to Ireland from abroad come along and get to meet people with similar interests at the volunteer days. Nothing bonds you and gets you chatting like working together to plant trees. You share a vision with the people around you, you can see the benefits of a future woodland filled with wildlife, knowing that you played a part in that woodland being there. Alternatively, some people arrive and are just looking to unwind by working hard, quietly, happy to just listen to birdsong and others chatting.

Planting a woodland, surrounded by nature, also has tremendous health benefits. Tree planting is a physical exercise. You are digging, bending, hammering, walking…  Apart from the fact that you are getting your calorie burn on, being in nature has physical and mental health benefits. Many studies make associations between nature and better mental well-being. “Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations” (Maller, C. et al., 2005) goes into much more detail about this. You could write a book on all of the studies done on human interaction with nature and the effects on health, life satisfaction and more.

Catkins on a young alder tree planted by a volunteer. Photo- Rebecca Doyle
Catkins on a young alder tree planted by a volunteer. Photo- Rebecca Doyle

I write this as Reserves Officer for the Native Woodland Trust and so I can direct you to finding out more about getting involved with NWT tree planting here. I don’t write to promote our events, however, but to promote tree planting in general. I am sure there are many other local tree planting efforts you could join. The Native Woodland Trust consistently has plenty of ready and willing volunteers arriving at tree planting days and so “advertising” in this way is unnecessary. What I am trying to promote is the reasons why people get involved in tree planting and the benefits it can have for you and for future generations. If you haven’t tried it yet then I urge you to consider it. You give back to the environment which provides you with oxygen, water and food, you get exercise and can relax your brain from the constant barrage of urban pressures while being surrounded by nature, or, you might just make a new friend.

About Rebecca Doyle 13 Articles
Rebecca has a B.Sc. zoology and M.Sc. wildlife conservation and management. Experience includes working with the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, Native Woodland Trust, Marine Dimensions and SeaLife. Passionate about wildlife conservation and community involvement.
Contact: Website

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