Common people

A group in North Yorkshire plans to rewild 30 acres of farmland to create a community woodland to leave a legacy for future generations. Karen Thomas reports

YORKSHIRE-BASED ENVIRONMENTAL campaigners plan to raise £300,000 to turn a 30-acre slice of arable farmland between Harrogate and Knaresborough into a community-owned woodland. The Long Lands Common campaign is the latest development in local residents’ long-running battle to halt a proposed bypass between the two towns. Having mobilised 12,000 supporters, the campaign successfully derailed the proposal a year ago.

Now, the campaigners want to block future attempts to revive the plan. They want to buy the land and plant and manage it as a community woodland. This would create new leisure space for local people and create a legacy woodland for future generations. The call to action is, You stopped the road, now start a forest.

Images show an unremarkable patch of Yorkshire farmland, a planted field contained inside thin hedgerows and nondescript trees that form right-angled boundaries. It this almost featureless patch of farmland produces silage to feed livestock over winter. In fact, the site has an illustrious past, part of a royal hunting forest linked to Knaresborough Castle, both presented by King Edward II to Piers Gaveston, his alleged lover. England introduced royal forests after the Norman conquest. William the Conqueror introduced forest law, to manage the royal forests as hunting grounds and protect game animals and their habitats, curtailing the common rights of English peasants.

Later, Long Lands Common became a deer park, whose earth-bank boundaries are still visible. Nidd Gorge Community Action wants to rewild the site, planting a community woodland to create green space for surrounding towns, capture carbon and reintroduce native trees, plants and animals.

“The idea to develop and manage the site as a community woodland was there at the outset,” says group spokesman James McKay. “Several team members are involved with the Northern Forest, and support tree planting as a way to combat climate change – as well as a way to create new public spaces. By rewilding arable farmland, we can also reintroduce native plants and animals, and create habitats for beneficial insects.”

The group had made good progress – securing donor pledges and registering itself as a community-benefit society to be able to offer shares – when lockdown halted the year’s fundraising programme. By August, it had pledges worth half the total target. Each share costs £1 and the minimum purchase is £50. The team is working to convert pledges into donations and to raise the remaining funds.


Developing Long Lands Common as a community woodland aims to bring multiple benefits to North Yorkshire. It will convert denuded farmland into living habitats, plant trees to capture carbon and clean the air and work to reduce the catchment’s flood risk.

The site is flat and high. Covered, diverted streams run from it into the River Nidd, which last flooded in February. Reopening culverted water courses and developing boggy areas to store water could reduce flood risk downstream, the group says. It is consulting the Environment Agency about ways to manage water better on the site.

But people are at the heart of plans for the site, which is near the Nidderdale Greenway cycle path. Opening and managing the site to attract walkers, cyclists and school groups opens new access for local people to green space, supporting leisure and tourism. The site is near Woodfield, one of the country’s most deprived areas, in terms of social and economic indicators. Local people lack green spaces to play, exercise and relax.

“We think the community woodland would be a real investment to improve quality of life in this community in particular,” McKay says. “It would benefit the physical and mental health of local residents. Overwhelming evidence points to health benefits from sepnding time in green spaces.”

Business plan

The group is finalising a five-year business plan to include a sensory garden and access for people with mobility problems, to accommodate children from a nearby school for special needs. Other plans include education and training, for horticulture and tree research and for workshops in woodland crafts. Local people will be able to plant memorial trees to remember friends and loved-ones.

Plans for the site will evolve. The initial proposal is to add wetland areas, plant trees and open meadows and to grow out the hedgerows. But eventually, the group wants to step back, allowing the local community to take the lead. One option is to allocate different parts of the site to different local schools, allowing the children to have their say.

Volunteers will manage the site, drawing on the group’s pool of expertise. McKay, an artist, is based at Leeds University, where he manages Water-WISER, a centre for doctoral training in water and waste infrastructure, and works with Leeds Ecosystem Atmosphere and Forest Centre (LEAF).

Other members of the group have worked with afforestation programme the Northern Forest and have sought advice from the United Bank of Carbon, a tree-planting charity linked to Leeds University’s Priestly International Centre for Climate.

Members of the group see the Long Lands Common project as an opportunity to research how we mitigate and adapt to climate change. Planting decisions – reintroducing species native to the area, versus introducing new species that can cope with extreme weather – will form part of that research.

“This is something we’re really excited about,” McKay says. “One option would be to use the site to research what species work. Leeds University’s LEAF Centre is researching UK woodlands and forests. It would be great to take their advice about what might be there and what should be there, in terms of climate change.

“One option is to have an arboretum, growing native trees and new species that might cope better with climate change. Although some members of the team are keen to introduce some spectacular new species – the kinds of huge pines you see next to Yorkshire’s stately homes, for example.”

For all the excitement about tree planting, some areas of the site will simply allow nature to take its course. “What many of us are most interested in is rewilding,” McKay concludes. We want nature and wildlife to be doing its own thing as well.

“One of the most important parts of rewilding is to allow thorny scrub thickets to take hold, to protect young trees. We’ll obviously need to educate people, so that they understand that these may not look so beautiful, but that it all has a purpose.”

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