28 Feb 2017

Coed Gwern, which is part of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), is an innovative woodland project that demonstrates how healthy ecosystems can be maintained without compromising their enormous value to human society.

Coed Gwern - 1

Chloe Jenkins from Environet visited Coed Gwern in February to get a glimpse of the wide range of woodland activities and sustainable management techniques.

Located a short walk from CAT's main visitor site, near Machynlleth, Coed Gwern is approximately seven acres of mixed woodland with a diverse range of species and habitats. Since CAT took over they have begun a process of reintroducing native species, such as oak, and allowing the forest to recover from plantation activities. The team explained how CAT manages the woodland to achieve three main goals: to enhance biodiversity, harvest useful products and share knowledge.

Coed Gwern - 2
Enhancing biodiversity whilst maintaining access for the local community can be challenging, especially in the continuous battle against brambles and invasive species (such as Rhododendron  and Himalayan Balsam), the woodland paths installed by volunteers make accessibility easier whilst enabling surrounding areas to be minimally managed. I learnt about the care taken to remove unwanted brambles before birds begin to nest in springtime and without disturbing hibernating dormice.

There were clear signs of spring's arrival during my visit from the sights and sounds of the forest; I was happy to see snowdrops starting to poke their heads up, frogs guarding their new spawn, and hear birds noisily gathering nest supplies (who are well catered for with specialised handmade bird boxes, including for tit, chough and tawny owl species). Biodiversity surveys are conducted at specific times of year, with future plans to increase their scope, and the results are fed back into ongoing management plans.
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Coed Gwern - 3

Harvested products from the woodland have been used in the new Quarry Trail at CAT; volunteers and managers have produced benches, gates, and fence-work, making the route comfortable and safe for all ages. The woodland is also used as a source of firewood and I was impressed by the demonstration of a European drying and storage method (a 'holzthausen') which has been trialled on the main CAT site. Sustainable management is of crucial importance to those running Coed Gwern for both the health of the forest and the longevity of the activities dependent on extracted wood products. As well as controlling invasive species, CAT also plans for the future by having a tree nursery, which includes berry and nut trees for creating and re-stocking hedges.  

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Coed Gwern enhances the sharing of practical woodland knowledge with others to support sustainable forestry volunteering and education. CAT runs a number of short courses to train those interested in sustainable woodland management, social forestry, and traditional green woodworking skills through the resources available in Coed Gwern; including willow basket making, charcoal production, horse logging, mindfulness in the woods, and rustic furniture carving. They also run a 'wood fire gurus' course in partnership with Dyfi Fires. CAT hosts volunteers from across the globe (and from just down the road) enabling people to work alongside experienced practitioners in diverse fields of sustainability. Feedback from the volunteer surveys highlights the tremendous opportunities available for picking up useful ideas and contacts as they develop their careers in sustainability.

Coed Gwern - Volunteers

"It's helping us to feel empowered and to gain the confidence that we can do things we hadn't done before. We're starting a project in which we'll be managing an area of coppice ourselves...As volunteers we also get the chance to attend two of CAT's short courses, and there's a great range to choose from."
(Max and Jade, volunteers who started in October 2016)

I believe volunteering opportunities and training courses such as these will provide future generations with a better appreciation and understanding of forests and how we can work with them to support ourselves, wildlife and the planet. As I am currently studying the MSc in Sustainability and Adaptation at CAT, the surrounding woodlands are particularly meaningful to me; when I am on site I like to start my mornings before lectures by walking through the trees, trying to identify lichens and catch up with the birds. In terms of CAT achieving its three main goals for the woodland (to enhance biodiversity, harvest useful products and share knowledge) it seems the careful management of Coed Gwern will continue to allow it to act as a workshop, school, playground, and retreat, without having to compromise its capacity to thrive as a wildlife habitat.
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