Now the Trees can Speak
An artist, an idea and 365 wooden axe-head sculptures led to the creation of Britain’s first community woodland.
It was 1987 when sculptor and poet Tim Stead and a group of friends used funds from the sale of the specially-created axe heads along with some grant monies to purchase Wooplaw Community Woodland near Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. (One of the wood’s four sections is named Axehead Wood, partly in honour of the sculptures.)
Now the innovators at Wooplaw Community Woodland have very likely scored another first and brought their education and outreach efforts right up to date with the creation of Wooplore, the first woodland teaching app in the country.
The 20-hectare woods are owned and managed by the Wooplaw Community Woodland charity, a group of volunteers who organise a variety of activities and monthly events. One of their main aims is to keep traditional woodworking skills alive.
I came across them demonstrating the use of the pole-lathe and carving shrink-pots at this year’s Peebles Wood Fest. They organise training courses in rural skills in the wood, as well as Halloween and Christmas parties for kids.
The woods are open to other groups and are regularly used for events as diverse as music, “art in the forest”, wildlife studies, camping and school visits. They’re also popular with local dog-walkers and people who just enjoy getting out into woodland.
So there’s a large number of people spending time at Wooplaw and the committee thought that some of them might want to learn more about the woods than they could discover by just looking around. While the wood’s website makes available an astonishing amount of archive information, it’s hard to carry that into the wood when you’re visiting without phone or wi-fi connection.
With these thoughts in mind, the committee chose to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the purchase of the woods, in 2012, by creating an app that people could take with them while walking around. They approached Wendy Ball, the owner of Locus Focus, an app development company that specialises in creating historical, cultural and natural heritage trails. Wendy also creates the trails in other formats, such as leaflets and audio tours.
Wendy designed and engineered the Wooplore app, which can be downloaded from her website, from the Wooplaw Community Woodland website via a link, or from a router in the car park at the woods themselves. The full app is available for Android, but the audio version can be downloaded to any MP3 player, iPhone or iPod, and a picture trail is also available for iPhones. The app works off-line, so you don’t need a mobile signal to use it.
It works like this: markers are dotted around the Wooplaw woods on trees and man-made structures. Words on the markers refer to pages on the app. Click on a word and you can read the text or listen to an audio track of one of the volunteers talking about an item: wildlife regularly seen in the area, a special tree, or whatever else the marker refers to.
For example, in “Day One” Donald McPhillimy, one of the founder members, talks about the opening ceremony when they bought the woods. “Auroch”, narrated by Bob Stock, discusses an art event when a group of people created a sculpture from interesting wood found nearby.
Other pages tell of otters and damselflies, poetry, volunteering, Wooploft (a cabin on stilts designed by local primary school pupils), and a wedding held at Wooplaw. In other words, there’s a wide range of information available to visitors, plus a living archive of material from the people who bought and have worked in the woods. It was a huge undertaking by a large number of volunteers, and all are agreed that it was worth the effort.
The main reason for the creation of the Woodplore was to educate and inform visitors to the woodland. Has the app made a difference to the number of people visiting or volunteering in the woods? The jury’s out on that question. Wooplaw Woods are accessible to, and used by, many individuals and groups; short of installing a turnstile (neither feasible nor desirable), it’s hard to tell whether numbers have increased.
The app has been downloaded about 65 times from the Google store, not bad for such a site-specific app, but there is no count of the number of times it’s been downloaded from the router at the woods or how often it’s been used. Volunteer numbers inevitably rise and fall from one event to another and no research has been done to see whether new people are turning up because of the app or for some other reason.
But as I said, that wasn’t really the point.
Two concerns arose once the app was created. The first is that people often leave their phones behind when they go to the woods, limiting the app’s usefulness to them. The second is that it’s designed more for adult visitors than for kids.
In response, Wooplore already has a real-life offspring, the Treats and Treasures map for young visitors, designed by Wendy Ball and aimed at younger users of the wood.
The Treats and Treasures map follows the same trail of markers as the app, separated into three distinct walks suitable for shorter legs. On each marker there’s now also a single letter in a different colour from the app-related word. The kids note down the letters they find and rearrange them to make the name of an animal, bird or flower.
When they’ve completed each walk and worked out the anagram they can take the leaflet to one of three local cafés to get a free treat. The cafés keep a stock of the leaflets and benefit from the extra trade of hungry walkers.
The Treats and Treasures map has been promoted in local schools to encourage kids to get out into the fresh air, take some exercise, enjoy the woods and learn something about the local wildlife. It only came out this autumn, too recently to show any real results, but it is another inspiring creation of the visionary volunteers of Wooplaw Community Woodland.
To find out more about Wooplaw Community Woodland, go to www.wooplaw.org.uk. You can explore the Wooplore app at www.locus-focus.co.uk: click on Projects and then Wooplore. If you’re interested in developing something similar for a community wood or other project in your area, talk to Wendy Ball of Locus Focus. You’ll find her contact details on her website.
This article was originally published in “Living Woods” magazine.