On small plots of urban land, no bigger than a tennis court and scattered across the country, tiny roots burrow into the ground, fighting for space and fighting to grow.
Planted by an army of little fingers in the corners of schoolyards, and by community volunteers in parks and alternate grounds, as nature takes its course where once was just a square of grass, a row of garages or unused parking will eventually sprout ‘small forests’, lush with oak, birch, hazel and larch, carpeted with shrubs, lined with hedgerows and home to wildlife.
Over the past few months, a remarkable urban nature project has seen more than two dozen ‘little forests’ planted in carefully selected locations in cities and towns across the country, each filled with an incredible 600 ‘baby’ trees and shrubs. in an area of less than 200 m².
Barely in the ground, the tiny forests are already giving back, providing natural havens for new communities of insects, butterflies, moths and birds, frogs and rodents.
It is estimated that within three years, each new forest will attract up to 500 different animal and plant species, while benefiting the environment by sequestering carbon and helping to reduce the risk of flooding.
At the same time, the “pint-sized” forests will provide natural retreats for the community around it, outdoor classrooms for schoolchildren – in one case, help train future teachers to teaching outdoors – while fueling a global “citizen science” project examining the benefits of small urban forests.
The project, led by NatureScotland and backed by Earthwatch Europe and £500,000 of Scottish Government funding, has seen over 16,000 native trees planted since the start of the year, bringing the notion of rewilding – often considered to be at large scale, long-range adventures in the sprawling realm of the Highlands – in the heart of towns and cities.
Two are located just off Govan Road in Glasgow, in Vicarfield Street and in Orkney Road, dwarfed by towering buildings and planted on land that was once just grass. Another is growing rapidly on what was a grassy mound in Shawhill Park near Pollokshields, one of five small forests planted by Southside primary school children.
While in Aberdeen, a corner of a playground at Woodside Park was dug up, the soil enriched, and students and staff from Woodside School and volunteers set about planting an array of native species: alder, cherry, Scots pine, crabapple, holly, juniper, elderberry, willow, oak, mountain ash and hazelnut, as well as rose hips, broom, gorse, blueberry, heather, hawthorn and blackthorn, all packed on a small patch of land.
A total of 27 new urban ‘mini forests’ are taking root in Dundee, where two are located in accommodation close to doctors’ surgeries and will provide shade and respite for staff and possibly even space for consultations outdoors, in Kilmarnock, where a small forest has established itself. near Dean Castle Country Park shares the area with a newly planted orchard.
In total, over 50 schools, 1,000 volunteers across ten local authority areas have been involved, with enthusiastic groups of ‘arborists’ set up to help preserve nature until the forests are fully established.
Forests will also become a focal point for citizen science projects involving schoolchildren and volunteers, which will record growth, environmental impact, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
Scotland’s Small Forests are now part of the global Miyawaki Forest family, which includes more than 100 “small forests” in England, planted using a method devised by Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist who discovered that packing native trees into a small area sparked competition for nutrients and light, promoting rapid growth and greater carbon sequestration.
“I see these Wee Forests as a supercharged green intervention in the city,” says Kevin Frediani, curator of the University of Dundee Botanical Garden, who was involved in the creation of the two Wee Forests in the city.
“The city is very harsh and brutalist. We ended up with fragmented habitats and although we have street tree corridors, there are very few of them.
“These can go in the corner of a park or play area, and can be used as an adjunct to a hospital as a place of respite or wellness. In universities, they are the perfect place to go between classes. »
Cultivating a forest may seem like a long wait, but, he adds, “They grow faster than you think.
“Within three years, you can walk into a small forest and people outside won’t see you. Next year our Wee Forests will grow larger and begin to become a community rather than individual trees.
At Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, the Wee Forest planted earlier this year by school children, students and scholars will help train the next generation of teachers in outdoor learning.
In a few months, it will be equipped with a refuge, where student teachers can participate in conferences aimed at giving them the skills necessary to lead children in nature-oriented lessons.
While it is already used by local primary classes as an outdoor learning space.
Patrick Boxall, senior lecturer in initial teacher education at QM University, said that although it is only a few months old, the horseshoe-shaped Wee Forest is already well established.
“Some of our trees have doubled in size since they were planted in February,” he says.
“We see frogs and rodents, we have evidence of sparrowhawk hunting – we have found the victims – and there are lots of insects.
“Right now it looks like a garden with lots of small trees growing in it. In two or three years it will look like an overgrown thicket.
“Then nature will do its job and the variety of trees will prevail.”
Ivan Clark of NatureScot, who coordinated the Wee Forest project, says the Wee Forest has several roles.
“Their main goal is to teach people, especially young people, how urban trees can help combat some of the effects of climate change like extreme rainfall, heat waves and how native trees can also help biodiversity. local.
“It’s also about involving young people in monitoring trees as part of a ‘citizen science’ project over the next ten years.
“The Wee Forests are not large, but are in small areas in lightly used urban areas, close to a school so children can participate in a range of activities.
“They can lay cobblestones and look underneath and count the number of scary critters, enter what they find into the database using their mobile phones.
“They also measure the trees and do calculations, such as how much carbon the trees will capture and the quality of the soil.
“Normally it would just be grass or boring lawn.”