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How wee Forests the size of tennis courts are taking root across Scotland

On small patches of urban land, no larger than a tennis court, and dotted around the country, tiny roots are digging into the soil, fighting for space and battling to grow.

Planted by an army of little fingers in corners of school playgrounds, and by community volunteers in parks and on spare ground, as nature takes its course where once was just a patch of grass, a row of garages or unused car park will eventually sprout ‘wee forests’, lush with oak, birch, hazel and larch, carpeted by shrubs, bordered by hedges and home to wildlife.

Over the past few months, a remarkable urban nature project has seen more than two dozen ‘wee forests’ planted at carefully selected spots in cities and towns around the country, each packed with an incredible 600 ‘baby’ trees and shrubs in an area of less than 200 sq metres.

Barely in the ground, already the tiny forests are giving back, providing natural havens for new communities of bugs, butterflies, moths and birds, frogs and rodents.

It’s estimated that within three years, each new woodland will attract up to 500 different animal and plant species, while also benefiting the environment by capturing carbon and helping 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 school children – in one case, help train teachers of the future in how to lead lessons in the outdoors – while also feeding into a global ‘citizen science’ project looking at the benefits of small, urban woodlands.

The project, led by NatureScotland and supported by Earthwatch Europe and £500,000 of Scottish Government funding, has seen more than 16,000 native trees planted since the start of the year, bringing the notion of rewilding – often thought of as being large scale, long term ventures in sprawling Highland estate – to the heart of towns and cities.

Two sit just off Govan Road in Glasgow, in Vicarfield Street and in Orkney Road, overshadowed by towering tenements and planted on land which was once just grass. Another is quickly sprouting on what was a grassy mound in Shawhill Park near Pollokshields, one of five small forests planted by children from Southside primary schools.

While in Aberdeen, a corner of a playing field at Woodside Park was dug, the soil enriched, and pupils and staff from Woodside School along with volunteers set about planting an array of native species: alder, cherry, Scots pine, crab apple, holly, juniper, elder, willow, oak, rowan, and hazel trees, along with dog roses, broom, gorse, blaeberry, heather, hawthorn, and blackthorn all packed onto a tiny patch of land.

In all, 27 new urban ‘mini forests’ are taking root from Dundee, where two sit in housing schemes close to GP surgeries and will provide shade and respite for staff and perhaps even space for outdoor consultations, to Kilmarnock, where a wee forest established near Dean Castle Country Park shares the area with a newly planted orchard.

In all, more than 50 schools, 1,000 volunteers spanning ten local authority areas have been involved, with enthusiastic groups of ‘treekeepers’ established to help nurture nature until the forests are fully established.

The forests will also become a focal point for citizen science projects involving schoolchildren and volunteers, which will record growth, environment impact, carbon capture and biodiversity.

Scotland’s Wee Forests are now part of the global family of Miyawaki Forests, including more than 100 ‘Tiny Forests’ in England, planted according to a method devised by Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist who found packing native trees nto a small area sparked competition for nutrients and light, encouraging fast growth and more carbon capture.

“I think of these Wee Forests as a supercharged green intervention in the city,” says Kevin Frediani, Curator Dundee University Botanic Garden, who has been involved in establishing the two Wee Forests in the city.

“The city is very hard and brutalist. We have ended up with fragmented habitats and although we have corridors of street trees, there is very little in between.

“These can go in the corner of a park or playground, and can be used as an adjunct to a hospital as a place for respite or wellbeing. At universities, they are the perfect place to go between lectures.”

Growing a forest may seem like a long wait, but, he adds: “They grow quicker than you think.

“Within three years you can walk into a Wee Forest and people outside won’t see you. Next year, our Wee Forests will be over waist height and start 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 academics will help train the next generation of teachers in outdoor learning.

In a few months’ time it will feature a shelter, where student teachers can take part in lectures aimed at equipping them with the skills to lead children in nature-based lessons.

While it is already being used by local primary classes as an outdoor learning space.

Patrick Boxall, Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education at QMUniversity, said although just 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 are seeing frogs and rodents, we have evidence of sparrowhawks hunting – we have found the kills – and there are lots of bugs.

“Right now it looks like a garden with a lot of wee trees growing in it. In two or three years it will look like an overgrown thicket.

“Then nature will do its work and the variety of trees will push through.”

Ivan Clark of NatureScot, which has coordinated the Wee Forest project, says the Wee Forest have multiple roles.

“Their main purpose is a way to teach people, particularly young people, about how urban trees can help tackle some of the effects of climate change like extreme rainfall events, heatwaves and how native trees can help local biodiversity as well.

“It’s also about getting young people involved in monitoring the trees as part of a ‘citizen science’ project over the next ten years.

“The Wee Forests are not big, but are in small areas in urban locations that are not well used, near a school so the children can take part in a range of activities.

“They can put paving stones down and look underneath and count the number of creepy crawlies, enter what they find into the database using their mobile phones.

“They also measure the trees and make calculations, such as how much carbon the trees will capture and how well the soil is.

“Normally it would be just boring grass or lawn.”

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