The Tiny Forests enchanting communities

A girl putting a plant bulb into the soil

All over the UK, small areas of land are being transformed into so-called ‘tiny forests’, as part of a project organised by Earthwatch Europe and proudly supported by Canon. Here’s how they’re bringing biodiversity and a little bit of magic to urban communities.

Henlys Corner is one the busiest, most chaotic and noisiest places in North London. Sitting at the heart of the capital’s Borough of Barnet, this is the junction where key routes including Finchley Road, the A1 and the North Circular Road merge with each other in a huge space of classic, London traffic mayhem.

It’s a rather odd place to grow any kind of greenery – let alone a forest. An area that typically knows very little peace and quiet, it has just one relatively small piece of green land that can only do so much to isolate you from the hectic routes surrounding it.

But in the last year, that has started to change. A new initiative called Tiny Forests has been working to plant a new tennis court-sized forest right behind Henlys Corner – and create a new community space in the most unassuming of locations.

Led by environmental group Earthwatch Europe and the Barnet government, the project has involved locals of all ages in the creation of a new, green and peaceful oasis for both people and wildlife to benefit from.

Forging a new generation of citizen scientists

Launched in March 2020, the Tiny Forest project aims to bring a forest’s benefits – from tree cover for wildlife to increased biodiversity, lower carbon levels and reduced flooding – to urban areas.

Proudly supported by Canon, the initiative has been specifically conceived with sustainability in mind. “Climate change and the biodiversity crises are hitting people and how they live their lives really hard,” explains Daniel Hayhow, who leads research in urban biodiversity at Earthwatch Europe.

“For the past three years, our goal has been to prove that science is for everyone. And to do this by creating communities of ‘citizen scientists’ who not only get involved in the planting of these miniature forests but also tend to them and measure their progress.”

Climate change and the biodiversity crises are hitting people and how they live their lives really hard.”

But this isn’t exactly a simple process. Before a community gets involved, Earthwatch must first pick a location for the forest and then make it ready based on the work of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. “On the whole, we look for areas where you can’t find ready access to high-quality green spaces,” says Daniel. “This is not just down to location, but also how easily these places can be reached.”

Once that’s decided, Earthwatch moves on to prepare the soil and then test it for nutrients. “When we do the soil test, we use that information to choose the trees. Every forest has a specific tree list of species suitable to the site,” explains Daniel. “That’s because if you just planted any 600 trees and shrubs, they won't necessarily thrive there. At the same time, we're also keen to plant what we should be growing – native species, which are most suitable to the biodiversity in the area.”

A pair of feet in yellow wellies. One is pressing a shovel into muddy ground.

Fun and full of purpose: the communities who come together to plant Tiny Forests love the sense of team spirit it brings to their neighbourhoods.

Saving Barnet’s forest from the heat

While the foundations for a Tiny Forest get put in place, it’s time to rally the locals.

People from all parts of the community volunteer their time to the forest – from toddlers to senior citizens and anyone in-between. They then gather at the site and help first to plant and then care for their forest – all under the watchful eye of the ‘Tree Keepers’, Earthwatch’s onsite Tiny Forest leads.

In the case of London Borough of Barnet, that Tree Keeper is Paul Salman, whose mission is to get people out of their homes and into “the outdoor life of their community”.

“People get very excited about the planting,” he says, recalling the day work started in Barnet, attracting more than 100 people from the area. “It was incredibly muddy! But everybody absolutely loved sliding about and we had schools, friends, relatives, people from nearby roads and more.”

Each session, we took buckets of water from the local brook and carried it up to the trees. To me, that was a powerful thing to do.”

But efforts don’t stop at the planting. Paul’s presence means that the neighbourhood is always involved in the preservation of Barnet’s Tiny Forest. This was absolutely critical in 2022, when the UK registered its hottest ever summer just a few months after the forest planting.

The heat was intense, he says, but the Barnet community rose to the challenge in the most incredible fashion. “We had the worst drought ever in this country,” he continues. “Suddenly, this became a massive focal point for us.

“People came together to water it. Each session, we took buckets of water from the local brook and carried it up to the trees. We probably saved quite a few trees in the process, but it was a very, very rough start.”

A new home for local wildlife

With more than 200 Tiny Forests already planted in the UK, Earthwatch is placing more and more emphasis on their preservation and the impact they can have on their community.

One way they do that is through a project called ‘Citizen Science’, which consists of getting local neighbourhoods to collect data from their forest site and reporting it back to Earthwatch. They can then use it to understand the wider implications that each forest is having to urban areas.

These data-gathering activities are shared across the community too. As Paul jokes: “It doesn’t matter if you’re six years old or eighty, everybody loves identifying and counting creepy crawlies.

It doesn’t matter if you’re six years old or eighty, everybody loves identifying and counting creepy crawlies.”

“We also measure the height and girth of a tree to calculate how much carbon is being captured. There are also sort of meditative activities, like counting how many butterflies you'll see in five minutes.”

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Fresh from celebrating the first Tiny Forest’s third birthday (and the Barnet forest’s first!), Daniel says he is looking forward to seeing how the data from this network of “living laboratories” comes together. “The next year is going to be really great because we've got a nice cohort of forests coming through,” he comments.

“They're three years old and they really do grow fast. In our oldest forest some of the trees are up to four metres tall. Now we’re going to have about 25 forests where the canopy will be starting to close and the ecosystem of the forest begins to really function.

“So not only will they become a happy place for the community, but also a new home for wildlife in the city.”

Alongside supporting the Tiny Forest initiative, we recently partnered with Earthwatch to launch our urban wildlife photography competition, which celebrates the UK’s urban green spaces and their wild inhabitants. Enter today!