Forestry England, the country’s largest land manager, has recorded the highest ever number of visits to the nation’s forests across England over the last year. Some 296 million visits took place – an increase of 77 million (or 35%) compared to the previous year. While gyms, cinemas and indoor entertainment had to close for extended periods due to Covid restrictions, the nation’s 1,500 forests were always available. They were more popular than ever as places for people to relax, exercise, meet family and friends when guidelines allowed, and cope with the challenges of the last year.
Forestry England saw an increase in visitors from all adult age groups, including people visiting forests and woodlands for the first time, although it was clear the younger generation were visiting more than usual.
Despite the challenges involved in adapting to the restrictions and many more people, Forestry England staff were able to keep forests safe and in good condition since the first lockdown in March 2020. They continued to welcome people, maintain walking and cycling trails, play equipment and other facilities, and help visitors maintain social distancing by adapting facilities and systems. Of the many new visitors who enjoyed coming to forests for the first time during lockdown, the overwhelming majority were positive about their experience, with 91% of new visitor survey respondents rating their visit as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.
The increased demand from visitors did put extreme pressure on the most popular forest sites and at peak times some car parks had to shut because they were full. Recent weeks have continued to see large numbers of visitors, particularly at peak times, and Forestry England is encouraging people to visit at quieter times including early morning or evenings and explore more of the nation’s forests nearby.
As Covid restrictions have eased further with indoor venues reopening and larger groups permitted to meet outdoors, Forestry England is focusing on helping people continue to visit and enjoy the forests and woodlands they explored during lockdown.
Hayley Skipper, Forestry England Director of Operations, said: ‘We know how important forests have been to people during lockdown, and our staff have worked incredibly hard to keep these special places welcoming and well looked-after. A wealth of research shows how much green spaces benefit people’s health and wellbeing, and we saw for ourselves the vital place the nation’s forests play in people’s lives for relaxation, exercise, children’s play and to connect with wildlife and the natural environment.
‘It’s particularly important to us that we saw people visiting forests for the first time and could help them experience the beauty and wellbeing benefits of spending time in the forest landscape. We hope they’ll deepen their connection to forests and woodlands and enjoy them much more often in the future. The nation’s forests are for everyone, and this astounding number of visits shows the value they hold.”
Forestry Minister Lord Goldsmith said: ‘Many of us have seen first-hand during this difficult time the benefit that connecting with nature can have on our health and wellbeing, and I am delighted, so many people have been able to seek solace in our nation’s forests.
‘We have recently set out plans to protect and grow our nation’s forests, and how we will connect more people to nature. We will continue to work with Forestry England to encourage visitor numbers, so more people can enjoy the benefits that our trees and woodlands bring.’
Forestry England are also busy behind the scenes preparing to restart organised activities with larger groups which had to be put on hold during the lockdown. Forest sites expect to continue seeing high visitor numbers over the coming months despite other indoor and outdoor venues opening. More events like running, cycling, orienteering and other organised sport and recreation activities are beginning to take place where staff can manage them safely.