06 Apr 2023
by Ashley Easen

This is all good for the head and the heart, reducing stress and anxiety. 

Council-owned woodlands can offer amazing recreational benefits, such as nature hikes, dog walking, runs or walks, play, and cycling and riding. These benefits are not restricted to physical and mental health and wellbeing. There are psychosocial benefits linked with outdoor fun as adults and children can experience opportunities to meet and build relationships.  

That said, there are inherent risks associated with woodland environments that need to be managed. With more of us accessing public spaces, it’s important to ensure people are not exposed to an unreasonable risk of harm. Equally, we need to protect woodland to safeguard its survival and for the benefit of future generations. 

Go wild in the wood 

Wild camping - where you set up camp outside of a campsite or caravan park and sleep in the wilderness immersed in nature - is becoming increasingly popular, and so are woodlands as a venue.  

There is much literature available for wild camping first timers to help them camp legally, responsibly and safely, from Countryfile magazine to Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code.  

There are fundamental rules to follow. Campers must have permission from the landowner and should plan walking routes, check weather conditions and terrain, and ensure they have enough supplies and any appropriate specialist equipment.  

Wild dining is also a growing trend and a popular option for organisations looking for something different to organise as a team building exercise.  

For landowners, it is important that wild campers, wild diners and their associated risks are addressed through the risk assessment process, woodland management planning and community engagement.  

The UK Forestry Standard 

The UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) sets out the approach of the UK Government to sustainable forest management by defining requirements and guidelines, and providing a basis for regulation and monitoring.   

Practising sustainable forestry fundamentally means managing our forests and woodlands in a way that meets present needs (of people, place and planet) but does not compromise the needs of future generations and the environment.   

Within the supporting guidance, the seven strands of sustainable forest management are defined as: 

  1. Biodiversity 
  2. Climate change 
  3. Historic environment 
  4. Landscape 
  5. People 
  6. Soil 
  7. Water. 
Woodland management plans 

The development of a woodland management plan can provide land managers with a structured way to plan and organise the sustainable management of woodland.   

As dynamic, working documents, they enable better-informed decisions to be taken, can be supplied to contractors, and can provide evidence of compliance with the legal obligations associated with woodland ownership. 

Example plans are available on the Forestry Commission England’s website. 

Legal requirements 

There are legal requirements under both civil and criminal law.  Landowners have a duty of care and responsibilities for the health & safety of those on or near their land.  

Applicable legislation includes, but is not limited to: 

  • The Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. 
Practical risk management 

The risks presented to the public by woodlands are many and varied. These can include wild or farmed animals, trees and vegetation, open water, fire risk, bridges, fences and slip and trip hazards to name a few.   

Clearly, it is not required by law or practicable to eliminate all risks presented to visitors, nor should it be desirable. The general duty placed upon occupiers and landowners is to demonstrate they have taken reasonable care to ensure visitors are reasonably safe. A suitable and sufficient risk assessment process, undertaken by a competent person or persons can greatly assist in achieving these aims.  

Steps to take 

Small sites may not require a safety plan, but it may be prudent to consider safety plans for medium to large sites, which may be seen as a natural and worthwhile extension to any woodland management plan.  

The steps to take to manage woodland risk: 

  1. Identify hazards. Conduct visual inspections and consider the type and nature of activities, the people, and environmental and weather factors at play. Knowledge of previous adverse events or near misses should be reflected.  

  2. Assess the risks. Consider how likely it is for a visitor to be harmed and how serious this could be. Identify your controls and draw out what further action is needed – by whom and when. 

  3. Control the risks. Implement identified controls – balancing the level of risk against the measures needed to control the real risk in terms of money, time and effort. 

  4. Record the findings. It is vital that key findings of the assessment and any subsequent actions are recorded, enhancing the ability to defend against compensation claims.  

  5. Review the controls and the assessment. Controls should be reviewed regularly to gain assurance they are working as some can degrade and/or fail over time. It is of equal importance to acknowledge that the characteristics of risks can evolve. Woodlands are dynamic environments, exposed to weather and other factors that can alter their risk profile. Trends in human activity change too and should be monitored. 

Woodland checklist 
  • Gather the relevant guidance available including the UK Forestry Standard.
  • Undertake a risk assessment 
  • Develop a woodland management plan  
  • Consider supplementing the woodland management plan with a safety plan 
  • Ensure legal obligations are met 
  • Communicate plans with relevant stakeholders 
  • Regularly review and revise plans and procedures as appropriate.  

Visitors bring life skills and experiences to the woodland, but remember that general acceptance of risk differs from person to person. 

Understanding the needs and expectations of woodland visitors, as well as the woodland environments themselves, will assist occupiers and landowners in effective woodland planning and management, while not exposing its visitors or the woodlands to significant risk of harm.  

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