Volunteer at Birchanger Wood to Help Body, Mind, Community and Planet

Woodland conservation can keep you in shape, no matter your age or level of fitness – and there is no sign-up fee and no monthly direct debit.  

Birchanger Wood volunteers are involved in a vast array of activities throughout the year, which can change from season to season, offering great variety. Activities range from moderate to vigorous exercise, allowing everyone the opportunity to participate: planting trees, clearing leaves from paths, picking up rubbish, splitting and stacking logs, coppicing and pruning trees, and for those who are certified using a chainsaw for felling. Everyone can go at their own pace and according to their ability and time.

Felling trees – whether coppicing or removing dangerous and diseased trees – is part and parcel of managing woodlands to enhance biodiversity. At Birchanger Wood, felled trees are cut up, split and stored for seasoning. The next year, the logs are sold for sustainable firewood, creating an income and making our local woodland financially self-sufficient. All this involves physical labour.

Woodland conservation is comparable to other sport and leisure activities in keeping you healthy. Moderate wood splitting with an axe will burn 384 calories an hour – more than 80% more than a yoga class, 50% more than pilates and just 9% less than a 13-minute mile run. But if you use vigorous effort, you can expect to be burning calories faster than a high impact aerobics class. Felling small to medium-sized trees is comparable to an hour of taekwondo. Using a chainsaw will burn more calories than moderate to vigorous spinning. At the top end of the calory-burning spectrum, felling large trees uses more energy than playing competitive tennis.

A young volunteer gets a workout splitting wood

Wood splitting with an axe is a work-out for the whole body, engaging multiple muscles to perform a swing and stabilise your position. It engages the entire core, including lower and upper back, shoulders, arms, abs, chest, legs and glutes. Swinging an axe uses all your abdominal muscles, from the ribs to the hips. Similar exercises can be done in the gym using weighted resistance, such as a medicine ball, but why pay a gym to practice an exercise you can do in the fresh air and for the benefit of woodland conservation?

You don’t have to be built like a lumberjack to swing an axe. Our volunteer Alice said, “I really enjoy it – and you don’t have to be super fit or strong! I admit my log-splitting skills are still a work in progress, but every extra pair of hands helps and it’s much more fun than the gym.”

Our most senior volunteer John leads on tree planting and has planted scores of young trees throughout the woodland, which are thriving. Tree planting uses around 380 calories per hour for an average-sized man – the equivalent of running four-and-a-half miles. But why spend good money running on a treadmill that goes nowhere to the sound of bad dance music when you can be using the same energy to do something positive for the planet?

Our younger volunteers are in their teens, often joining us as part of a Duke of Edinburgh qualification. They can enjoy physical activity, an educational opportunity and working alongside the generations. Two of our trustees are among our youngest volunteers and Birchanger Wood has become part of their lives – in one case, involvement in woodland conservation sparked an interest that led to doctoral research in woodlands. We are proud of being inclusive of all generations, which is what community bonds are all about.

By being out in the fresh air alongside friendly volunteers in non-competitive physical work, volunteers are benefitting their mental health.

According to a report released in December 2021 by Forest Research, in England woodlands save £141 million in costs associated with mental health illnesses, including visits to GPs, drug prescriptions, inpatient care, social services and the number of days lost due to mental health issues. The figures are based on evidence of the reduced incidence of depression and anxiety resulting from regular visits to woodlands.

Volunteers having a chinwag over tea and biscuits

Stephen Buckley, Head of Information for mental health charity Mind, said, “Spending time outdoors – especially in woodlands or near water – can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and mild to moderate depression. This might be due to combining regular physical activity and social contact with being outside in nature. Being outside in natural light can also be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year. Although many of us feel like hibernating in winter, getting outside in green spaces and making the most of the little daylight we get can really benefit both your physical and mental health.”

So, take up the woodland challenge for the sake of your own body and mind, for the sake of your community – and for the sake of all the diverse species in this ancient native woodland.

Volunteer activity happens every Saturday, from 9am to 3pm, throughout the year. Just turn up at our compound next to the water tower on Heath Row, Bishop’s Stortford. Stay for an hour, a morning or the whole day – you choose your hours. We look forward to seeing new volunteers.