Whitelands co-director Fritha West talks us through the aims and workings of the community interest company, and what it means to really make biodiversity your business.

I’m rarely asked what it is we do here at Whitelands. Many people seem to think that owning or managing a wood is explanation in itself, and they fill in the gaps with their own experiences or assumptions. I don’t mind this – I’ve often enjoyed hearing other people talk about the wood, giving their own individual spin on it. But if someone does directly ask me about the aims of the CIC, I sometimes struggle to put them into words.

When Jonathan West, our dad, ran the business, his focus was on forestry. He did some outreach work with local schools or kids clubs, and trips and courses with local universities, but he was a forester by trade and the main aim was sustainable productivity. When I took over, even before we laid on any major events or made any big decisions, the general assumption seemed to be that I was making the project more “education-based”. This was probably because – being a 22 year old girl with 0 practical experience – no one expected me to get involved in the forestry side of things.

Since then, I have been very involved in the forestry side of things. But 5 years later, I am not a forester.

I work a lot with foresters, and educators, but I am neither – I’m an ecologist. The aim of my work, and that of Whitelands CIC, is to improve the woodland ecosystem. Admittedly “improving the ecosystem” is not a typical business model, and doesn’t explain how the CIC runs or how we make any money – which I believe is often the real reason people ask “what is it you do”. But really that is all it comes down to; restoring what has been lost and improving chances for the future.

Looking after the next generation!

Woodlands need to be managed. For the right people, those needs can become opportunities.

Whitelands was planted as a conifer plantation in the 1950s. It is a SSSI for broadleaf beech and yew woodland, so to preserve what is so special about the site, as well as make it more resilient and better for wildlife, the woodland needs to be restored with native species. That means removing the western red cedar, which makes excellent timber, and some of the ash that’s been infected by Chalara ash dieback, which makes great firewood. Felling these trees creates opportunities for rural businesses, namely Whitelands Sawmill, run by Tom Hartley, and other sole traders that we work with. Once the trees are thinned out the woodland opens up, creating space for new plants and animals to move in. It also makes a wonderful space for people to engage with the woodland and enjoy being outdoors, as they do through Whitelands kids’ clubs with Elsa Donovan. Our volunteer work parties give local people the chance to engage with woodland management and our courses with the Portsmouth School of Architecture teach students the value of working hands on with sustainable resources. Maintenance work, wildlife monitoring and management also create jobs, and we are always looking for fresh ideas or businesses to support.

We don’t make a profit from what we do but we also don’t do it for free – everyone we work with receives materials and resources at a discounted rate, making it more accessible, but also ensuring our running costs are covered. We will never get rich by working this way (at least, not financially), but some might say a thriving woodland and an engaged local community is payment enough.

From forestry work to kids’ clubs and students and volunteers, everyone in the Whitelands Project Network helps with not only protecting the woodland, but improving it too.

A couple of months ago someone asked me what the “end goal” is for the wood. At the time, I misunderstood them, and thought they were referring to a pile of logs that we were moving so I replied, “probably firewood.” I think they were looking for something a little more well-rounded, and perhaps more inspiring than this, so I’ll try to address the question in more detail: there is no end goal for Whitelands. Sustainability is about continuation – we want trees, and woods, wildlife – and yes, firewood – for generations to come. There is no finish line for this because new challenges (and opportunities) are constantly arising, and we will need to adapt to them. The woodland will survive by meeting the needs of the local community (both biological and social), and by constantly growing and changing everything from the trees we grow to the businesses we work with.

Maybe I need to start changing my answer when people ask me what Whitelands is for, or what it is we do. Maybe I need to move away from justifying this collaborative, not-for-profit, sustainable form of woodland management and next time someone asks I will answer: “you tell me – what would you like it to be?”