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Lingering sense of loss revealed as First World War woods are planted

When The Woodland Trust began engaging with landowners across Britain to mark the centenary one location stood out in its response – Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  

Of 130 First World War Centenary Woods created across the UK through the Trust’s Morewoods scheme, 14 are on Lewis crofts. 

Crofter Donald MacDonald from Back, Lewis, said: 

“The Isle of Lewis has deep connections to the Great War, both because so many lost their lives (1,141 out of a total population of 29,603) and because of the Iolaire tragedy, where 174 returning servicemen were drowned within sight of the island on New Year’s dawn, 1919. There are many memorials to the fallen, but it’s nice to have one that is a living, growing reminder of sacrifice and bravery, and I’m grateful to the Woodland Trust for making that possible for me.”

Donald has erected a sign by his wood which reads: “Mairidh an cliù gu bràth” – Their fame shall last forever.

Crofter Donald MacDonald with the sign at his wood's entrance (Photo: Viv Halcrow/WTML)
Crofter Donald MacDonald with the sign at his wood's entrance (Photo: Viv Halcrow/WTML)

The Iolaire was carrying returning servicemen back to Lewis.  At 2.30am on New Years Day 1919 she struck rocks and sank within sight of the lights of Stornoway. The impact of the disaster was devastating to the Island as almost the entire generation of young men was lost. The reaction to the Centenary Woods scheme reveals a huge sense of loss still lingers.

Viv Halcrow, Woodland Trust Scotland’s croft woodlands advisor on the islands said:

“The tragedy of the First World War is still keenly felt by people here. Townships where people were – and still are – closely inter-related and interdependent felt the losses badly. It is true to say that a generation of fit, active men was effectively wiped out.

“Planting trees is an appropriate way to commemorate events and the 14 crofters who agreed to take part in the Woodland Trust First World War tree planting scheme have done so so thoughtfully and with pride.”

The 100th wood created under the scheme has been planted by 85-year-old farmer Geoff Brooks, who has planted 775 trees and shrubs, including oak, aspen, beech, Scots pine, blackthorn, hazel and dogwood, at Manor Farm in Widmerpool, Nottinghamshire.

His family has farmed there for 100 years, ever since his father Jack was offered the tenancy rent-free for two years when he came home from France having served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry as a horseman.

A bridge leads over a babbling brook into his new woodland which opens into a glade to reveal a striking statue of a British Tommy carved from oak by Nottinghamshire sculptor Peter Leadbeater.

Farmer Geoff Brooks with our First World War programme manager, Claire Martin and Andrew Jameson, Sainsbury’s Great Place to Work representative at the Keyworth Local store (Photo: Dee Smith/WTML)
Farmer Geoff Brooks with our First World War programme manager, Claire Martin and Andrew Jameson, Sainsbury’s Great Place to Work representative at the Keyworth Local store (Photo: Dee Smith/WTML)

Mr Brooks said:

“My father, like so many others, went through some very dark times in the war. He never spoke of it but you could tell it was always there.  I saw an advert for the Woodland Trust’s First World War commemorative project and it really struck a chord with me.

“An adviser came out to the farm to see what we could do and I’m really pleased with what we’ve created. It’s something quite special where we can come and pay tribute to those who fought for our country.”

In Northern Ireland, a new wood is springing to life thanks to composer and writer Dr Sally Walmsley. With support from Forest Service and the Woodland Trust, Sally has transformed over 5 hectares of grassland into a thriving young woodland. The saplings – which  include oak, wild cherry, rowan, hazel and crab apple – are right at home in a quiet corner of nature at Edenaveys, just outside Armagh.  

Dr  Walmsley said:

“I came across the initiative thanks to a chance meeting with a local woodland consultancy, IndiWoods and thought what a worthwhile thing to do. I now have exciting plans for the recently named Seppy’s Wood. Using the arts, my aim is to give people the chance to connect with nature. I want to increase awareness of the world in which we live and the amazing world of trees.” 

Schoolchildren have already rolled up sleeves to help with the tree planting and try their hand at some music. And, more recently, a launch event gave everyone the chance to enjoy a stroll. Sally plans to open up the wood to various groups, with a focus on teaching and encouraging music and arts, bringing a heartening contrast to the sadness of war.

Composer Dr Sally Walmsley and local schoolchildren at Seppy's Wood in County Armagh (Photo: IndiWoods)
Composer Dr Sally Walmsley and local schoolchildren at Seppy's Wood in County Armagh (Photo: IndiWoods)

Over in Wales at the Dunes at Whitesands Camping near St Davids, owners Richard and Francesca Syrett have created one acre of new woodland across a five acre plot, planting a thousand trees in memory of those who served in the First World War. They’ve also planted 3,000 trees and shrubs to create new sections of hedgerow.

“I believe it’s a lovely thing to do, to be able to plant woodland in memory of so many who fought and lost their lives for us,” said Francesca.

“We’re also keen to provide more shelter for our guests at this coastal campsite, as well as reducing our carbon footprint. We’re keen to provide habitats for pollinators and all kinds of wildlife. The trees offer our campers privacy and also a natural feel, their own bit of heaven.”

The Woodland Trust’s First World War Centenary Woods project is supported by lead partner Sainsbury’s. The retailer is helping us to plant millions of native trees to commemorate the First World War through donations from sales of products including woodland eggs, chicken and turkey.

Four flagship woods have been created at Langley Vale, Surrey, Dreghorn Woods, near Edinburgh, Coed Ffos Las in Carmarthenshire and Brackfield Wood in County Londonderry, as well as the many community woods.

Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury's Group, said:

“We’re pleased to support such a fitting memorial to those affected by the First World War. It’s important to our customers and colleagues, and commemorative to the many, many people who fell during World War One.

“As well as choosing our high welfare woodland products, our customers know they’re also playing a part in a great cause that we’ve supported for over 10 years.”

-Ends-

Notes to editors

The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation charity in the UK. It has over 500,000 supporters.

The Trust has three key aims:  i) protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable, ii) restoration of damaged ancient woodland, bringing precious pieces of our natural history back to life, iii) plant native trees and woods with the aim of creating resilient landscapes for people and wildlife.

Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has over 1,000 sites in its care covering over 22,500 hectares. Access to its woods is free.