Interview - Woodland Trust campaigner Alice Farr

This year's Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards winner tells John Plummer about her campaign to involve the public in protecting trees

Alice Farr with Friends of the Earth ex-executive director Tony Juniper
Alice Farr with Friends of the Earth ex-executive director Tony Juniper

The annual Sheila McKechnie Foundation awards recognise campaigners who work locally and internationally. Alice Farr, a campaigner for the Woodland Trust, was one of eight winners at the foundation's fifth awards ceremony, held in London last month.

Farr received the environment award for her WoodWatch campaign, which she set up after joining the Lincolnshire-based trust four years ago.

The campaign enables supporters of the charity to take a more active role in tree protection. The idea grew out of frustration at how little the trust could do in this area. Farr was part of a three-strong team that identified planning applications affecting trees and woodland and, if necessary, contested them.

There were hundreds of applications to wade through. "It was too much to do," she says. "We had to look at all the plans, assess them and sometimes write objections. Applications can go to public inquiries, which take a huge amount of time.

"We thought that if we could give local people guidance on how to interact with the planning procedures, we could direct them. It's better if local people get involved because they understand the issues and are motivated to take action."

Farr's team came up with the idea of a scheme, initially called Neighbourwood Watch, that involved putting basic planning information online to encourage people to act.

Farr developed the initiative this year, rebranding it WoodWatch and making it more interactive. "I created a new set of online resources, restructured the website and am now looking at being more proactive by working with volunteers, who are detecting and researching threats," she says.

She also supports community groups that oppose development threats to woodland.

The online resources for fighting threats to woodland have been downloaded 1,000 times since 1 July.

This year, Farr is holding four volunteer training sessions, covering issues such as an overview of the planning system and how to use it to protect trees. She hopes that these sessions will help to turn supporters into active advocates.

The judges from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation praised Farr for "giving local communities a voice to take action" and "actively encouraging change". By harnessing local supporters' passion for trees, they said, she had developed a campaign that was stronger than anything the charity could achieve on its own.

Farr says some campaigners under-estimate how much power they have to work within the system and bring about change. "It's important to get involved in local democracy and realise that your voice counts," she says.

What advice would she give to anyone starting a campaign? "Find like-minded people to set it up and make sure people understand what you say," she says. "Don't just say something is rubbish - say why you think something is wrong and what the solution is, so you are working for something positive."

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