Growing Connections: Our Viper Woods Project Unites Staff, Schools, Locals, and Nature

June 14, 2024

Viper Innovations champions corporate social responsibility (CSR). When it came to carbon management, we thought we could do more than just pay someone to offset our carbon footprint. Instead, we decided to buy several acres of woodland and pastureland to be enjoyed and maintained by staff, local schools, and the local community. But going into woodland management from engineering wasn’t without its challenges!

Beyond Box-Ticking

At Viper Innovations, we’re committed to becoming a carbon-neutral organization. It’s included within one of our four CSR pillars. So, when the topic of carbon sequestration through tree planting came up, we saw it as an opportunity to maximize the impact of our sustainability activities.

“We were very aware of the reduction in woodlands and the pressures of building in the UK leading to loss of habitats for wildlife,” explains Neil Douglas, our co-founder/Director and Woodland Committee Chair. “We thought, if we actually bought some land, we could do much more than just tick the box for carbon credits.”

Buying and managing woodland would help support activities in our “Our Environment” CSR pillar as well as “Staff and Workplace”, since volunteers would oversee and run the initiative, and in “Our Communities” because local schools would be encouraged to use the woodland as a teaching resource. Additionally, neighboring residents could be welcomed as volunteers.

Buying in Somerset rather than Bristol got us more land for our money.

A Lockdown Land Grab

In 2020, Neil and Viper co-founder, Max Nodder, agreed to the idea of buying and planting a medium-sized piece of land. Leading the charge, Neil started bidding for land around our Portishead office. However, due to the high cost of land in the area, he was constantly outbid.

“We had a budget. We knew we could either buy a small amount of land local to the company or go further afield where land is cheaper, get more land and plant more trees.”

We agreed that we should “go west!” selecting a site in Stogumber near Taunton, Somerset.

In 2021, Neil and Max bought 31.5 acres of land on behalf of the business in a closed bid, around half planted with trees, and the rest open fields we could plant with trees and use for other supporting purposes.

“Three acres of the existing woodland were classified as ancient woodland—that has existed continuously since 1600. The rest of the woodland had been recently planted but needed some TLC.  

In short, as well as planting trees, we would have to restore somewhat run-down, existing woodland and manage mature forest!

An Education for Engineers

Understandably, anyone who wants to manage a woodland need to follow proper process.

“We had to register our land with the Rural Land Register and obtain a Single Business Identifier (SBI) from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA),” says Neil.

A woodland management plan was required to cover the ongoing management of the ancient woodland and also the restoration of the recently planted woodland. We needed felling licenses for clearing dead trees and thinning woodland, and planning consent for any onsite facilities. Another consent would be needed to create a pond.

“It was a different kind of regulatory framework from what we are used to as engineers,” says Neil. “We had plenty of learning to do!”

The staff who wanted to volunteer also had to be trained up in skills ranging from 4×4 driving to chainsaw maintenance and tree felling. At this point, we formed the Woodland Committee in order to better guide activities.

We sought planning approval for a locally sourced, low-impact foundation timber teaching room and store, and pond. This took numerous applications. The local council were cautious, possibly because our plans weren’t for typical agricultural usage. In the end, the plans for a teaching room had to be downgraded to become just a store.

Under the guidance of Rob Dalziel, a retiree with a passion for ecology, we selected tree species and sources that would withstand the predicted impacts of climate change 50 years in the future.

Our staff had to learn how to wield chainsaws to clear deadwood.

Sprucing it up

Paperwork submitted, our first practical task was to take care of the trees that had been forgotten. We removed the plastic spiral guards that had only been needed for two years after planting. The woodland also needed thinning out. Dead ash and elm trees have been taken down. Even some healthy trees needed to be felled to give survivors room to grow. Ancient hedges needed relaying, bending and shaping them to provide shelter and nesting sites for birds and other wildlife.

Then onto the new growth: fencing, some of which was electrified would protect our saplings from red and roe deer, and rabbits. This meant we didn’t have to use the plastic spiral guards. Voles are also a menace but prefer long grass. So, mowing between the trees would be another requirement. Raptor perches for owls and other birds of prey offer a second line of defense against the pesky rodents. Grey squirrels strip bark on trees that are aged around 10 to 40 years old and we are currently controlling the population on site.

After we had done the initial preparation, by January, we were able to plant the saplings, around 9,000 of them.

Team Effort

We’ve relished the challenge of managing the woodland, some driving more than an hour each way to carry out training and tasks at the weekend. Woodland workdays have turned into barbecues, family days, and team-building opportunities.

“It’s been very hands-on: bring the kids, bring the dogs, which has been lovely,” highlights Neil.

The company is planning a new volunteering policy that will let people spend more time on site during the working hours.

Fun and learning among the trees

Viper Woods has also benefited pupils at two federated local primary schools, Crowcombe and Stogumber.

We’ve been delighted how teachers have made creative use of the “forest classroom,” as a prompt for creative writing, roleplaying Normans and Anglo-Saxons, and creating a map with parts of the forest named after their experiences, such as The Gully of Lost Bottles, so treacherous to cross, many children had to leave their drinking vessels behind.

Primary pupils created a map of the woodland reflecting their experiences in the “forest classroom.”

Children from local schools have learned the best way to hang nesting boxes.

Under the guidance of Rob, our volunteer ecologist, the children have also hung pairs of nest boxes for blue and great tits using compasses and maps to space them 10 meters apart and away from the direct sun which could overheat the chicks.

Josh regularly emails Neil updates about the many activities the woodland allows, calling it “wonderful.”

“Every single time we’ve had feedback from the schools, they have just been so positive about the resource and experience,” adds Neil. “It’s so valuable.”

Growing a legacy

Everyone on the team is enthusiastic. We are just getting started. The team has plans to diversify the site, digging a pond for frogs, fish and dragonflies, and planting a wildflower meadow. The storage facility received planning consent, and construction is in the works.

Work is intense but extremely worthwhile: even as we’ve tackled challenges, new ones appear. Although we have rented a local garage for the side-by-side utility vehicle and mower, we still have to take our tools back and forth on a trailer.

Part of the staff’s responsibility is keeping local roads clear of occasional landslides from the property!

One Saturday, Neil got a call saying there had been a landslide that had blocked the adjoining road.

“We went in with our eyes half open, I would say, and we thought it would get easier. To be honest, there’s always something new thrown at you! But it’s nothing compared to knowing we are making a difference.”

Ultimately, while Neil and Max championed the project as a CSR initiative, it very much belongs to all of us. And not just those of us at Viper Innovations today.

As Neil says, “It’s not down to the company, it’s down to the staff within the company to keep this site going and maintain its legacy for future generations.”

“For other companies thinking of doing the same, I would say ‘go for it’. All the hard work is totally worth it.”