A FOUR month project to celebrate the importance of trees culminated in a celebration at Westonbirt Arboretum on Wednesday, October 17.

The project, Hidden Voices, was part of a national initiative, co-ordinated by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

And the idea behind it was to engage new audiences with woodlands and botanic gardens. Groups chosen to take part were the Stroud Macular Disease Society, Bristol Drugs Project and Asian women's group Awaz Utaoh.

Led by the Forestry Commission's learning and participation team at the Arboretum, workshops were held across the summer and included woodland coppicing, learning how foods originate from plants and exploring trees using different senses.

"Engaging communities and local groups with woodlands is a hugely important part of the Forestry Commission's role, " said Pam Warhurst, Forestry Commission chairman.

"The Hidden Voices project at Westonbirt is a great example of how working with specific groups can encourage a deeper understanding and commitment to our woodlands. The positive feedback from participants shows real engagement and benefits from being involved." As a result of the project, Westonbirt Arboretum has a series of new tree labels and an audio trail for blind and partially sighted people developed in partnership with the Macular Disease Society.

Recipes using tree and plant foods developed by Awaz Utaoh are to be published on the arboretum's blog and website and photographs taken by members of the Bristol Drugs Project conveying the emotional impact of trees and woodlands will be shared with visitors.

Ben Oliver, Forestry Commission's learning and participation manager at Westonbirt Arboretum, told the invited audience on Wednesday: "Our visitor statistics show that older people at risk from exclusion, black and minority ethnic groups and disadvantaged adults make up the smallest numbers of Westonbirt's visitors. "We wanted to use this project to explore and overcome barriers, encourage confidence and make Westonbirt Arboretum more interesting and relevant to more people."

Pete Weinstock, Bristol Drugs Project group leader, said the project helped to open up the arboretum as a community resource rather than a selective or privileged activity to people with the money or their own transport.

The Arboretum was awarded funding for the project in early 2012 and used the grant to develop the series of activities in partnership with their chosen community and social groups.

The initiative was inspired by a report into the social role and relevance of UK botanic gardens conducted by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester.

The report recommends that botanic gardens work together to reconsider their roles, responsibilities and mission in a world of pressing environmental change. The four participating gardens that took part this year have been writing blogs throughout the project. Visit: http://communitiesinnature.wordpress.com