Active Forest Programme Evaluation


Skycycle bike rideThe Active Forest Programme aims to create a sporting habit for life for visitors to the public forest estate in England. The programme will provide engaging, inspirational and motivating sport and exercise opportunities for new and existing forest visitors. The key aspects of the programme will be delivered through: 1) partnership and engagement, 2) communication, 3) monitoring and evaluation.

Research objectives

The evaluation research aims to identify:

  • What types of sporting activities are undertaken and enjoyed in forests as part of the Active Forest Programme and by whom?
  • How many of those participating are new to regular sport, new to sport and how many are in the 14-25 age range?
  • Are there added or differing benefits or challenges of undertaking sporting activities in forest environments as opposed to more traditional sporting venues such as leisure centre, sports fields/tracks?
  • Is there evidence of any sustained behaviour change and any perceived health and well-being benefits being realised from participating in the Active Forest programme?
  • What lessons can Forestry Commission England and Sport England learn from the Active Forest Programme in terms of the partnerships developed and the types of interventions most likely to attract participation in sporting activities in the forest environment?

Results so far

A man and woman running in the forest

Top ten results of the 3 year pilot programme

  1. There were a total of 700,097 sporting visits over the three year pilot, with a 246% increase in the number of visits in the third year versus the first (baseline) year of the programme. The AF sites showed an accelerating upward trend in the number of visits through time.
  2. Less active individuals (sporting activity once a month or less) made up 15% of the matched survey data. There was a highly significant increase in sporting activity between completing the participant survey and the follow on survey (p<0.001) in these individuals, with 49% of people moving to being active once a week or more than once a week
  3. Approximately 3% of participants were new to sport , i.e. had not done sport in the previous six months.
  4. The beauty, scenery, wildlife, sensory and seasonal experiences, sense of freedom, getting away from everyday life, and atmosphere of the forest sites were key drivers for participants and greatly enhanced the experience of being active in nature.
  5. 14% were 14-25 years old. Families being active together was important, with 33% of respondents being accompanied by at least one child under 16 years (1,801 children recorded in total). The qualitative research revealed significant benefits to women of undertaking activity in beautiful and family friendly forests.
  6. The main motivations for people to get involved in activities were to be physically active in nature (85%), for enjoyment (77%), to get fit (62%) and to improve health (61%). The qualitative research identified further motivations of undertaking a social activity, people wanting to challenge themselves, and having a choice of activities.
  7. The four key benefits identified by over 80% were:
    1. Physical wellbeing
    2. Fun and enjoyment
    3. Mental wellbeing
    4. A feeling of escape and freedom
      Mental wellbeing came out strongly as a theme in the qualitative research.
  8. The top 5 most popular activities were cycling, running, orienteering, bat and racket sports and fitness . All of these activities showed large positive increases in the number of visits across the pilot. Visits in the final year were at least 150% greater than those in the first year, aside from cycling. The popularity of Gruffalo orienteering demonstrates the importance of working with national sports governing bodies to develop fun forest-based activity.
  9. 98% expressed an interest in undertaking future physical activity in the participant survey. 91% returned to woodland for activities within 3 months and 77% returned and undertook a different activity .
  10. Active Forest Coordinators played a key role in developing physical activity opportunities on their sites, increasing the numbers of people getting involved and gathering monitoring data. This is clearly shown by the use of Cannock Chase as a comparison site. Volunteers also played an important part in the programme

Data was gathered via an on-line and on-site survey (n=2,206) and a follow on survey administered to respondents of the first survey, 3 months later (n-274). Also, via operational throughput data on the number of activities and events held and the numbers involved in each event, and through qualitative focus groups and interviews (n=61).


The evaluation of the three year Active Forest Pilot Programme started in 2014 and finished in 2017.

Download the full report (PDF-4776KB)

Download the summary (PDF-377KB)

Phase II of the programme, to embed the approach and activities across 20 Forestry Commission England sites, started in July 2017 and will run for five years. Monitoring and evaluation of the programme will continue and has been adapted based on lessons learnt from the pilot programme.

Related Products/Services

 Find out more about participation rates in outdoor activity


Liz O’Brien

Funders and partners

The Active Forest Programme is funded by Sport England with support from Forestry Commission England.

Forestry Commission policy

Forestry Commission England’s corporate plan highlights the health benefits of recreational activity in forests

Sport England is developing insights into the outdoor sectors and working with a range of outdoor sector partners including Forestry Commission England and the National Trust.