Forestry is in desperate need of some young blood, but in brothers Dan and Kieran Wilson it has found a duo excited about careers in the sector and in helping to bring a younger generation in. James Hendrie spoke to them to learn more.

THE fact that brothers Dan and Kieran Wilson both work in forestry is not so unusual. That both are young men in their 20s who have chosen careers in an industry with an ageing workforce is perhaps more so. Both have found their futures lie in the woods rather than construction.

It was while studying that Dan and Kieran got a taste for forestry, working for Michael Ramage Forestry (MRF) during their holidays. MRF, based in Melrose, delivers forestry establishment and maintenance services across Scotland and the north of England. Kieran continues to work there and has seen his career develop from part-time to full-time working, and from being a team member to being a supervisor, and now a company director. Dan, on the other hand, secured a place on the Tilhill graduate programme and is now an assistant forest manager.

Forestry Journal: Dan and Kieran Wilson are two young men who are forging careers in the forestry industry.Dan and Kieran Wilson are two young men who are forging careers in the forestry industry.

Kieran explained: “I finished high school and went to Glasgow where I studied an HND in Construction Management for two years, all the time coming down to work with Mike during my holidays and weekends. After completing my course, I decided to come back down to the Borders where I worked full time for MRF.”

Dan’s experience was similar to his brother’s, initially studying and achieving a degree in Criminology at Dundee while working in a warden and maintenance role at the halls of residence. He too gravitated to Glasgow and worked for a time with a maintenance contracts company, before realising he did not see himself doing that kind of work in the future.

“I started working with Mike as a means to escape from what had become the absolute drudgery of a job in construction in Paisley,” Dan said. “I moved back to the Borders with the assurance that there were plenty of trees to be planted. Getting back to the countryside and working outdoors, getting my hands dirty, really helped me to realise what I had been missing at a desk. The realisation that there were careers to be made in the woods was amazing, partly because it seemed so obvious but also because it had been something I’d really failed to consider until that point.”

While both brothers recognised their futures lay in the woods, they each took different paths to achieve their goals. For Kieran, the move to full-time work in forestry came quicker than Dan.

Under the tutelage of Mike Ramage, Kieran learned about the establishment and maintenance side of forestry. This work is driven by the seasons and, while Kieran was aware of this, it has become more relevant as he has built his knowledge and understanding with MRF.

He said: “Our year is usually split into two; summer and winter work. The winter is the planting season where we get on site, restock or plant softwoods and hardwoods of all different species. We also carry out winter spraying and chainsaw work. In the summer months, we mainly focus on tree maintenance, which helps to establish the premature forest. Hand weeding and spraying are the most effective ways of keeping back the vegetation from the trees and allowing them to grow. Strimming and brush cutting mountain bike tracks and working sites are also summer jobs. Because of such a wide variety of tasks, it keeps the work interesting and exciting.”

Forestry Journal: Harvested timber – the end goal for the work that both brothers are involved in.Harvested timber – the end goal for the work that both brothers are involved in.

Tilhill’s graduate programme, which Dan applied for, has been running for well over 10 years. This programme, which spans the duration of an individual’s development into a managerial role, seeks to recruit graduates or those studying for a degree in forestry or a related area. Those that are successfully admitted to the graduate programme are allocated to one of Tilhill’s district offices across the country. There they learn everything forestry-related that goes on in that area, receiving training and mentoring from experienced managers.

From Dan’s point of view, the graduate programme has allowed him to gain forestry skills to add to the management skills that he acquired in construction.

“I’d say that I’ve largely gained knowledge through applied learning,” he said. “There is an expectation for you to accomplish your tasks and make sure you use the wealth of shared knowledge in the office and wider company if you are struggling. It’s amazing how much there is to learn. For me, being on the graduate programme has felt like ongoing continuous development.”

For both, their ongoing forestry knowledge and skill base has been enhanced by the support and mentoring offered to them. In Kieran’s case, this has come from Mike Ramage.

“Mike has taught me most of what I know about the forestry industry,” said Kieran. “I am constantly learning from him, even more so now that I have taken on the role of company director. I have worked with him for almost six years and he is the main reason that I have come from being a 16 year old with no future goals and little or no knowledge about the industry to a driven, hardworking company director, who is always willing to learn and take challenges head on. I could not think of anyone I would rather learn from. I know that Mike will always help me when I am stuck and make sure that I am the best I can be.”

Forestry Journal: Kieran and his team members have been able to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic by observing social distancing rules on site and travelling to sites separately.Kieran and his team members have been able to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic by observing social distancing rules on site and travelling to sites separately.

Mike has nurtured this development to director through giving Kieran additional supervisory responsibility, which he continues to retain within the business. This has allowed him to transition from being a work colleague to a boss at a young age, and to learn two good fundamentals required for leading people.

“I learned quickly that a happy worker is a hard worker, so I try to ensure that everyone who works for the company is enjoying the job and through this I look to maximise their productivity,” he said. “Quality is extremely important and must be maintained at all times throughout every job. All our workers know that if their quality drops then they would have to return to rectify a mistake; that’s why we aim to have the best quality first time round so as not to lose out on time and workers.”

Dan’s development through the Tilhill graduate programme initially involved working with Andy Dunsmuir, who has approaching 20 years’ experience with the company, and now Andrew Fisher, who has been with the company seven years and is himself a product of the programme. In Dan’s eyes, this shows the benefit of it and what can be achieved after participating in it.

Forestry Journal: Learning to manage teams has been a major part of Kieran’s development at MRF.Learning to manage teams has been a major part of Kieran’s development at MRF.

“As an assistant forest manager, I’ve become familiar with the forest properties managed by my line manager and acquainted myself with the processes by which successful establishment, maintenance and felling is carried out,” he said. “A line manager, when you are on the graduate programme, is the first port of call for advice and guidance with contractor difficulties or anything else which is not run of the mill. While still making the final call, they delegate responsibility for tasks such as restock planting and expect you to report back any issues or indeed good practice that you see.”

Tilhill additionally run an internal management development programme designed to, in their words, ‘stretch and harness talent and potential within the organisation’. Dan explained: “The training is a core part of the graduate programme. It can also benefit other individuals within the company who are looking to develop.”

Dan gave an insight into what is involved overall in the programme: “The training looks at things like team building, negotiation in hypothetical scenarios and quickly pulling together presentations in small groups. There is a fair amount of focus on learning styles, with an emphasis on how much contrast there is in different people, which is worth bearing in mind. By training alongside colleagues from BSW, we are given the opportunity to understand where the product we produce ends up while BSW colleagues can see where it comes from. An appreciation of the ‘start to finish process’ is interesting but also important for the understanding of your role.”

Forestry Journal: Both Dan and Kieran are passionate about woodland creation.Both Dan and Kieran are passionate about woodland creation.

Kieran has followed a similar hands-on approach to training with MRF. He said: “My leadership skills have definitely progressed and I feel confident to lead the workforce into whatever job we have in store. I have been constantly learning about the industry over the years and feel it is an endless source of fascinating knowledge. Working with the company, I have been given opportunities to acquire various different forestry tickets needed to operate machinery and equipment. Some of these include my forestry first aid certificate, PA1 and PA6 spraying tickets, sit in/on bike tickets, which are needed to operate a quad bike and Polaris, as well as chainsaw, chipper, strimmer/brush cutting, water spraying tickets and a few others.”

Training is one thing, but gaining respect from your team members is something that Kieran feels he has achieved through working hard and listening to the guidance and advice offered by Mike. To Kieran, working hard on developing his own team members has become equally important.

“Most mistakes are made from lack of knowledge, so I must ensure that every worker I have on site is fully briefed with the work instructions that have been provided,” he said. “If we have someone with less experience, then I will work alongside them and teach those techniques and methods needed to do the job. This means they can work faster, harder, and keep their standard as high as possible. We work as a team to make sure everyone is reaching their maximum potential.”

Forestry Journal:  Kieran is positive about the future with his move to becoming a director of MRF. Kieran is positive about the future with his move to becoming a director of MRF.

Kieran and Dan share a passion for woodland creation. Kieran sums up why quite succinctly: “When planting and creating new woodlands, I feel the excitement of being able to see the full cycle of forestry. I look forward to seeing the trees that I have planted in the past growing up to become a fully developed forest and I can take pride in knowing that I was a vital part in nurturing and helping the process.”

Dan added: “It is great to be on site, digging pits to determine soil types, looking at both archaeological and ecological features, discussing client objectives and mapping it all out. You then get to see the planting implemented and rolled out, checking on quality issues and keeping an eye on the development of all the hard work up to that point. When you are on a new planting scheme you can feel the labour of love that has gone into getting a project of that magnitude to that point.”

Dan’s other passion is for encouraging young people into a career in the forestry sector. Tilhill has supported him in this after he ‘pitched’ the idea of attempting to, in his words, “combat the issues of an ageing workforce in the industry” at a company Dragons’ Den-style event. This led to him, with the support of the company directors, aiding Borders College in its delivery of a forestry course, facilitating site visits and sharing knowledge of commercial forestry.

Despite his being a lover of the outdoors from a young age, no-one suggested a career in forestry to Dan when he was growing up. It was something he never even considered while at school. Having become involved in the industry, he now hopes through this initiative he can perhaps persuade others to follow him and Kieran into the sector.

Forestry Journal: Dan extolling the virtues of a career in forestry to a group of schoolchildren.Dan extolling the virtues of a career in forestry to a group of schoolchildren.

“There is an issue with too few young people coming into the industry at all levels, which has sometimes been attributed to the younger generation no longer taking an interest in the outdoors, but that’s nonsense,” he said. “The industry is just terrible at promoting itself, and as the UK’s leading forest management company Tilhill has a responsibility to be on the leading edge of solving the issue of an ageing workforce.”

Both brothers can see their future careers progressing within the forestry industry. Kieran, having become a director in MRF, is looking to learn more about this role. He said: “I have found the job extremely interesting. There is so much to learn about dealing with the company. I have a lot more interaction with site managers and clients, which gives me the opportunity to ask questions about the industry. I am also involved in the paperwork side of things which includes carrying our risk assessments and learning how to bill and price work.

“My plan is to continue learning from Mike and developing my skills and knowledge of forestry. My end goal is learning how to run the business myself and developing it to ensure it will always have a respected name and produce the highest quality of work a forestry company can provide. I am a passionate person and I like to see that reflected in the workers around me. I like to think I can inspire them to use my positive energy to fuel their own.”

Meanwhile, Dan is looking to gain more experience with Tilhill. “In the next year, I look forward to taking on more direct responsibility within the company and being involved with the ongoing diversification of Scotland’s land use,” he said. “In the next five years, it would be great to develop some connections within the farming community in the Borders and southern Scotland. It’s imperative that both industries cooperate and understand each other’s needs in order to work in tandem to create land which is profitable for all and make best use of our land for everyone.”

Dan and Kieran Wilson both found their way into forestry through unconventional means, but they clearly both love working in the industry. They have a clear focus on what it is that they want to do in the future and are on track to have long and fruitful careers.

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