A well-established company providing a comprehensive range of professional services connected to all forms of woodland management, trees and rural property, Highfield Forestry's customers include individuals (both in the UK and overseas), farms and estates, forestry partnerships, charities, private sector companies and more.

Established in 1981, the Highfield team has grown slowly but surely since its inception and looks certain to continue its upward trajectory within the booming timber market.

With over 17,000 hectares of woodland under its management, Highfield has come a long way since its early days of solely matching investors to suitable forest properties.
Speaking to managing director Iain Peddie and senior managers Fred Drion, David Grieve and Chris Duncan, I was given an insight into the everyday operations of one of Scotland’s longest-running forest management companies. 

Forestry Journal:

After being set up by John Trower alongside David Sillar, Highfield operated like an estate agent, finding people who were interested in investing in forestry before procuring suitable land and placing the management with Fountain Forestry. After Trower died in 1985, just four years from its establishment, Highfield continued with its operations as a 'one-man band' under Sillar until 1999, when Iain Peddie, the current MD, moved over from Fountain Forestry, joining Sillar, with whom he had worked closely for a number of years, doing woodland evaluations and appraisals. 

With Iain onside, Highfield began to expand, opting to include a model of forest management along with its previous operations and growing to a workforce of 14 strong in 2021. Highfield is currently run by four directors – Iain and his wife Maureen, Bent

Also, a Danish chartered accountant with a passion for forestry, and Paul Brosnan, a marketing expert from Ireland.

READ MORE: Excellence in Forestry Awards: Presentation ceremonies held to honour winners

There is something slightly poetic in Highfields’s choice of new premises, on the grounds of Bell Ingram on Isla Road, Perth, as it is where Iain began his working career as a trainee forestry manager in 1979 in what was then the Fountain Forestry office. He said: “When we were looking to move to bigger premises, this just so happened to be available, so I've come back to where it all started.”

When Iain joined Highfield Forestry in 1999, the company was in bad shape. The forestry investment market was on a downward trajectory and no one wanted to put money into forestry. Iain said: “Timber prices were at a low, as were property prices and nobody was really interested, so David was struggling alone to make a living. The clear thing to do was to go into the management side of things.”

Forestry Journal:

The decision to not only acquire its clients the property to grow woodland on, but to manage it as well, proved fruitful as Highfield began to climb out of a slump. 

The same fundamentals of forest management employed by Highfield in its early days are still clear to see now. The continual transparency between it and their clients has helped establish many long-term relationships with land owners. Newsletters contain clear and concise information about how the clients’ money is being spent. A personal yet professional experience from the operations team on-site means Highfield has never suffered the same criticisms laid on many of those who came before them.

Iain said: “When I started with Highfield, at the top of my list my aim was to put the clients number one, working with them in a way that is transparent, by following up on our promises and demonstrating that things have been completed.

"The philosophy was to communicate with them at least once a quarter – which is what we still do – and provide transparency on billing.”

Working with the Woodland Trust and various local authorities, Highfield has avoided straying from traditional methods of forestry, actively choosing not to partake in any landscaping or roadside planting. By narrowing its field of focus and not spreading itself too thinly, it has excelled in meeting the specific needs and expectations of woodland management customers. Another aspect of Highfield which sets it apart is the lack of affiliation with a particular timber buying group. This allows it to peruse the market and get the best deal for its clients at the time, instead of being tied to one mill. 

Forestry Journal:

Fred Drion explained: “Estates that have joined with us in recent years like that we don’t have contracts with any of the sawmills. It’s a good selling point for us.” 

With a growing list of clients but a small marketing budget, it seems Highfield is earning its work through the merit of previous operations. In the closed-off industry we find ourselves working in, reputation is everything and on its current course, Highfield is headed to the top through word of mouth and professional courtesy. 

Iain said: “The competition to buy woodland on the open market just now is fierce and the prices, whilst eye-watering, are hard to justify on the revenues of timber.” The advice, instead, is to invest in new planting. 

He said: “It is all about foresight, looking to the future to see it benefitting your offspring and your estate, as well as producing an asset which will increase in value and offer the ability to tap into the carbon market.”

With the incentive to create new woodland so strong, Highfield has created a subsidiary company to focus solely on the procurement of land appropriate for planting. 

Iain said: “It’s a gamble on getting approval to plant, so we have to be pretty sure before we buy. But it gives us a safety net if something were to go wrong in the land market, like if the Scottish government were to take away all the grants.”

With the current timber market in flux and uncertainty about the future, both Iain and Fred agree the main problem the industry will face in the coming years is a lack of skilled workers – from the highest level to the bottom.

Forestry Journal:

Highfield Forestry operates with two separate departments combining to produce one end project – with the planning team headed up by Chris Duncan and the operations team by Fred Drion. By having two clearly defined departments Highfield is able to delegate smoothly while all still singing from the same hymn sheet.

As senior operations manager of a company which spans three countries, Fred is regularly on the move, something that his early life in Ireland set him up for. With French parents, Fred was regularly transported about. His father was the catalyst for his interest in forestry. “I worked in forest management and maintenance on a couple of his properties as a kid and then decided to do an agricultural degree – specialising in forestry,” he said. 

Fred and David head up all of the physical aspects of the projects. Fred said: “Our team runs all of the operations on the ground, from infrastructure such as roadworks and fencing to planting and felling operations. We try to visit all sites at least once a quarter.”

The team's dedication to their work was illustrated by planning forester Iain Stirling who, during the pandemic, was unable to get accommodation on the Isle of Mull while peat probing, so instead opted to wild camp.

"Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go for it,” said Fred. 

Covering all groundworks – from the introduction of drainage to ground preparation, the building of roads to the initial establishment of woodland in the planting and maintenance – the operations team has a wide variety of roles. As Fred would say: “The job is never boring, let’s put it that way.” Its role climaxes with the thinning and clear-felling of sites, interacting with contractors and land owners to establish a profitable conclusion for all parties.

Forestry Journal:

Managing the initial stages of woodland creation is beginning to involve a lot more crossover between the operation and planning departments than in the past, said Fred, with access routes, fencing and planting all requiring approval the two teams' work in unison.

“We may need to alter the plans we are given, but as long as its vaguely similar to the proposed plan it's grand,” he explained. “Communication is key and it’s something we are actively trying to do more of, even if it’s using GPS to indicate changes in fencing and so on.” 

A big part of Fred’s job is woodland improvement, transforming areas of woodland long abandoned into functioning and profitable forests fit for harvesting. Now, after 10 years with Highfield, he can see healthy progress on many sites across Scotland, Wales and Northern England. With the drive towards sustainability now commonplace, it is something that Highfield has been striving towards for decades with Fred predicting: “In twenty to thirty years’ time we’ll be restricted to five-hectare clear fells like it is in Europe.”

Highfield opts for a more phased approach of clearing in order to establish new areas of young trees before more can be harvested, thereby complying with environmental legislation. 

When asked if any one site stands out for good or bad reasons, Fred recalled a recent project which threw up many challenges (often the most interesting of jobs) with steep and wet ground to contend with and a vicious winter spell at a site near Lairg. But, having now completed the planting, he can look back and allow himself a pat on the back.

Getting the planning through in time to get the work completed before the deadline for grant submissions can be a major challenge. The teams working with Fred were very good and pulled together and got it through despite the constraints. Had they failed to meet the deadline, it would have meant a further year of bureaucracy to get the specific grant variations approved within the yearly cycle.

“Not to mention the planning application to build a road over the hill to access the planting site," said Fred. "It was full of deer that had to be culled and the river down the middle was protected so a bridge had to be built and the water surveyed to protect the freshwater pearl mussels located within.”

All in all, it took the planning and operations team three years to complete the project, but it is one that is fondly looked back on by all at Highfield.

Chris Duncan's introduction to the industry came through a tree surgeon friend whom he worked with after dropping out of an engineering degree. Realising it was an area he was interested in, Chris attended Bangor University, walking away with a first-class honours degree in forestry – as well as a wife and child – in 2008.

Fresh out of university, Highfield was the first stop for Chris, putting in a two-and-a-half-year stint before making the switch to Bell Ingram. Having worked his way up to become a senior associate at Bell Ingram, he returned to Highfield in April 2020 to take up the position of senior forest manager.

READ MORE: Sawmill recruitment: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 7)

As the senior planner at Highfield, Chris oversees a team of three foresters specialising in grant applications, woodland creation and long-term forest plans as well as managing the IT systems and acting as the compliance manager for three ISOs – 9001 (Quality), 14001 (Environment) and 45001 (Health & Safety) – along with the woodland certification scheme. 

“The four core areas that planning covers are new woodland creation, existing management plans, carbon and felling permissions with everything centring around mapping," said Chris. "You can’t manage land without a map, so I have built a sophisticated spatial database for Highfield which holds all the properties and integrated it with various forestry decision support systems.”

The development of a system such as this has completely streamlined the planning process and gives those at Highfield the required information at their fingertips rather than requiring them to trawl through various resources to work out which species of tree would work best in which conditions.

Forestry Journal:

“While you can’t manage a forest completely from a computer screen, it is a good steer in the right direction, providing a basis on why you think one particular thing will work, then backing it up with the relevant evidence rather than hoping for the best,” Chris said.

The Highfield system removes the guesswork used by others and speeds up the process, doing things in the background, which would usually take hours, in minutes – improving the output using technology unique to Highfield, conveniently designed by Duncan with assistance from his colleagues. 

The planning team gets involved at the beginning and the end of any project. Chris said: “Taking Woodland Creation for example, a piece of ground is brought in and my team will design the woodland, complete the grant application, get the approval from Scottish Forestry to plant it while working in conjunction with the operations team – but we do all the paperwork.”

Without the key groundwork established by the planning team it would not be possible for the operations department to undertake its many projects at ground level. Following the execution of the planned project, Chris’s team has to re-evaluate the project and make the necessary alterations to the grant applications – depending on the changes made during planting operations (e.g. position or length of fencing).

Chris said: “In regards to long-term forest management, we plan how it will be harvested and restructured based on our survey work, experience and the decision support system, proposing what will be felled and how it will be replanted following UKFS.”

With the operations team covering the harvesting operations, it lies with Chris to oversee the in-between times, giving landowners the pathway to grants and restructuring incentives, thereby managing the woodland.

Over recent years, Highfield has been developing a reputation for producing extra income for forest owners through woodland creation. Woodland carbon units awarded for the creation of new woodland present owners with an interesting new opportunity.

Chris said: “The timber sequesters a certain unit of carbon in its life, with the level of credits awarded depending on whether it is commercial or native, and runs for the duration of the cycle. It is then validated by an independent organisation and monitored to make sure the project is meeting the projected levels of carbon removal.”

Owners can opt to sell their carbon credits after year 15 to anyone wishing to lower their carbon footprints (“essentially eBay for carbon”, according to Chris) or float the PIUs following completion of planting, thereby making more money from the plantation – with the help of Highfield Forestry. 

Firmly established, well regarded and pursuing fresh opportunities for its clients, Highfield Forestry looks likely to be flying high for decades to come. Summing up the key to its success, Iain said: “We are an honest company and give good value for money.”

What more could you ask for?