Our young, travelling forester reports on a six-week stint in Devon and considers a new ‘ground-breaking’ apprenticeship scheme.

WHEN I began to plan my winter/spring calendar last year, there was one period that I was most looking forward to and that was a six-week contract in Devon. I say ‘plan’, which sounds very specific and organised and precise, when it was really an intention.

Calls had been made and details discussed but life in the forestry industry is rarely so precise. Devon, in my opinion, is the most northern area of the South.

Once I’m half an hour from the M5 it reminds me of a warmer Cumbria. I’m not just talking climate here but the people themselves; their general occupations and their understanding of country life. When working in other areas of the South and the Midlands, one senses the effect of creeping urbanisation. Trying to explain to people in these areas what I actually do is an increasingly frustrating and thankless task. They stare at me with hollow eyes and after a brief moment of analysis usually blurt out: “Oh! You’re a tree surgeon?” Inward cringe. Not essentialARB reading on my coffee table!

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The level of public ignorance about trees and woodlands in many parts of the UK is staggering. The vast majority seem to believe what they see is naturally occurring. No-one plants them and no-one maintains them and the people who want to cut them down are evil nature-hating capitalists with shares in palm oil. 

My first social experience of Devon was very reassuring. The pub was housed in a 700-year-old building situated on an old drover’s road and I was just tucking into a pint of Jail Ale – on account of the brewery’s proximity to Dartmoor prison – and I happened to start a conversation with a local shepherd. The landlord, in between pulling pints, kept disappearing into the store room where he was delivering pups from his pet spaniel. I couldn’t have felt more at home!

My six-week contract in Devon was prior to the bird nesting season and so it was quite precise and ended at the beginning of April. It involved 700 cube of hardwood across several clearfells, which consisted of a mix of oak, ash and birch, with the majority being sweet chestnut. I don’t have a lot of experience with sweet chestnut but this turned out to be one of the most dangerous of the trees I’ve worked with. These chestnut trees grew in huge coppices, which should have been felled 20 years ago. The average stem was 2.5 tonnes, with a heavy lean, soft, full of shake and felled at breast height. Trying to get any direction on them was very difficult and so all I could do was clear the path ahead of them, sever and then let them go.

Barber chairs were inevitably between myself and an experienced Welsh cutter; between us we’d average about three a day. The boss didn’t care how gobbed-up, letterboxed, or dog-toothed they were; it didn’t matter. The shake was so severe that they were happiest just barber chairing and letting them doing their own thing. Luckily one stem went sideways while boring out the letterbox, while others would burst into as many as four separate logs upon hitting the ground. The only thing you could do in preparation for the inevitable splitting was to map out an escape route a little like the M5. The one thing I did learn from the Welshman was that it’s much easier to run faster if you drop your saw!

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I think on reflection I did enjoy the chestnut experience. I was certainly never bored, although I did on occasion find myself contemplating other career options! I was glad to see the Welshman scamper away through the brash at full speed to avoid the final stem.

For the duration of the job I was stationed on a large caravan site called the River Dart Country Park, prior to its opening in April. As a result the site was blissfully quiet and I had the choice of 400 possible pitches. I arrived a few days after a storm, which had scattered a few branches around the site and across the roads. When I arrived I was greeted by three gentlemen all making a mountain out of a molehill over some small branches which had fallen on the private entry road. The three gentlemen were the managers of the site, or so they introduced themselves; the garden manager, the maintenance manager and the office manager. Had modesty prevailed then the gardener, the secretary and the handyman might have sufficed. Having established the hierarchy and explained who we were we quickly cleared the lime tree remnants from the tarmac.

What strikes me here is that no one wants to be associated with jobs at the bottom of the ladder. Every one appears to want to be  a manager but without putting in the hard yards first. In forestry there is a shortage of workers across all aspects of the industry.

From hand cutters to tree planters, wagon drivers to sawmill workers and machine operators, the list goes on. The same shortages exist in other less ‘hands-on’ areas of forestry management. To try and alleviate the problem the Forestry Commission has revealed a new ‘ground-breaking’ apprenticeship scheme. The scheme appears to focus on management. It appeals for people from all backgrounds and abilities to join up whereupon you will be fast-tracked to fill shortages at management levels.

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The ‘ground-breaking’ scheme appears to give little store to the blunt chains, the cold and wet winters, the burst pipes or the bogs you have to crawl through to get anywhere.

Pictures show someone wandering through a sun-kissed beechwood with a clipboard en route to becoming a chartered forester or manager. I spot major flaws in this ‘ground-breaking’ scheme. Firstly, these forestry managers aren’t going to have anyone to manage and, secondly, no one likes being told what to do by someone who can’t do it themselves.

Getting into hand cutting isn’t cheap. I think it’s a well-paid job when you’re established and skilled, although some would disagree! The initial outlay on training, tickets, first aid, PPE, saws, wedges, caravan and everything else is probably in excess of £10,000.

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Nor is this quickly recouped, as it will be a couple of years of low production and poor technique until a person is of value to a contractor. Not really an attractive career prospect! I eased myself into contract cutting over a number of years, subsidised by working in a sawmill and tree planting. Government aid here should be targeted at helping apprentices to get set up and in subsidising wages for the first couple of years.

A very similar scheme could be used for machine operators and tree planters. Make the industry more attractive to would-be employees and make it more affordable at entry level. With a surplus of staff at the ‘hands-on’ level, it wouldn’t be long before a few confident souls poked their heads above the parapet and became managers. In my experience these are the best foresters I’ve worked for. They know the job, they understand the complications and the difficulties and they know how to remedy these things to get everything running smoothly.

READ MORE: Development Woodland Officer: Applications open for new apprenticeship scheme creating 45 forestry posts

In contrast, I was once involved in 900-tonne mixed conifer clearfell. This was organised by a self-proclaimed forestry agent and biomass buyer. Initially, the plan was to cut five different specs of saw-logs and chip. Halfway through the job it changed to two specs; larch chip and mixed chip. This involved going through and separating a growing 300-tonne pile of saw-logs which continued to grow as the forestry agent had managed to fall out with the haulier who steadfastly refused to move anything. Three months later, to my great surprise, I actually received payment for the felling.

So, in three years’ time, when a budding young forestry manager appears on the scene, fresh from some urban college having just completed his ‘ground-breaking’ apprenticeship scheme, I look forward to being advised on extraction routes and other up-to-date woodland ideas.