Our young, travelling forester reports on his latest expedition to a Somerset woodland to undertake the removal of some invasive non-native species – a job that starts him thinking about his body’s limitations.

MY expedition to Somerset certainly started with a bang! I’ll call it an expedition, but it was really a working holiday and much to the embarrassment of my girlfriend (and the amusement of Jonathon Cook and his workforce) I had failed to attach my caravan correctly. My first attempted departure resulted in a snapped cable, a broken plug and a hitch that had gone to ground. There’s nothing worse than crushing the anticipation of departure; you’ve done what you came to do and left a good impression and you’re sat in a nice warm seat with your girlfriend excited about where you’re headed with a leaving party waving approvingly and BANG! However, with a quick bit of rewiring, some hammering in a vice and two very strong machine operators as jacks we were once again underway.

READ MORE: Dogging in Wiltshire, hand cutting and generous pay: Danny, Champion of the Woods (April 2022)

The job in Somerset was a grant-funded removal of invasive non-native species from a small, 26-acre wood. Rhododendron and gorse are certainly not top of my favoured species of plants to clear; however, the job did tick other boxes. Primarily, after weeks of work which involved winching large, unpredictable and therefore dangerous trees, my physical and mental energies were somewhat drained and the idea of cutting some scrub for a bit of downtime – and with remuneration – seemed like a good move. Scattered among the gorse and rhododendrons were a lot of self-sown Western hemlock saplings which all had to be hand pulled. What an exciting opportunity for my girlfriend!

Did you know there are 1,024 species of rhododendron? It appears to originate in the Himalayas but has spread worldwide. It’s principally a heath plant and was introduced to the UK from Spain and Portugal in 1763 where it was an exhibit in botanical gardens. Its suitability to our climate meant it was used on big estates as cover for game birds. The shrub is now out of control and causing huge damage to native woodlands, heaths and other wild places. Little did those pioneers in 1763 realise that in 2022 I would be getting paid to destroy it.

I’m still not sure why my girlfriend joined me. As I blasted my way through the gorse and rhododendrons with her following in my wake and pulling the Western hemlock, I pondered the possibilities. We’ve just had a new kitchen fitted, so maybe it was the prospect of getting that paid off, or maybe it was the warm Somerset sunshine. More likely it was the realisation that it was the only opportunity she was ever likely to get to have any extended period of time with me. Either way, she tagged along and did an impeccable job on the hemlock while her delicate indoor skin was constantly harassed and shredded by the brambles. I can only imagine her love for me grew stronger.

Dulverton in the Barle Valley is one of those beautifully untouched corners of the world.

It was almost like being in a time warp and, judging by the few tourists I saw, looked like an ideal holiday destination in retirement. That’s not to say it was not an ideal location for two 20-year-olds on a working holiday. It never rained, the sun shone and we got plenty of face-to-face meetings with a wide diversity of wildlife. Our professional work status meant that as tourists we got the pick of the best pitches on a range of beautiful caravan sites and managed not to drive off without unhitching first. We ate and drank in some traditional hostelries and interacted with a wide range of retired individuals from all walks of life.

Forestry Journal:

Because we met and chatted to so many retirees, I couldn’t help but pose the question: ‘what is the best age to retire?’ I realise, of course, that retirement or the definition of retirement has changed somewhat of the years. Gone are the days when you worked in the same job until you were 65, received your gold watch and then died. Nevertheless, I was curious to know where they worked, what they did, where they lived and how they’d made their money. Interestingly, 55 seemed to be the eyeballs-out, full-on limit. Some form of consultancy often kicked in after that, just to keep the wheels oiled and the wolves at bay. One constant among this greying group of seniors was that they had all led much less physical lives than myself, which enabled them to still keep marching up and down the hills and into the tea rooms.

For the last few years I’ve been closely observing the health and fitness of older operators in the forestry industry. While I hardly qualify as a medical researcher, my own observations are somewhat bleak. A large percentage of friends in the industry over 50 have been ravaged with osteoarthritis and virtually all have new hips and knees, plus the moans and groans that accompany their every movement. One could argue all occupations come with some risk to long-term health, but clearly that varies depending on the job. Who knows what people are going to face in their old age when they’ve spent 40 years staring at a computer screen? However, for anyone who’s spent over 30 years in the woods it has been, as some would say, a very tough paper round.

In my early 20s I used to tell people with light humour that when I eventually did reach retirement age I planned on being a very arthritic and broken old man. Now in my late 20s that prospect has changed and it’s not even slightly funny. I see myself, unless I make some changes, looking down the gun barrel of retirement on endless painkillers and with a fear of stairs. ‘Gun barrel’ is an interesting metaphor as most livestock in this condition would be humanely dealt with.

And so what form could these changes take? I don’t choose the easiest of jobs. In fact, I often take the jobs others just don’t want to attempt. Those people close to me often comment about this and I’m beginning to listen. I currently spend the majority of days holding onto a large HP saw and then on my ‘days off’ I plant trees, brush-cut heather and have a two-month break in the summer to shear 10–15,000 sheep.

Forestry Journal:

At the moment I find this workload quite easy physically, but realise I can’t keep going at this rate. I had a very active childhood growing up on a farm and so work felt like a natural extension of that lifestyle. Because I never really stop, I don’t find it difficult to get going again. Some observers seem to think I’m some sort of superhuman, while others think I’m plain crazy. Fortunately, I understand that as far as my own health is concerned I’m not superhuman and have to adapt to the challenge of age.

This was brought home recently when I was working with an 18-year-old lad. I noticed I’d already started to slow down in comparison, but was just as productive as I was more reliant on good technique than pure energy. Will was not your average modern teenager brought up on fast food and video games, but in some ways he reminded me very much of myself, having been raised on red meat and physical work. His father is in forestry and it was a pleasure for me to work with someone younger but just as enthusiastic. He was 10 years younger, taller and stronger and had a great spring in his step, most of the time three paces ahead of me. However, my superior technique enabled me to keep pace with him. If you could take the experience of the retired individual and marry it with the physicality of youth only then would you create a true superman.

I know there are easier lines of work out there which would be much kinder on the body. Maybe I could find a steady, take-it-easy, nine-to-five occupation, but that just isn’t me.

I love what I do and the places I visit and the people I meet, and feel I’m progressing well in the things I do. Yes, this type of work has consequences, but it’s an occupational hazard and one which I’m prepared to accept. If that does lead to becoming more incapacitated in later life then so be it. I’m sure as I look back on my life as an old man with plastic hips, meals on wheels and a cocktail of painkillers I’ll have no regrets and be proud of what I’ve achieved. Trees can live a lot longer than humans and some of the changes I’ve made will be here long after we’re all gone. The fact is, forestry’s a dangerous game and I already have friends who didn’t make it this far.