Despite being in its infancy, Delta Forest UK is already making a name for itself in the tree-planting game. But that side of the sector faces a number of challenges, according to its chief. 

THEY are an integral part of the UK’s ambitions to create 30,000 hectares of new woodland every single year. But the nation’s tree planters have long complained about poor wages, conditions, and a lack of respect for their craft. 

Trying to change that is one of the country’s newest planting companies. Launched in 2023, Delta Forest UK is small in stature but has big ambitions for what it can bring to forestry, having already completed several challenging jobs during its first full planting season. 

Based mainly in the south-west of England – but operating UK-wide – the firm arose from a French sister organisation, which it believes gives it an upper hand when it comes meeting ever-evolving demands (and more on that later). 

“We can do anything, whether that’s commercial, urban planting, or agroforestry,” said operations director, Katylily Westbury-Hawkins, one of two ‘full-time’ staff at Delta Forest UK, the other being foreman Will Lister. “You name it, we can do it. 

“Most of our work has been agroforestry conservation projects, mainly in the south-west of England. 

Forestry Journal: Work has mainly taken place in the south-west of England.Work has mainly taken place in the south-west of England. (Image: Supplied)

“Most of it is woodland planting, mainly on ex-farmland, and turning that into brand-new woodland. 

“We usually have quite a mix of species, and that really depends on the job.”  

As well as Katylily and Will, Delta Forest UK is made up of a team of five planters in the field, with around 12 in all ‘on the books’. 

While principally involved in tree planting, it does carry out some brushing here and there, but has no plans to go down the spraying and aftercare route just yet.

“There has been demand for agroforestry”

Forestry Journal was speaking to Katylily during an interesting period for the UK’s agroforestry. While the Forestry Commission has made no secret of its ambitions to get more farmers planting trees, their Welsh counterparts had taken to the Senedd to protest against moves to increase tree cover. 

What, then, has Delta Forest’s agroforestry experience been like? 

“When it comes to agroforestry, people want to ensure they have forests and woodlands that are environmentally strong and resilient,” Katylily continued. “The only way to do that is by having a species mix. We get a lot of willow. There is quite a broad mix of things. We do plant some hedgerows as well.

Forestry Journal: Delta Forest employs five planters, but can call on a pool of around 12.Delta Forest employs five planters, but can call on a pool of around 12. (Image: Supplied)

“There has been a bit of demand for agroforestry, and I think that is going to continue to grow with the grants out there and what is happening in Wales with the commitment farmers may need to follow. It is going to be part of our work that will continue to increase.

“Some people are … I wouldn’t say against it, but unsure about it. They are uncertain as to how this will benefit them and how it can work for them. Then you have people who are all on board and really keen.”

“The seasons are getting shorter” 

The UK’s planting struggles will come as no surprise to many in the sector. While the current government pledged in its manifesto to create 30,000 ha of new woodland each year, we aren’t even getting close, failing to do even half of that at any point of the current parliament. There is nothing to suggest that will change before this year’s general election. 

The reasons for these woes are as varied as the list is long, but a shortening season (due to a changing climate) is among them. This, Katylily believes, is something that hasn’t really been accepted by the wider industry. 

“With regards to the weather, it’s been not too bad,” she said of Delta Forest’s first planting season. “It was a bit of a delayed start to the season, but that’s to be expected now. Where we could have started in September a couple of years ago, that won’t be happening any more and you might be lucky with October moving forward. 

“We are not getting frost until later on. It makes things difficult for nurseries getting trees out because they have to wait for first frost. The seasons are getting shorter, which is problematic because there is still the same amount of trees to plant but less time to do it in. We need to pull together as an industry to make sure we maximise the time we do have in a shorter season.”

Forestry Journal: Katylily Westbury-Hawkins, Delta Forest UK’s operations director.Katylily Westbury-Hawkins, Delta Forest UK’s operations director. (Image: Supplied)

Pulling together is one thing, but ensuring planting can begin in a timely manner is another. Paperwork delays have long been blamed as one of the major woodland-creation hurdles by the industry, with forestry officials pledging to get to the bottom of the problem. 

“There have a been a lot of delays in funding and problems with getting funding in on time to get projects up and running,” Katylily added. “If there is that unknown, then that needs to be addressed.

“The problem is that it is not being properly appreciated by people outside of those doing the work. You still have people asking if we can plant trees in April – that’s risky and we just don’t know what it will be like then.

“There is a shortage of planters” 

Despite being in its infancy, Delta Forest UK was able to recruit its planting team with relative ease, relying on Katylily and Will’s connections, as well as support from their French counterparts.

However, they know they were fortunate. 

Forestry faces a recruitment crisis, with thousands of roles needing to be filled if the industry is to realise its full potential. But that’s easier said than done, especially when it comes to the rates paid to planters. Writing in Forestry Journal in 2022, Christopher Rhodes, an experienced forester, pointed out that the average rate for mound planting in the north of England was between £70 and £80 per 1,000 trees, which was identical to pay in 2010. This, Christopher wrote, was despite Forestry England increasing contract prices during that time period, meaning cash was not trickling down to the planters. This is something Delta Forest UK is desperate to change. 

“Finding people is not necessarily difficult; it’s retaining them,” Katylily said. “That’s why it’s important to us to give the planters what they need, so they know they can trust and rely on us. There is a shortage of planters in the UK. I don’t think we are fully feeling it at the moment, but as planting increases, it’s going to become more and more apparent. 

“There are several reasons why, but for me the main reason is wages, unfortunately. There isn’t a trickle down of money from the top down to the planters. Some are getting minimum wage for doing hard, physical labour in all types of weather conditions. 

“Why would you do that when you could go and get minimum wage elsewhere? We need to respect what they are doing and the craft they are being paid to do.”

She added: “One of the problems is that some companies are tied to tenders that last five years. If you look at it now, the price you put in 2019 wouldn’t get you anywhere close to what you need in 2024. There isn’t that flexibility and that’s something that needs to be looked at.” 

As for what the future holds, Katylily says Delta Forest will continue to grow sustainably, not overstretching resources or adding too hastily to them. 

Forestry Journal: Will Lister, left, and Gregory de Bie, of Delta’s French wing.Will Lister, left, and Gregory de Bie, of Delta’s French wing. (Image: Supplied)

In terms of the wider picture of forestry in the UK and beyond, she believes having that connection with foresters on the continent is more important than ever. 

She said: “With climate change, what’s happening over there might be what’s happening over here in 10 years’ time. It goes both ways. Things might be getting hotter for us and we might need what’s in the south of France, but places like Iceland might need what we have now. It’s about how we can help one another.”