Our young jobbing forestry contractor faces off against inexperienced bureaucrats and innovative plant protection on a recent fencing job, losing his patience – and not a little blood – in the process.

THERE is always an issue when governments or departments throw money at a problem. In the aftermath of COVID we are now discovering that many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money intended for the protection of businesses was in fact embezzled and defrauded. The allocation of grants for tree planting and fencing may not be anywhere near the same scale and nor are accusations being made of direct theft, but comparisons can be made. 

The directive is simple – encourage farmers to plant more trees and hedges. To assist in this aim, the government through DEFRA will provide grants which have a sell-by date attached to them. To help administer the process, people with absolutely no rural experience and who know nothing about tree planting or stock fencing will be appointed. These people will hold the lofty title of ‘grant funding officers’. Their only instruction was probably through a powerpoint presentation in some gloomy urban office or these days more likely working from home. The best analogy I can use in this whole saga is the Muppets, so if you’re unfamiliar with the characters from Sesame Street you may struggle. Grant funding officers will hereby be known as ‘Grant Muppets’ and their knowledge of the entire process is probably equivalent to that of Kermit the Frog.

The government website is a very useful tool and provides clear information regarding the regulations for all grants both past and present. Combined with a little experience and some research, one would assume it’s difficult to go wrong let alone provide an opportunity for a Grant Muppet (GM) to withdraw funding. As an avid reader of all things forestry, one thing which worried me was that I had never seen ‘grant funding officer’ positions advertised in any forestry forum.

Maybe an error on my part which I’m prepared to accept, but you’d think this is where you’d find suitably qualified, experienced people who’d be ideal for such roles. Alas, such hopes were dashed.


My first encounter with a GM involved a job where I was asked to advise on the type of fencing to be used prior to planting. All grants specify that any fence is new and stock proof. In this case the type of stock to be contained by the fence were to be solely horned Hebridean sheep. As any shepherd will tell you, there are two types of wire fencing for sheep: netting and bare wire. Netting is the superior of the two as when any tension is lost the fence is still stock proof to both sheep and lambs. However, in the case of horned sheep, bare wire must be used, as you can see on any farm raising Scottish Blackface or Swaledale sheep. The reason for this is quite obvious as a running horned sheep is prone to breaking its neck as its horns hank on the wire. If the initial impact doesn’t kill it, then the stress and the struggle that follows usually does.

The GM that came to inspect the new fence (we’ll call her ‘Miss Piggy’) didn’t see things this way. Clearly horned sheep hadn’t featured in her powerpoint presentation, so she simply took the bare wire fence (being a fraction cheaper than the netting) as a flagrant attempt to profiteer and withdrew all funding. This elderly client and her dozen pet Hebridean sheep now stood several thousand pounds in debt with the installation of this shiny new fence which, to be honest, sat uneasily on my conscience. What was particularly worrying was the fact that I had already ordered several thousand hedge plants to sit alongside the new fence, which would push her even further into debt.

Forestry Journal:

What annoyed me most in this situation was the fact that it was one of these very GMs that had persuaded my client at a local agricultural show to apply for the grant in the first place. The nice, shiny stall at the show with nice, shiny GMs promoting nice, shiny fences and hedges had clearly won her over, so she applied as required, only to be refused a few weeks later.

Clearly this wasn’t the end of the story and so I decided to go on an MH (Muppet Hunt). I bypassed Miss Piggy and went straight to Kermit and Big Bird. The emails flowed back and forth, usually very early in the mornings or late in the evenings – as some of us have to plant trees and hedges and can’t do this from home – until finally they accepted that a bare wire fence (common to shepherds for over 160 years) is an acceptable form of fencing. Hallelujah! 

When someone finally returned to inspect the hedge (let’s call him Elmo), he was amazed at its quality. In fact, he went so far as to say it was probably the best hedge he’d ever seen in his career. This immediately set alarm bells ringing. Over what period of time had he had a career? A week? The hedge in question certainly wasn’t my finest work as it had been constructed in some haste and as a bit of a favour. In fact, all 240 metres had been laid one Saturday morning by a rather motley group of hungover, unmotivated staff. The spacing was correct and the species were correct, but the straightness of the canes was well and truly dubious.

I had ordered 120 cm canes which I’d cut down to 90 cm to ensure there were few breakages. When they’d arrived some were as thick as cricket bat handles and not what some hungover cane-pushing planter wanted to force into heavy clay ground one after another. One of the planters actually resorted to using a fencing maul over a mash hammer, claiming it was faster. The result was a very sturdy but crooked one, which our GM interpreted as an expert and professional job and as he headed off, inspection complete, I’m sure I heard: “It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights ...”

I decided to save the sharpest planting job this season until last, introducing a whole new danger to the planters called the ‘cactus guard’. Spikey by name and spikey by nature this innovation from Spain is designed to keep all manner of stock away from your plants – essentially a wire cage festooned with razor-sharp spikes on every corner. On day one, at least four members of the planting team donated blood to the cause and by day two (having quickly learned from the experience) everyone was cocooned in eye protection, leather gloves, chainsaw pants, etc. Despite these precautions, four members still lost blood and the worst of those (much to my embarrassment) was me. As I bent down to staple the bottom of a post, one of the spikes opened my knee like a butcher’s knife slicing into ham. The embarrassing part was I’d just delivered a lecture to the crew on safety and the need not to mess around with them. I hobbled back to the truck to assess the damage and repair the wound. Unfortunately, none of the plasters in my new shiny first-aid kit were large enough for the task, so I dowsed it in disinfectant, wrapped it in a muslin bandage and sauntered back to work as though nothing had happened, while blood sloshed around inside my boot.

Forestry Journal:

Unfortunately, these guards seem quite effective and I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of them over the coming years. The remaining 800 should offer a good training opportunity to improve handling techniques, provided no-one severs a major blood vessel.

These cactus guards are much more cost effective than the traditional post-and-rail guards for planting trees in areas with livestock. In the short time we’ve been using them we’ve already developed techniques to make the job more efficient by using a single wooden post and staples rather than the laborious process of bits of rebar and numerous ties as outlined in the instructions.

Also, putting in posts with a petrol post knocker has been a revelation. It’s a bit of an effort to carry the 30 kg machine around, but once it’s sat on top of the post it drives it in effortlessly. Furthermore, it can go to places that would be otherwise difficult to access and it’s generally kept everyone in good spirits not having to get the fencing maul from the back of the truck. 

When I’ve asked people with cactus guard experience about how many they can do in a day, the answer has always been really vague. In fact, I’ve never received an answer. Now that we’re getting into this job, I can report that one experienced tree planter in one average day can do about 40 cactus guards, which also includes a midday blood transfusion.