Launched in 2022, the Professional Forester Degree Apprenticeship has gone from strength to strength. We spoke to the course’s senior lecturer to find out more about the project.

“SHAPE the future of forestry.” 

As far as slogans go, it’s a rather apt one for the National School of Forestry (NSF) at the University of Cumbria, because that is exactly what it has been doing for more than 50 years; producing the foresters of tomorrow. While a lot has changed in that time, it’s the here and now that has got people talking. 

Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that opening motto in recent editions of Forestry Journal, with it brandished across an advert for the university. But more specifically, it is the catchy phrase being used to promote the NSF’s Professional Forester Degree Apprenticeship. 

Launched in 2022, the programme was the culmination of years of industry feedback, discussion, and input, as forestry figures wrestled with the challenge of addressing the sector’s impending skills shortages. A joint venture between the university, the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF), and the Forestry Commission (FC), it was the first time a degree-level forestry apprenticeship had been available in the UK. 

The university’s own Ancient Semi Natural Woodland just a short drive from the Ambleside campus.The university’s own Ancient Semi Natural Woodland just a short drive from the Ambleside campus. (Image: Supplied)

And it has already proven a major success. Not only has it more than doubled the number of forestry learners at the NSF – from around 60 two years ago to what will be approximately 140 at the start of the new academic year in September – it has provided students with vital on-the-job training and the chance to gain Chartered Forester status at the end of their degree. 

“As we all know, there is an acute shortage of trained staff coming through,” said senior lecturer and experienced forester, Mark Tomlinson. “People are leaving, and the demographic of the typical forester is more like me than a younger person. That old guard is starting to retire and move off – leaving positions that need to be filled with a younger workforce. 

“As policy has changed to meet climate change and the net-zero agenda, then the need for high-skilled staff has becomes acute.” 

After much discussion, led by the Forestry Skills Forum, it was decided that a degree-level forestry apprenticeship was the way to go, and at this time the university took a step back as the course was finalised. 

Then, a moment of great serendipity – as Mark puts it – occurred. On the eve of formally launching the new apprenticeship degree, it emerged that the FC was reestablishing its own Development Woodland Officer (DWO) programme, which had broadly similar aims to those of the NSF. The obvious next move was to combine the two, with the government agency’s cohort of learners joining the apprenticeship scheme. 


“We were well prepared for delivering a course like this, so we looked at the standard and mapped across where we had modules that met the aspects of it,” Mark continued. “It then became a case of filling any gaps, so we created new modules to meet the standard. 

“When we got to the point of delivery, the Forestry Commission in England was beginning to kickstart its Development Woodland Officer programme again. Someone had the idea of linking the two together, and that was a great moment of serendipity. So the FC recruited its first DWOs onto the apprenticeship. 

“The FC guaranteed a minimum of 15 apprentices on the course each year for the next three years, ensuring numbers meet the minimum threshold for the programme to be viable.”

Each yearly cohort has been made up of a portion of FC learners and others from across the industry, with organisations such as the Woodland Trust and National Trust sending their staff to upskill at the NSF. Students attend six one-week blocks throughout the year at three locations; Ambleside (where the majority of classroom learning takes place), Carlisle, and Cannock Chase. This flexibility provides opportunity to visit real-world sites, such as BSW at Dalbeattie, Egger in Hexham, or Workington’s Iggesund plant, not to mention the many stunning woodlands that surround all three hubs. 

“We are now in a really good place,” Mark said. “Our second cohort is coming to the end of their first year, and the first cohort are getting to the end of their second year. We are anticipating around 30 new entrants coming to us in September. 

“We had 26 in the second cohort, so we will be around 80 by September. That’s a really nice number.

"The academic team include staff seconded from the FC, roughly equivalent to one full-time lecturer. That means that we can really diversify the delivery.

“Apprentices need access to a variety of sites; for instance, if their job is focused on time in broadleaved woodlands, they would need to spend time in productive conifer woodlands, and vie versa.”

However, there is acknowledgement that some smaller forestry firms may be put off by the ‘loss’ of paid staff several times a year, but Mark is convinced the long-term benefits outweigh any short-term juggling. 

He said: “For a small employer, what do they need to provide? They have a paid employee in front of them. Every two months, that paid employee needs to be released for a week of study at the university. When they are away, they need accommodation, subsistence, etc. That might produce a sharp intake of breath for some. 

“But the benefits for the employer are huge. You are upskilling your staff. 

“At the end of their apprenticeship, hopefully, employers should be able to offer a range of roles to their apprentice.

“They will look to try and keep as many people on as possible. The whole point of this is to find another way to expand the workforce. 

“There has been enormous interest in the roles with the FC – around 900 applications – with between 100 and 120 then being interviewed for each cohort. In terms of getting the word round that forestry is a career choice, it has done a great job.

“For those who don’t make it onto the apprenticeship, we are recruiting them offering them the opportunity of a place on one of our onto a full-time courses. So, we aren’t just saying ‘see you later’.”

The second-year students with beat forester at Grizedale, Joe Daniels (fourth from right) who hosted them.The second-year students with beat forester at Grizedale, Joe Daniels (fourth from right) who hosted them. (Image: Supplied)

As for the nuts and bolts, students cover a variety of topics throughout their time at the university, from the basic principles of ecology to advanced silviculture, and the course always has one eye on the challenges of tomorrow. 

“One module which would probably illustrate this is our third-year module on climate-smart forestry,” Mark added. “That’s really looking at forestry in a world of climate change and wondering how we can mitigate it as foresters. What skills can we provide that will mean making our forests more able to adapt to changes in climate? 

“It’s all very well us planting up a species that loves the cold and thrives well in the northern part of the UK, only for it to get warmer and wetter. Do we then take a provenance of oak from northern France and use that rather than a local source?

“I think the apprentices are very lucky; I’d have loved to do an apprenticeship. They are academically very strong, many entrants arriving with undergraduate degrees already achieved.”

The past struggles of forestry to recruit won’t be news to anyone, nor will the threat of an impending skills crisis, with the ICF saying in November 2021 that the sector faced a shortfall of 10,000 trained staff. That’s why Mark is so keen to shout about the success of the course. 

“We have always had, as a subject area, difficulties in getting the message out there that this is a really good career,” Mark said. “Schools don’t see forestry as an option. If you go back to school and think about what you did, you may have looked at the rainforests of Brazil. You didn’t go out into the woods that are here in the UK. That’s just baffling to me. 

“You have a generation now trapped with this climate crisis and they want to do something about it. 

“They want to find a way of correcting the mistakes of recent generations – and current governments. 

“But I do think we are in a better position now than we were a decade ago.”