After school I studied computer technology at college for two years but was unhappy with the prospect of working on military systems (this was at the height of the Vietnam war) and did badly in my end of year exams, I was offered a place at Bangor to study forestry and wood science subject to obtaining a biology A level. I took a job on a farm and attended nightschool for biology but harvest meant I missed the exam. As I had a young family to support I looked for a permanent job in agriculture but was unsuccessful until offered the job of trainee forest worker for an investment firm working in syndicated woodlands. Little did I know that the firm was a tax avoidance scheme and that sylviculture did not feature highly. The job was establishment of mostly conifer plantations in former broadleaved woodland. After a year I left to work in arboriculture as I had been an agile rock climber and some of the skills seemed to be common. I then branched out on my own into buying standing timber and subcontract felling and harvesting, within five years I had a fleet of 3 tractors, winches and grapple loader as the softwood industry moved from tree length to shortwood harvesting. By 2006 most of the sawmills I supplied had closed and I diversified into Forest Machine Operator Certification for NPTC and then snagging biomass combustion systems for 3Genergi but when that closed took a managerial position in a firm doing vegetation management on the railways from 2009-2017. Thus I had no formal training and learned on the job.
When I was looking for a job it was important to me to be in a primary industry, producing something. I did not want to be in a service industry. I was also keen to avoid large scale chemical use, one of my reasons for leaving EFG was due to the use of 2.4.5.T, a synthetic plant hormone mimic. I was naive about the environmental consequences of where we were going as a society but quickly learned and by 1974 I was arguing against softwood planting on lowland heath because of its rarity at RFS meetings. I saw that woodland was still being lost to agriculture right up till the 1986 Forestry act, though that did nothing to protect from loss to development. In that time I have seen the loss of half our songbirds locally, more than half of the insect life and a near total loss of reptiles like common lizards, slow worms and adders. I know that much of this is due to roads and development as well as agricultural herbicides and changes in cultural techniques but it means our woodlands become even more important as refuges for vestigial population of wildlife. So woodlands are important but they were preserved in the countryside because they gave more economic benefit than converting them to agriculture like the rest of the original wild-wood had been. Because of substitution by plastics and metals we no longer have the plethora of wooden utensils and tools that the small woodlands sustainably produced and because of the scale necessary for modern mechanised harvesting, and its brute force approach, small woodlands have fallen out of the economy other than their use for “sporting” shooting. All my work in woodlands was “economic”, I received no grants or subsidies and my income depended on making a profit between the standing price I paid and the delivered price I received less my costs. The wood I harvested had been planted and nurtured for decades and had utility because of it’s size, straightness and knot free timber. The current “conservationist” trend to establish trees at wide spacings and shut the gate after planting will not produce timber of this quality, ever. As such these woodlands do not emulate the previous practice which conserved them and their assorted wildlife and plants. Also trees managed for timber will produce stems better able to withstand the ravages of microbes finding their way in through the inevitable wounds from inevitable damage when lower limbs are lost with no means to actively compartmentalise the site.
Not to trust gentlemens’ agreements.
Would you recommend this job? What advice do you have for others interested in this career?
Working outside with woodlands, yes of course but from the above it will be understood that the work I did, supplying different grades of timber and roundwood to specialist markets no longer exist, the premium utility products, like ladder rungs, brush heads, chestnut fencing which were the jam on my bread and butter have gone and now the market has reduced to the lowest common denominator, biomass for subsidised power stations.
How do you see the industry changing over the next few years?
We currently import around 85% of our timber for structural use and even more for biomass. That reflects in the way we harvest our own woodlands in
a broad brush manner. Small niche markets fitted in with better silviculture.
The only obvious results of Brexit and Covid-19 are that we have suffered a large step change in UK’s continued economic decline compared with US
and EU, with near parity with $ and euro. How this is exhibited in our labour market I haven’t a clue, but I doubt any of the current working
generation will want to return to the level of manual labour of the 70s any more than my generation wanted to return to manual hoeing of crops of my parent’s generation. The petrol/plastics industry is a capital intensive oligarchy and the investment in it is massive so unless that is reduced, plastic goods will remain competitive, legislation being very unlikely to be implemented against it.