Forestry – a fascinating topic and a hugely rewarding career
By Dr James Walmsley, Senior Lecturer in Forestry
A love for trees and forests is almost universal and the fact that most people cannot tell you the difference between an oak and an ash does not detract from their widespread appreciation and enjoyment. Yet relatively few people consider going to university to study forestry, or conceive of the idea that one day, somehow they might actually get paid for the privilege of working for the protection, management and stewardship of trees and forests. This short article attempts to explain some of the roles available in commercial forestry and arboricultural work. Forestry alone is estimated to employ over 43,000 people in the UK and hence there is an incredibly diverse range of roles.
Commercial forestry includes roles that relate to the management of a forest or forests in order to provide an economic return for an investor (such as a pension fund), a private estate or an individual. Income has traditionally come from the sale of timber and, in a number of private forests, shooting. A number of large private forests also lease areas for wind turbines, deriving a useful rental income. Sports such as mountain biking, rally events, dirt bikes, orienteering, triathlons, horse riding and Segway are increasingly popular and can provide additional income and opportunities for commercial forests, as well as the harvesting of more obscure resources such as moss (for floristry), mushrooms and material for Christmas wreaths.
The production of high quality timber requires planning over long timescales (several decades or more) and demands that trees are managed carefully throughout their lifetime, including activities such as ‘beating up’ (replacing planted trees that have died), pruning / brashing (to try and improve the quality of individual trees), thinning (for example, to reduce the total number of trees and favour those of the highest quality), perhaps on several occasions.
Entry into commercial forestry typically starts with an ‘assistant manager’ role, whereby the assistant will provide support to a more experienced forest manager. Essential skills and qualities generally include a driving licence, high level of self-organisation, awareness of environmental, health and safety legislation, commercial acumen and numeracy. Forestry specific knowledge and expertise is also essential, including an understanding of forest operations, GIS, planning (including management planning), silviculture, forest ecology, soils, common tree species and diseases, and timber markets. Excellent communication skills are absolutely vital. Applicants are often expected to be working towards achieving Chartered Forester1 status. It’s important to note that such roles exist in both the private and public sectors, but that the focus of these roles can vary considerably.
Commercial forestry is not solely limited to work ‘in the forest’ – for example there are also a number of private forest nurseries that supply tree seedlings. A single nursery may supply 10 or 15 million seedlings per year! And at the other end of the tree life cycle, there are sawmills which process logs into a huge range of different products.
Arboriculture is concerned with the cultivation, study and management of individual trees and, like forestry, spans a wide range of different roles. Forestry and arboriculture are closely related in that they both focus on trees, but there are some major differences, perhaps the greatest being that of scale – forestry involves managing large areas of trees, whereas arboriculture is concerned much more with individual or very small groups of trees.
The trees of interest to arboriculturalists are typically located in built up areas, in or around private or public gardens, or in areas where they present a potential existing or future hazard, such as those growing beneath or near power lines, or alongside roads, railways or other key infrastructure. They may also be ‘special’ trees which are recognised for their cultural, historic, aesthetic and / or other values, and may have a Tree Protection Order placed on them, thereby affording them a higher level of protection from human interventions.
Unlike foresters, who typically do not leave the ground, arborists (or tree surgeons) are trained to ascend trees using specialist climbing and chainsaw equipment and / or the use of mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs), to enable them to access tree canopies safely and perform operations accurately.
Arboriculture is essentially a service, whereby tree management is often carried out due to safety or tree health concerns. Timber and wood is produced as a by-product of this service, compared to forestry, where timber is often (although not always) produced with a particular end-market in mind.
Arboriculture spans a wide range of roles and opportunities. Large private arboricultural businesses help organisations responsible for railways, roads and power distribution to maintain their tree resources, which in many cases can be considerable and extend to thousands of hectares. Smaller businesses might consist of just one or a few members of staff, which focus on managing trees for private landowners, but they may also get involved in the management of trees alongside roads and other infrastructure.
Essential skills and qualities for arborists include knowledge of tree biology, identification and disease, hazard and risk assessment, health, safety and environmental legislation, numeracy, and the ability to use specialist equipment, such as climbing gear / MEWPs, mapping technology and tree processing machinery. They also need to have excellent communication skills in order to liaise with a wide range of stakeholders, or to be able to explain clearly to members of the public or landowners the implications of not safely managing individual trees. The ability to negotiate is also a huge asset, for example, to enable access to specific sites or to arrange road closures to ensure safe working.
MSc Forestry (distance learning) – a route into the forestry profession
Our distance learning MSc Forestry2 students include those who are already working full-time for organisations including the National Trust, Forestry Commission England and Scotland, Wildlife Trusts, private forest management companies, certification bodies and other public, private and charitable organisations. But we also have students from a wide range of other backgrounds, including building service engineers, bankers, travel agents, house-husbands and semi-retired folk who are simply passionate about forestry and thirsty for a challenge! One of the major advantages of being able to study via distance learning is, of course, the ability to keep on working at the same time, hugely reducing the financial commitment and income foregone that is involved with a year of full-time study. Career change, career development, gaining Chartered Forester status or simply gaining a formal qualification are all common motivations for registering for the distance learning programme.
What goes without saying is that the degree alone does not secure interesting or relevant employment. Successful graduates are those that have taken their studies seriously and used them as a foundation on which to develop their own area of expertise, undertake relevant voluntary experience or internships, develop their professional network through engagement with the ICF, RFS and other organisations, go on to successful careers. It is not unusual for graduates of these programmes to become ‘experts’ in a particular topic by the time they graduate. For example, one of our very recent graduates from the MSc Forestry (distance learning) programme is now a leading UK and European expert on the ‘Wild Service Tree’ (Sorbus torminalis), simply as a result of him challenging his interest through the formal MSc dissertation process. He is now also working for the National Trust as a Woodland Manager. All the more impressive when you consider that just over three years ago, he was a building services engineer with no forestry experience!
Royal Forestry Society (2016) The difference between arboriculture and forestry, available from http://c-js.co.uk/2zJKlME accessed October 2017