MARK Tomlinson, senior lecturer at the University of Cumbria’s National School of Forestry, has had a busy few weeks. Alongside the final weeks of formal teaching and leading a Lowland study tour, rewriting curriculums for the school’s forestry courses for a mid-semester revalidation (informed by the Forestry Skills Forum Report) has added to an already busy time.

Awaiting comments on the curriculum changes, he is now finishing the final module of his PgC in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education in his spare time. In the school’s time, he is catching up on administrative tasks for the FdSc Forestry Foundation Course, of which he is course leader. He is also coordinating the ‘Work Place’ module for all courses, marking second-year assignments for the modules he teaches in ‘Forest Design Planning’ and ‘Recreation in Woodlands’ (Interpretation Panels) and final-year dissertations, uploaded directly to him via Blackboard, the University’s VLE system.

From somewhere, he finds a couple of hours for ‘A Day in the Working Life’, one of this occasional series of features on those working within the forestry sector.
The National School of Forestry (NSF) has been educating forestry students for over 50 years. Based in Ambleside in the Lake District National Park, with 28,500 ha of woodlands on the doorstep, they offer four higher education programmes: the FdSc Forestry (three-year Foundation Degree, comprising two academic years and a placement year); BSc (Hons) Top-Up (Foundation Degree Top-Up, available to FdSc Forestry students to continue their studies or to those students with a similar qualification in a related area of study); BSc (Hons) Forest Management and BSc (Hons) Woodland Ecology and Conservation.

The NSF hosts nearly 60 students. Eight are currently on work experience placements. Welcoming students of all ages (including mid-career changers), the school takes pride in producing both foresters that can assess the ecological and conservational aspects of woodlands, and ecologists and conservationists that understand forestry.

Mark is personal tutor to all students on the Foundation Degree and he lectures to students on modules ‘Recreation in Woodlands’, ‘Forest Design Planning’ and ‘Forest Management Plan’. He ensures that all modules are fit for purpose, up to date, engaging and practically applied.

Explaining ‘practically applied’, he says: “Modules are introduced in our lecture theatres or classrooms. Then we go out into the forest, visiting everything from privately owned hazel coppice woodlands and England’s highest (altitude) Atlantic Oak woodland (Young Wood) to large commercial forests such as Winlatter (Forestry Commission Mountain Forest Park) and Grizedale Forest Park (Foresters) to collect data. Students then analyse their findings and produce work based on these visits.”

He illustrates using the module ‘Forest Management Plan’, for which students will write a management proposal, including income and objectives projections.
“Students spend up to 24 hours of guided study in the forest, looking for, identifying and collecting data, e.g. inventory for data analysis or soils, biomass and timber. Back on campus, they look at production forecasting, yield models, ArcGIS, ecological site classifications, NVC (National Vegetation Classification – a way of identifying a woodland’s history based on the ground flora and soils still present, each woodland type being associated with specific species and soils) and recreation classifications, and then put their plan together. Gathering data in groups, they learn how to work together as a team. For the inventory, they must share information in such a way that it works with the ArcGIS attribute tables that they all use.” 

Students have on average three days of formal teaching per week and these practical lessons are priceless, in that it is in the forest that a student’s understanding often clicks into place.

For a lecturer, the forest can present challenges. “I had a good site for the ‘Forest Management Planning’ module until the Beast from the East did its worst and left approximately 40 ha windblown. Looking for alternative locations, I contacted local landowners and managers for the use of a 100-ha woodland, predominantly commercial, with some broadleaf aspects and statutory designations. The Forestry Commission came through with a site near Coniston.”

Mark, on campus most days, sometimes works from home or from a desk in the Carlisle campus. An enthusiasm for the forest and experience in the sector are important for a lecturer, as is patience when teaching students how to think about this new subject differently. “Foresters have to consider longevity and some concepts are not intuitive: a rotation length of 40 years for a crop of Sitka spruce is not something you really think about. Students must also understand that they can only do the best that they know how to do today to meet today’s objectives.”

Each student’s experience is reinforced by those shared by guest speakers, including members of the ICF, Confor and the RFS, as well as local foresters. Mark has added speakers (national and local community representatives) from the Woodland Trust into the mix, via a football connection.

Building practical experience, the NSF Forestry Society works with the Lake District National Park and National Trust to organise tree plantings to benefit the local community and the university, most recently planting up a piece of university-owned land as a wildlife reserve.

NSF students can gain theoretical and practical experience further afield. Two Woodland Ecology students have just returned from a semester at Humboldt State University (Northern California), where they had the opportunity to take an optional module [in] ‘Fire Ecology’. They were there during last year’s wildfires, providing some hair-raising stories to share.

Opportunities for recognition are offered by prizes sponsored by Egger (John Patterson is an NSF alumnus), Tilhill, the ICF, the RFS and the Woodland Trust. Mark won his own ‘Special Award for Outstanding Performance on the BSc (Hons) Forest Management during the 2002–3 academic year. “It gives a student confidence, knowing that their hard work has been noticed and they can mention them in interviews.”

Originally from Hampshire, Mark, 55, spent 10 years in carpet sales before travelling to Asia with his partner. Settling in Hong Kong, he worked in construction on large civic projects and smaller bespoke architectural builds. “I worked for an Australian whose company supplied laminated glued timbers; a niche market.  While sitting on a glulam beam, 7 m above the ground and waiting for someone to pass me tools, it struck me that trees, woods, forests and the sustainability of building with them was to be my future.”

Moving to Australia, they passed through Indonesia as large forest fires were destroying the countryside. “What I thought was a natural disaster was probably ‘helped along’ to facilitate palm oil plantations. Reacting to the devastation, I dreamed of qualifying in some sort of forestry to return and replant Indonesia.”

Returning to England in 1998, Mark, by now in his mid 30s, was offered a place on the BSc (Hons) Social and Community Forestry at the National School of Forestry and he (and his young family) settled in Cumbria. Graduating in 2003, Mark joined Newton Rigg’s teaching faculty helping students with learning difficulties, then teaching gamekeepers at the new Centre of Vocational Excellence for Forestry and Arboriculture.

In 2006, he joined the Forestry Commission in Aberdeenshire in Conservancy (grants and licences), moving to West Argyll to manage restocking sites (30 ha a time) and small recreation facilities.  In Ae Forest, as direct production harvesting forester, he brought to market 90,000 cubic metres of timber a year, managed three contracting teams and learned the art of supplying customers at times that suited them.

As Ae’s Communities, Recreation and Tourism Forester, he managed three of the ‘7stanes’ mountain biking routes (Mabie, Dalbeattie and Ae), a team of rangers, operational staff and contractors. “We also managed forest walking trails, car parking and permissions for motor sports, archery and orienteering. Anything people wanted to do in the forest would come through me.”

The Coalition government (2010) brought with them Forestry Commission recruitment and salary freezes. “Not knowing where my next opportunity lay, in 2014 I left to join Newton Rigg College (Further Education). In December 2015, I moved to the university’s campus at Ambleside (Higher Education) as senior lecturer.”

One requisite of Mark’s post is to gain a postgraduate teaching qualification. Once complete, he may not replant Indonesia but does hope to pursue a social forestry research project. “Health and wellbeing is what I like to read about. The benefit to people of trees, woods and forests gets me fired up.”

As manager of the NSF’s Twitter page, Mark reads and shares articles of local, national and international interest. Memberships (via the NSF) of the ICF, Woodland Heritage, Confor and the RFS are as important for his own learning as they are for students. 

Representing the University of Cumbria at the Forestry Skills Forum, Mark’s course revalidations incorporate feedback from the Forestry Skills Study for England and Wales (published October 2017), to ensure that the NSF’s courses reflect and deliver the skills relevant for graduate foresters.

“In September I am relaunching the part-time block release FdSc Forestry programme. It is aimed at professionals already working in the industry without a formal higher education qualification, or those from other sectors with an interest in forestry. A student needs 240 credits to gain a Foundation degree. The 12 modules taught are worth 20 credits each and we teach four modules a year over three years. Part-time students will come to us for one intensive week per module, filling in with blended learning. In my mid 30s, I was a career-changer. I am now mid 50s. I do not regret a second of it.”  

To reinforce their learning, all NSF undergraduates go on study tours to the Highlands and to the Lowlands. Plus, the Forestry Commission, Tilhill Forestry, Scottish Woodlands and others visit the NSF with a view to offering graduate placements. 

Further job opportunities are posted on the VLE Blackboard site. “Many students come to us because of the applied nature of the courses, producing foresters fit to work in forestry. Our work is to ensure students get the knowledge, understanding and skills to be able to step straight into industry and a good job. We have research-focused lecturers who convey knowledge underpinned by their own research and industry experts who share the reality.

Of last year’s 14 graduates, 40% went straight into employment with the companies they had placements with, highlighting the importance of placements. A further 46% are working in the land-based sector, mostly forestry.”

Moving from forestry’s front line back into education, Mark misses only one thing. “Being on an active harvesting site has a unique smell in the uplands. It is the smell I miss, but I feel secure and happy in what I am doing now. It is a very rewarding job.” 

The highlight of Mark’s teaching year is the NSF’s graduation ceremony. “This is the first year I will have seen students arrive and go all the way through. Graduation is the fruition of all their hard work, and they will go on to have a career in an industry which may not make them filthy rich but will give them a rewarding and happy life.”

If any reader would like to offer students a work placement, please get in touch directly with Mark:
Twitter: @UoCNSF @marknsfuoc
Instagram: nationalschoolofforestry
Facebook:  National School of Forestry