Quiet-spoken and pragmatic, assistant forest manager Peter West works out of Scottish Woodlands’ offices in Fochabers alongside regional manager (north) Neil Crookston, two forest managers, two H&S compliance officers and two administrative staff. Most appear to be in the office as he talks about ‘A Day in the Working life’, one of an occasional series featuring those working in the industry.

IT is early December and planting operations are underway on some of the 12 Scottish Woodlands sites managed by assistant forest manager Peter West. Looking out of the office window, Peter sees blue skies over Fochabers, north-east Scotland. This cloudless sky is good news, offering respite from the rains complicating ground conditions on a 20 ha felling site of spruce and larch in south Aberdeenshire that he co-manages with a harvesting colleague based in Perth.

Peter said: “The harvesting site is a steep sloping field with a burn running along the bottom. I have worked since last January to get the site operational.” A lot of the time was spent organising badger surveys. “Access on to the site is poor and water could pour into the burn, which we don’t want. We can put measures in place to make sure the ground stays in good condition, but you can’t really plan for the weather.”

Scottish Woodlands is one of the UK’s leading forest management companies, employing 195 staff in 20 offices throughout Scotland. Covering every stage of the forestry cycle, it manages over 200,000 ha of land across Scotland, Ireland and the Welsh Marches, harvesting 1.2 million tonnes of timber per annum.

Working within Scottish Woodlands’ management and services division, Peter manages 17 woodland estates for clients, ranging from investment forests and farms with a significant woodland component (putting in schemes on poor-quality ground or woods in fields, shelterbelts or confined to field boundaries) to small hobby woods. Double-checking on the company ARC GIS system, he manages a total area of 13,924 ha.

It can be difficult discussing your working life within hearing distance of colleagues. The timing could have been better if the conversation had taken place last week when he was out of the office finishing off beat-up assessments to finalise plant number orders (placed with Christies of Fochabers) for this winter. “One 150 ha site took a couple of days to mark out the plots. Smaller sites can be done in a couple of hours.”

 He then met with planting contractors to finalise work plans and hand over site maps detailing which species go where and the site hazards (compiled from client woodland attributes data stored in GIS shape files) of jobs about to begin.

“This winter, there is more restocking than woodland creation; about 200 ha across the 12 sites, including beat-ups from last year. A small job might be a 3 ha restock; a larger job a 40 ha restock. It’s mostly Sitka with some Scots pine, which grows well in the north-east. The amount of work that goes into organising each job is not hugely different; the main difference is the amount of ground you have to walk.”

Forestry Journal: working on GIS in Scottish Woodlands’ office in Fochabers.working on GIS in Scottish Woodlands’ office in Fochabers.

Last week closed with an electrical awareness training course run by Scottish Forestry and Scottish Power. It was, “a good reminder of the dangers of overhead power lines and electrical strikes, and the procedures to follow when planning worksites and jobs, making sure everything is in place if there is an issue. For a thinning job starting imminently, I need to get the line heights and put up goalposts to make sure that haulage can get in and out of the site. The course was good; everyone seemed keen to share experiences and to improve the situation.”

With Peter preferring not to dwell on this morning’s paperwork, the conversation turns to how he got here. In 2017, Scottish Woodlands launched their two-year graduate development programme, a recruitment drive to attract committed graduates needed to service the work secured through the expansion of Scottish Woodlands and the industry. Peter was invited to join the inaugural programme, which he completed three months ago.

At 31, Peter is older than your typical graduate. Earning a BSc Hons in geology from Aberdeen University, he worked first in oil and gas, monitoring wireline cabling information and analysing seismic data.

“I was going down the route of data management. It doesn’t sound interesting, so it probably isn’t.”

Returning to Aberdeen University to study an MSc in land economy (rural surveying), the forestry module captured his interest. “I am fairly outdoorsy and in forestry there is an element of science involved, which suits me better than the subjective element of rural valuations. It was just very interesting.”

Beginning his MSc final project while at the same time looking for work, he discovered Scottish Woodlands’ graduate development programme in an online advertisement.

“I had no sector experience. The programme offered enough overlaps (utilising transferable skills such as project management and GIS mapping) and new challenges that I felt positive about applying.”

Peter applied and secured a place on the graduate development programme, tweaking his final project to make it forestry-specific.

“In 2015, heavy rains washed away many of the roads in Aberdeenshire. Using simple hydrological models, I looked at whether new woodland creation could alleviate flood pressures in Deeside: planting trees to increase water uptake in the upper catchment to reduce loads downstream during peak events. I found that new planting does help reduce the amount of water in the river, but it can’t protect against peak events – rains of biblical proportions coming down for a month. There can never be enough planting to address that. Natural flood management works as a part of a whole-system approach.”

All Scottish Woodland graduate development programme participants, in management and services or harvesting, receive key pieces of equipment: a company car, a phone and a computer. All receive a two-year development matrix outlining key topics, on-the-job skills training (internal) and training events (external), specific tasks to complete, and checkpoints. Starting salaries increase incrementally as more responsibilities are taken on.

The initial weeks were full of staff inductions and shadowing. Peter’s mentor and line manager, Neil Crookston, drove him around the north-east of Scotland looking at live sites, probing what knowledge Peter had and whether he asked the right questions.

Peter’s skills training in forest management operations – new planting and restocking, ground preparation, drainage and weeding – began in earnest when he took on a 30 ha new woodland creation scheme, enhancing an already significant broadleaf resource for an arable farm client in south Aberdeenshire. “The scheme’s purpose was to increase the commerciality of the forest for the future. I was involved from the start, planning the site and flagging out an empty (and accessible) roadside field, ex-grazing land, suitable for ploughing or excavator mounding (ground preparations) in the rougher areas. The scheme was grant-funded, so for species diversity we included native broadleaf along the riparian and roadside areas.”

Peter learned about organisation, people management and weather pressures.

Forestry Journal: Peter meeting with a planting contractor on site in Moray.Peter meeting with a planting contractor on site in Moray.

“You are trying to orchestrate everything, on time and in budget, and then work with the contractors that are physically doing the job. Meeting the ground preparation, fencing and planting contractors for the first time was surreal. From the start, you have to build good relationships with people that have worked in the industry a long time. I continue to learn a lot from talking with them. February 2018’s Beast from the East did not shift on some sites and a lot of my work was moved to the end of last winter [planting season 2018/2019].”

External courses included first aid and, at the end of the year, FISA works supervisor training, which coincided with meeting a client on his own for the first time.

“We discussed forestry in general, the potential for new woodland creation and amending their forest plan to facilitate extra harvesting earlier. I put an amendment to their woodland plan in to Scottish Forestry, making sure everything tallied up in our ARC GIS system, and it got through.”

Peter’s second year began with writing long-term forest plans for an investment client with a publicly accessible commercial forest on the edge of a town, and for a traditional sporting estate. “The clients have completely different objectives, but both want good forestry. While guidance is out there for writing plans, it was a case of working with the clients, surveying their sites, and consulting public and statutory bodies. The plan consultation sits on Scottish Forestry’s website for a month and then the woodland officer tells you when the scoping has been done. From there, you write/amend the plan. From start to finish, it can take six months to get approval and all the while you are doing a billion other things.”

In addition to forest plans, Peter worked on a 150 ha woodland creation scheme, designed to join up bits of forestry across bare and heathery hill ground for a traditional shooting estate client in Donside. “The keeper identified the best place to plant the woodland. Schemes rely on different people at so many levels and a good relationship with a keeper ensures that the scheme survives because they control the deer. By the end, I was a lot more confident of what goes into a plan.”

The second year’s development matrix contains management training, external trainers teaching assertiveness and how to hold difficult conversations, for when questions such as ‘Why have you done this in the wrong place?’ or ‘Why have you not paid us?’ need to be asked. Peter veers towards nipping issues in the bud: demonstrating examples of good work and letting people come to their own conclusions. A new excavator contractor was shown sites where ground preparation mounding met Scottish Woodlands best practice standards, ensuring that subsequent works were ideal.

Forestry Journal: Looking at the thinning potential of client woodlands.Looking at the thinning potential of client woodlands.

Throughout the two years, Peter felt that he was managing himself. “In hindsight, there was probably much more direction than I had thought. Generally, it has been a gradual offloading of responsibility onto graduates over the course of the two years, and you are helped to grow along the way. We graduates meet at various training events, learn what is happening in different parts of Scotland and foster our own relationships with people that will hopefully be in the company for years to come. The company put me through modules on harvesting and woodland creation and establishment at the University of the Highlands and Islands. I have learned so much on the job, but it is good to have that academic background.” In addition, he attends regional Confor meetings and reads Scottish Forestry best practise guides to stay up to date.

Finishing his second year, Peter wrote end-of-year reports and budgets for investment clients, including in them a summary of operations (past year), updated maps and compartment information, budget reconciliation (the estimated spend and actual spend) and the financial forecasts for next year’s works programme.

“You plan operational costs up to three years in advance, what to fell and restocking costs. Scottish Woodlands has levels of financial authority, so what I send out is still checked beforehand.”

Completing the development programme only three months ago, Peter has already proved his worth as assistant forest manager for his own clients by identifying additional opportunities. “The thinning job with power lines is for an estate where not much was happening. The woods are middle-aged and some areas were thinned five years ago. During an inspection, I identified a parcel to be brought forward: 2,500 tonnes of first thinnings of mixed conifer (lodgepole pine and spruce). The client agreed when they saw the return. It was good to bring it on.”

Peter’s forest management operation planning is now coming to fruition. “In summer, more time is spent in the office planning. Coming into this winter’s planting season, I have orchestrated the whole works programme and lined up all works through to the end result.”

Forestry Journal: Peter on site, assessing stocking density.Peter on site, assessing stocking density.

He travels 2,000 business miles a month visiting operationally active sites, including planting sites once or twice a week. “As well as the Beast from the East, we have had prolonged periods of frost and the planters unable to get spades in the ground. On one site, snow tends to sit for an extra month, possibly causing time pressures and we may just have to wait until it has gone. The start of this season was very wet and there was a worry that the nurseries could not lift plants fast enough to send out to us. You can’t plan around the weather, but you have to have a stab at it.”

Tomorrow Peter will check on the harvesting site co-managed with his colleague from Perth (also a development programme graduate) to make sure there are no water issues. “We have an excavator up there upgrading the tracks and we can put in groundworks to improve drainage and move water off site if needed.” He will then double-check a restock site planted up two weeks ago and then stop by a 5 ha site felled early this year currently being restocked with spruce.

For Peter, the Scottish Woodlands graduate development scheme was the best way that he could have entered the sector.

“You are always learning on the job and the courses have helped me grow as a manager. I see people skills as one of the main focuses of my role. I have to be approachable, open and interested in what others are doing – contractors, colleagues, clients and Scottish Forestry. We all want to see a good job and for forestry to do well. I work harder than when I was in oil and gas and it is more rewarding; enjoying work makes a nice change. Forestry is a good and active industry to be involved in.”

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