Malcolm Whyte, forest operations manager for Atholl Estates, shares his story of how he got into forestry and reveals what his role involves.

For as long as he can remember, 39-year-old Malcolm Whyte from Highland Perthshire has had a fascination with forestry. At the age of 21, he secured a job as a deer ranger at Atholl Estates, where he was responsible for managing red, roe and fallow deer to protect the estate’s commercial forestry interests. It involved long hours tracking and culling deer, but for Malcolm it was a job that suited him perfectly.

After seven years, he began to take more of an interest in the forestry management side of the business. To further his skills, he applied to study units from the HNC in Forest Management at the Scottish School of Forestry in Inverness. The more he learned, the more he realised this was the career for him. He went on to complete the HNC before going on to do an HND, then a degree in Sustainable Forestry Management and Conservation, graduating with distinction, at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Forestry Journal: Malcolm Whyte.Malcolm Whyte.

Malcolm said: “When I graduated from university, a forestry operations manager role was being advertised at Atholl Estates. I applied and was lucky enough to get the job. Since then I haven’t really looked back. I love working outside – it’s my natural environment – but it’s been good to mix that with some office work. It’s about a 50-50 split at the moment, which is perfect for me.”

Atholl Estates consists of 145,000 acres of mixed-use land, of which about 10,000 ha is commercial forestry. The estate woodlands consist predominantly of larch plantations, native woodlands and continuous-cover forestry but, due to the buoyancy of timber prices, a conversion to more commercial forestry has become a priority.

“It’s a good time to grow, so we have a definite commercial focus these days,” said Malcolm. “That being said, forestry is also about providing better access to environmental benefits, landscape and recreational use. We encourage visitors to use our forest paths and we have cyclists, walkers, birdwatchers and horse riders using our network regularly.

“Today, it’s a balancing act trying to cater for all the different uses of our woodland. On the one hand, you have society’s drive to plant trees to offset carbon. On the other, we’re a business, so you need trees that will generate income when harvested. And then you’ve got recreational use where we’re trying to create a safe outdoor environment which the public can enjoy. Choosing the right mix of tree species to cater for all these different needs is part of the challenge. It involves meticulous forward planning, but it’s great fun and very satisfying.”

Malcolm goes on to reflect on what the day-to-day experience of being a forest operations manager involves.

“There probably isn’t really a typical day; it depends what’s happening. When we’ve got harvesting on the go, I usually visit the site to make sure that everything’s okay. I’ll take a look at the timber that’s being cut to check the break-out of the product, making sure there’s no issues with water courses or silt or anything like that. Then we’ll be busy measuring timber, marking the sites and then taking that information back to the office to put it onto the computer.

“The job does change quite a bit through the year, depending on the seasons. Our planting usually starts in the spring when we’re really busy, and this continues until early summer, when we’ll start harvesting the older trees. This carries on right through until the winter. We tend not to do as much harvesting in the winter just because of the ground conditions, so that’s when we’ll start doing our ground preparation, mounding the clearfell sites ready for planting again in the spring.

“It is interesting to think that I probably won’t be around to see the harvesting of what we’re planting now. I do enjoy designing these restock sites knowing that they’re going to be here for another 40, 50, 60 years and wondering what people are going to think of the decisions we make now. This is a long-term business and one where you may not always see the fruits of your labour. The fact that we’re doing it for the next generation is really satisfying.”

As with many land-based industries, technology has become increasingly influential in the commercial forestry sector. The use of GPS to map boundaries and importing the data to GIS-based digital maps is part of the job and was one of Malcolm’s first tasks as an operations manager.

“One of the things we’ve been doing on Atholl Estates for the past year has been changing the long-term forest strategy,” he said. “I’ve been writing a new forest plan which I’ve now completed, and one of the big parts of that job was creating a digital mapping system. In the past, we’ve only had paper maps, but they’ve now been transferred onto a computerised system. We’ve spent a lot of time out in the woods walking all the compartments with GPS, putting plots in to see the yield classes and species and transferring all that information onto the computer. That’s been a major achievement for me.”

Forestry management can be a challenging job. In recent years, some of the larch on Atholl Estates has been affected by a bout of Phytophthora ramorum. Malcolm has been hard at work managing the outbreak.

“Dealing with the disease means we have to fell infected trees even if they’re not ready for harvest,” he said. “This not only reduces our yield, it also affects the look of the estate. The timber can still be sold at a reduced price, but it’s got to be quarantined, so it goes to the mills in separate batches to the healthy trees. Disease means we have to be very careful when forward planning – we need to predict which diseases are likely to be common in the next decade or so and choose trees which are resistant. Our choices will change as disease strains come and go.”

Despite these incidences, Malcolm believes the future of forestry in the UK is bright and offers a good career to people interested in forest management and the great outdoors.

He said: “Anyone that’s looking to move into forestry, I would urge them to do it soon. The timber industry is going through a big change. There’s a major push for new woodland creation and timber prices are reasonably good, so it’s an exciting time to get involved. It’s great because we are essentially one of the main custodians of the landscape in this country. We get to shape our forestry for future generations, providing profits for our industry and great outdoor spaces for the public. If you’re prepared to get your head down and work hard, the rewards are fantastic.”

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year - or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.