Kevin Penfold has had a long and storied career in the forestry industry spanning nearly four decades. Following a lengthy tenure with the Forestry Commission, he founded his own business, offering a diverse range of services including surveying, planning, planting, management and timber sales from his base in Hampshire. Carolyne Locher recently met up with the man himself to find out more.

KEVIN Penfold attends an event in London aimed at investors. He is here with woodland-owning clients in mind and pleased that a forestry investor/woodland owner predicts steady returns on long-term investments made in forestry as an asset class. While he would be happy to continue the conversation, he has a train to catch.

We meet again some months later at Haslemere railway station during a busy planting season. Kevin, who has worked for almost 40 years in forestry, first with the Forestry Commission (FC), latterly as a consultant, says that on his first day with the Commission, as a beat forester in Shropshire, he learned something fundamental, not taught at college. It seems as relevant now as it was then.

“A convoy of travellers had set up camp in a wood near Bishop’s Castle. In order to legally begin eviction proceedings, we needed the police to read out a statement to them.”

Meanwhile, a body had been found in a country house nearby. “The police were busy with a (possible) murder enquiry and instructed us over the radio. First day of work, eager, I took out my notepad and wrote down the statement. My boss went around rattling caravan windows, rounding up a crowd of 20 travellers. Without warning, he handed proceedings over to me, the new boy, fresh out of college. I got out my notepad and stuttered, ‘This is FC land and you are not supposed to be on it’. The crowd heckled and jeered. I learned that day that forestry isn’t always just about trees. It is also about people.”

Forestry Journal: Kevin Penfold.Kevin Penfold.

On a site south of Guildford, Kevin walks across an expanse of almost bare earth. His people, a team of four from Penfold’s Woodland Contracting, are working here on contract for a third-party forester and ultimately a private investment company. The team, each member spaced two metres apart, move swiftly and uniformly. Repetitions of ‘step, shorter step, arm out, grab tree, bend, shovel in, tree in, firm soil, straighten’ take thirty seconds at most to complete. This is one of many planting contracts to be completed across the South East in the run-up to Easter.

Kevin double-checks that the Norway Spruce is spaced 1.8 metres apart within the row, except where stumps make this impossible.

“We are working across four sites, 10 ha in total, with a stocking density of 2,700 per ha. We space 1.8 metres between the plants in the row so that when weed growth comes up we can find the trees. The trees arrived on Tuesday; 13,000 Douglas fir, 7,500 Norway spruce and a mix of oak and sweet chestnut. We started yesterday and should finish by tomorrow.”

Originally from Devon, Kevin (now 56) gained an HND in Forestry, “a mix of classroom-based education and practical work experience,” from Newton Rigg. From Shropshire, he moved with the FC to Thetford to work as technical trainer, to Farnham as planning officer, to the New Forest as head of land management, back to Farnham as operations manager South East, finishing on temporary promotion as district manager South 25 years later.

“I had reached a level in the commission where I was managing people, policy, problems, emails, meetings, budgets and finance, hardly ever visiting a woodland. Driving around the South East, I saw many undermanaged woodlands and thought it would be nice to finish my career by making a business from being back out in woods.”

Establishing Penfold’s Woodland Consultancy in Liphook, Hampshire in 2012, his plan to work three days a week, making an income solely from writing management plans for private clients, was soon disabused. “Having lost 25 per cent of their staff, the Commission rang almost straight away asking if I could help out.”

Forestry Journal: Norway spruce in the ground. From here, the team will move on to replanting a directly managed larch clearfell (Phytophthora) site and, among other planting works this season, will create an 11,000-native-broadleaf-tree woodland on the south coast, for developers mitigating against nitrates in the Solent.Norway spruce in the ground. From here, the team will move on to replanting a directly managed larch clearfell (Phytophthora) site and, among other planting works this season, will create an 11,000-native-broadleaf-tree woodland on the south coast, for developers mitigating against nitrates in the Solent.

In his first year, in addition to running the odd training course for the FC, Kevin built a reputation as an independent forest manager (working with specialist expertise and subcontractors as needed) and bought in small amounts of firewood to process and sell during quiet times. He also bid for and won a small contract production forecast surveying for the FC in the Forest of Dean.

“The business has never really been quiet. Things ebb and flow, but we have diversity of work: writing management plans; preparing and applying for grants; managing the trees; harvesting; timber sales; restocking; building roads; direct-contract survey work; then tree planting, weeding and maintenance works; working on golf courses; one-off consultancy, and more.”

The core business is managing woodlands ranging from 10 ha to 400 ha (about 1,000 ha in total) for 12 to 15 private clients. Objectives include maximising timber for economic return, accommodating a shoot and enhancing for conservation. “Others just want their woods to look nice. We work with the owners every year, or every five years when it comes time for thinning and felling. We bring to market 6,000–10,000 m³ of timber a year.”

Production forecast surveys (mensuration plots) on contract for Forestry England provide year-round work and Kevin demonstrates the process in a stand of mature Scots pine. “We surveyed 10,000 plots across England last year, as far north as the Lake District and Kielder Forest. We can survey at any time of year. Winter, when the vegetation is low, is quite good for it.”

Forestry Journal: Norway spruce from Cheviot Trees about to be planted.Norway spruce from Cheviot Trees about to be planted.

Two teams of two spent much of January in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, surveying 2,500 plots.  “Surveys provide the client with enough information to be able to develop their sustainable woodland management plans. A large estate managing for volume production needs some measure of the standing volume and stocking levels on a stand-by-stand basis. The planning department or forester will not know every compartment and we survey those due for harvesting in the next year or two. They can then decide whether they are going to thin, or what sort of volume they are likely to get from harvesting.”

Penfold’s also surveys for the National Forest Inventory, recording everything found within (permanent) 1 ha square plots across public and private land (including private gardens). They record tree species, growth and management, ground vegetation and natural regeneration, mammal damage, disease, public use, litter and more. “The contract was for five to six surveys per month, one plot taking a day to record, but has been scaled back. Next month we have one day.”

After Easter, the contracting team will move to forest maintenance. They will be spraying (herbicide treatments), managing vegetation (clearing birch from conifer stands), carrying out conservation works (opening up rides) and tube maintenance, and building stock fencing (for grazing) across the South Downs.

Forestry Journal:  Kevin Penfold with the Pinus pinaster (maritime pine) restocked three years ago and establishing itself amid the vigorous and naturally regenerating birch. Kevin Penfold with the Pinus pinaster (maritime pine) restocked three years ago and establishing itself amid the vigorous and naturally regenerating birch.

With the team busy, Kevin undertakes short-term consultancy roles. “I prefer to call myself a freelance forest manager – consultant sounds too expensive. I write woodland management plans for a range of clients, and then either work with the client to deliver the work programmes or coach their own staff to be able to manage their own sites. Recently I have been working with Cowdray Estate. I was caretaker forester for six weeks, keeping things moving between head foresters and handing over to the new forester.” For Landmarc Support Services (managers of the MoD estate) he has just organised the felling licences (ash dieback) for Salisbury Plain Training Area.

The spread of ash dieback across Hampshire is not uniform. “We started hearing about the disease in 2012. Its significance became apparent four years ago and the rate of decline has surprised me. Last year, we wondered if the ash would ever come into leaf. It did in some places. In others, whole stands were severely affected. It will be interesting to see how the disease has progressed this spring.”

Some owners have removed all ash from their roadside trees. “Others are more cautious, asking if it will be as bad as predicted. They don’t want their trees clearfelled. In a woodland setting, thinning in stands where oak (and other species) is predominant can lessen the [visual] impact, as can selectively felling blocks of ash and replanting with a resilient mix. Where ash is the main component, clearfelling may be the only option, as any trees left are liable to blow down.” He wonders whether to invest in a drone and pilot training. “It is easier to assess and map woodlands from an up-to-date aerial view.”

As technical trainer for the FC in Thetford, Kevin spent five years teaching forest workers, students and craftspeople how to use chainsaws, quad bikes and tractors, and how to measure trees. “I really enjoyed training. When the FC asked me to help out with some courses due to their stretched resources, I was only too pleased to assist. Initially, I ran courses in mensuration but also deliver the two-day Forestry for Non-Foresters course as well. I delivered eight throughout England last year.”

Forestry for Non-Foresters is run for the Forestry Commission in England for staff without forestry qualifications. Covering the entire forestry cycle (seed to sawn), Kevin includes tree identification and selection, pest and disease and climate change. “Unapologetically, we focus on the commercial forest cycle. Financially sustainable woodlands provide the foundations to develop recreation and are often better for wildlife. It has been good for those who engage with foresters to understand forestry. One participant, whose role includes taking minutes at forestry meetings, said, ‘I could never understand or visualise what the foresters were talking about. Now I can.’”

Forestry Journal: Stand of mature Scots pine, where Kevin demonstrates the process of mensuration plot forecasting. The teams assess the standing volume, the species, the basal area and the stocking density, ask if the wood needs thinning or not, and then work out the yield class.Stand of mature Scots pine, where Kevin demonstrates the process of mensuration plot forecasting. The teams assess the standing volume, the species, the basal area and the stocking density, ask if the wood needs thinning or not, and then work out the yield class.

 Offering the course externally, to others who engage with foresters during the course of their work, perhaps staff from the RPA or from local authorities, might also be beneficial.

We move to a private estate, which encompasses a mix of land uses (grazing, tenanted buildings and forestry). This client relationship began in 2013 when, from a recommendation, Penfold’s was asked to write their woodland management plan. They have worked together ever since, Kevin most recently managing the harvesting and marketing of 2,000 tonnes of timber and restocking across multiple sites.

On a site restocked three years ago, alongside Scots pine and Douglas fir, some speculative plantings are exceeding establishment expectations. “We wanted trees that establish quickly among vigorous and naturally regenerating birch. Pinus pinaster (maritime pine) is supposedly good for climate change, so we included 2,000 trees. It has shot away and I am very happy. We will see how they turn out and whether they get Dothistroma needle blight.”

The same client is considering a new

20 ha woodland. “Some fields are too poor for agriculture, but the owner would like them to yield a return. The capital value of the land is irrelevant; they are not looking to sell. They have considered and discounted a range of options, including vineyards, but it looks like trees may be the best option. We have approval for the Woodland Creation Planning Grant. The first stage is digging soil pits to identify what timber trees we can grow and what the yield is likely to be. Subject to that, we will then look at all funding options, from the grant through to the Carbon Code (auctions), to see what income may be available from locking up carbon as well as growing timber.”

As an independent forest manager, working with forestry grants and licences has been very interesting for Kevin, but he concedes that the grant system can be frustrating to work with, as was the issue of delivering forest maintenance works.

Establishing Penfold’s Woodland Contracting two years ago was a mix of good timing and Kevin’s response to the requirement for forest maintenance contractors. “I struggled to find reliable contractors for planting, weeding with a knapsack sprayer and clearing using hand tools, for the woodlands I manage. There are many mechanised harvesting operators out there and teams working in arboriculture. Not many want to go into forestry, harder and faster work with a different budget.”

In 2017, Kevin’s son James returned from Australia with his young family. James had a background in horticulture and ran a landscaping and greenkeeping business in Australia. Getting involved with forest maintenance contracting seemed a natural fit. Advertising widely and trialling a few likely full-time candidates, James says: “There are four of us and we have a pool of good contractors to call on seasonally.”

James is gaining forestry experience on the job and would like to get a qualification. Kevin says: “We have apprenticeships that take you to the forest craftsperson level. What we need is an apprenticeship that takes you to the supervisory and first level of management, with short courses and distance learning opportunities providing that pathway. James is getting his experience. He has looked at training courses but options are limited with few providers locally. If you have a family, you cannot afford to take a year out and need short courses that lead to a recognised qualification.”

Kevin enjoys being back in the woods. “It has been rewarding to build the business, but ultimately I would like to do less. We have an excellent team of people and I will work with them while they learn the skills to take on the business for the future.”

It is a future of opportunity. “In the run-up to the election, all the parties were committed to planting more trees. They will have to fund it. The South East has a tremendous resource of undermanaged timber that can be improved for biodiversity and economically. As long as the market and price remains buoyant, people will be interested in managing their woodlands. Provided the government remains committed to biodiversity and woodland creation, we should see funding continue to support woodland management.”

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