Carolyne Locher speaks with chartered foresters Matt Brocklehurst and Charles Robinson of woodland management consultancy Forwoods Forestry about working through the lockdowns of 2020, what the year ahead has in store, and why doing what has always been done is not necessarily in a woodland’s best interest.

IN a year that has seen the recognition of climate and nature emergencies, a global health pandemic and shortages of timber at builders’ merchants, with more economic uncertainty to come as the UK leaves the EU, 2020 has, for the most part, been business as usual for Forwoods Forestry, an independent woodland management consultancy based in central England.

Following a busy spring, summer and autumn, despite COVID-19, chartered foresters Matt Brocklehurst and Charles Robinson have a few days left to wrap up outstanding one-off consultancy projects before planning next year’s operations ahead of their winter programme. This winter sees, among other things, organising planting and restocking and maintenance works, marking up stands for their harvesting programme, bringing to market (via standing sales) in excess of 10,000 m3 in 2021, setting up new Countryside Stewardship agreements with clients, and delivering on a significant tree safety programme (the result of ash dieback disease).

Forestry Journal: Charles Robinson.Charles Robinson.

Looking back to spring 2020, Matt said: “At the time, the situation (lockdown 1) was odd. Thankfully, with Confor’s (and others’) efforts, forestry was awarded key worker status and we were able to perform the tasks and checks we needed to do and continue with vital works. We work remotely from home offices [ten miles apart], splitting clients geographically, covering those closest to us. Normally, we would meet once a week, travelling together to worksites to establish standing volumes, designing new woodlands, or working collaboratively in person on projects. Since March, we have met once a month, always socially distanced outdoors. To remain productive, we speak (or make video calls) several times a day and share all files over the cloud. We cannot afford to both go down at the same time with COVID.”

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Lockdown 1 brought benefits, “lighter traffic” when travelling to North Yorkshire and Lancashire “to sign-off on works so that the forest maintenance contractors could get paid.” Lockdown 1 also brought delays. “We were writing four woodland management plans for a landowning client with multiple holdings in England. Plans drive management, contracting and timber supply. Without it, there is no work, impacting the industry as a whole. Forestry is definitely key work. Forestry Commission (FC) staff could not undertake site visits initially. Meetings with woodland officers and Natural England representatives, by phone and email, were not ideal and led to significant delays. To give them their due, the FC was the more responsive of the government agencies and we worked collaboratively to get the necessary approvals through just in time.”

Forestry Journal: Logs and newly laid track for a client in Staffordshire.Logs and newly laid track for a client in Staffordshire.

Matt, 49, and Charles, 31, may have empathy with those working in the public sector; they have both worked for government agencies. Matt began his career with the FC as a harvesting forester in Thetford (involved with felling 188,000 m3 annually), then as beat forester in Sherwood Forest. In 2008, he became head of forestry at the National Forest Company (NFC). Charles worked as a forester at the National Trust before joining Natural England as a land management adviser. In 2013, he was recruited by Matt as a woodland management officer at the NFC and became Head of Forestry in 2017.

Both were instrumental in the National Forest’s ongoing afforestation and woodland management successes. Citing clear and effective leadership, good communication and uncomplicated and financially attractive grant processes as the keys to the National Forest Company’s success, Matt got more than one million trees planted (2008–2014). Charles increased the woodlands in management from 41 per cent to 71 per cent and achieved 95 per cent of plantation of ancient woodland sites in restoration. Matt said: “Financial incentives are hugely important to achieving woodland creation, as are the right systems and processes to make it work for everyone. Many woodlands planted during the National Forest’s early years are now being thinned and coming into production.”

Forestry Journal: Charles measuring the top height of larch, part of an estate client’s management plan.Charles measuring the top height of larch, part of an estate client’s management plan.

Forwoods was first established as a part-time concern. “As a senior manager [NFC] for four years, I wrote policy papers, dealt with grant mechanisms and attended board meetings. I felt I was losing my technical expertise. At the time, the FC wanted to get more woods back into management. In 2012, I saw the opportunity to help some private estates with their woodland management (outside the National Forest boundary, avoiding any conflicts of interests). Within 18 months others were interested in what I was doing. Unable to expand and retain my full-time position, I jumped [in 2014]. The business (range and number of clients) has grown ever since.”

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With ever-increasing workloads, Charles joined Matt in 2019. Today, they provide a full (retained) woodland management service across 11 estates, managing over 2,000 ha of woodland for landowners both inside and outside the National Forest boundary. They also provide consultancy on an ‘as-needed’ basis for a variety of clients, from farmers and utility companies to county councils, charities and trusts.

Forestry Journal: Declining roadside ash, condemned.Declining roadside ash, condemned.

Forwoods’ autumn programme of tree safety surveys revealed a sad picture. “For our retained clients, we check trees in areas of high usage and on public highways annually. For areas of lower risk, it was every three years. Now it is every two. In the last year and a half, ash dieback has ramped up along roadsides, in hedgerows and in woods, moving from younger trees to larger stock, from marginally affected to half the crown dying back.” Investing in a lightweight drone (DJI Mavic, under 250 grams) has helped to monitor the spread and they are planning their advice to clients on how best to restructure these areas to manage the effects of the disease.

The drone was also used to monitor recent outbreaks of Phytophthora ramorum in Derbyshire and Lancashire, and with Forwoods’ consent, Forest Research included video footage in educational presentations. Conversations with the FC and Natural England, on what to under-plant or replant within an ash-diseased SSSI hit a roadblock, despite a jointly-produced guidance paper on the subject. “For future resilience, rather than rely on existing ash and its natural regeneration – all was either dead or dying in the surrounding area – we had hoped to include a mixed assemblage of species. After much robust debate, we received support from Natural England for planting oak, sycamore, lime, hornbeam, and beech.” A small allocation of Scots pine was considered a step too far.

Forestry Journal: Harvesting in action, premature felling of low-value poorly formed conifer crop in Staffordshire.Harvesting in action, premature felling of low-value poorly formed conifer crop in Staffordshire.

Fixed mindsets, the increased risks from a range of pests and diseases, or blindly following what has always been done in the past, is not always in a woodland’s best interest. Matt explained why: “In my experience (Thetford), since 1999, pests and diseases have become increasingly prevalent. Planting with a small palette of species is risky. With climate change, variations in rainfall patterns have been experienced in recent years (4- and 6-week droughts in the last two springs) are of real concern. In Europe, the European spruce bark beetle has taken advantage of drought-stressed Norway spruce forests, causing wide-scale premature clearances. Two years ago, we lost 20 per cent of plantings to drought; with cell-grown stock we would usually expect less than 5 per cent losses. The broadleaves (sycamore, alder, oak) coped, Douglas fir suffered badly, while the Norway spruce just about held on. The key lesson is not to do things as they have always been done. Rather, consider where we are now, what the impact of decisions are likely to be in the future, and what is right for the future considering ecological, economic and social factors.” Charles suggested: “Government departments speaking with a single voice, giving streamlined advice to landowners and applicants, would be better than negotiating with different agencies.”

Does Forwoods believe that current grants (and possible extra funding from the Nature for Climate fund) are enough to facilitate government’s UK-wide tree planting ambitions? Charles responded: “To plant 30,000 ha with the current schemes is unachievable in my view. The incentive is not enough to get landowners to bite.”

Forestry Journal: Recent thinning of pine and mixed woodland in Staffordshire.Recent thinning of pine and mixed woodland in Staffordshire.

They do, however, like the premise of Environmental Land Management Schemes’ (ELMS) ‘whole estate’ approach. Charles continued: “For ELMS, forestry’s voice must not get lost amongst the bigger lobbying voice of the farming world. The forestry sector must put the case to DEFRA to ensure the scheme is developed correctly, then forestry professionals must make sure landowners have an informed choice. Change can only come from the top down. Agroforestry will come if landowners have the knowledge and can see how to do it effectively.”

One forward-thinking farmer client inside the National Forest boundary is considering converting approximately 50 ha of arable land to an agroforestry system. Matt said: “They are thinking broadly and laterally of an environmentally sustainable way forward, lining up different markets, planting orchards to produce apple juice and sowing wildflower mixes to encourage honey production (and CBD oil) on a commercial scale. They want more focus on pollinating and fruit trees, but we will also encourage planting trees for commercial harvesting in the future. We hope to talk them through the various mechanisms that can support that process. It is a holistic, environmentally sustainable approach that they are considering.”

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Of the funding available, Forwoods would choose the National Forest’s Changing Landscapes Scheme. Charles said: “Converting farmland is a huge undertaking. The National Forest incentives are more attractive than what is currently on offer elsewhere: 100 per cent funding for costs for woodland and parkland creation (half the area comprises new woodland and half non-woodland habitat), wildflower meadows, ponds, orchards, fencing. It offers flexibility.”

 “Agroforestry is new for many people,” said Matt. “Because it might be included in future ELMS grants, potentially there is scope to do more on the agroforestry side of things. Once we have understood the client’s aspirations, we design the project – new woodlands, hedgerows, orchards, areas for wildflowers, [parkland trees], the whole gambit really. Foresters need to embrace this and become broader in scope. Grant systems will be moving to reflect a more diverse, farm-based approach, as opposed to purely woodland or farmland being separate.”

Forestry Journal: An estate client’s piles of oak (left) and pine (right) ready for the timber lorries.An estate client’s piles of oak (left) and pine (right) ready for the timber lorries.

This winter, Forwoods is planting 10 ha in the National Forest, with more planned nationally. “One client wants to plant 50,000 trees (25–30 ha) and to start planning for this as soon as possible. Another has an aspiration to plant 200 ha over the next five years.” In charge of mapping (QGIS), Charles said: “We have surveyed estates to find the best areas for woodland and they are considering which to take forward. Ideally, we expand woodland where we can, increasing landscape connectivity (for wildlife). Commercially, the economics of managing a bigger wood is better than many small woods.”

Where clients don’t want to create whole woodlands, Forwoods include parkland trees, typically 6–12 per hectare, or avenues. Matt said: “Last year in Lancashire, we created a mixed avenue (kilometre) of oak, beech, lime and purple-leaf sycamore. This year, we are planting two kilometres of oak, sycamore and lime (Needwood Forest).”

Outside the National Forest boundary, one client was successful in the inaugural Woodland Carbon Guarantee (WCaG) reverse auctions. To register woodlands on the Carbon Registry was a lengthy process. Entering the auction was straightforward. Stating the client’s bid price, Forwoods entered 12 ha of productive woodland, locking up 1,100 tonnes of carbon for 65 years, before felling. Planting will take place in winter 2021/22.

Charles said: “This winter, we are planting five new woodlands (funded via Countryside Stewardship Woodland Creation grants). 20 ha will be placed on the Carbon Registry with units available for private sale.

“Some clients prefer money now rather than in 15 years (WCaG). In private funding models, a private company pays now for the offset and the woodland is managed as per the contract for the next 65 years. I was not surprised that over successive WCaG auctions the price came down as the number of applicants and competition increased. We are watching the carbon price closely. It informs the starting point for any private negotiations.”

Since going into private consultancy, has there been a project that has worked particularly well? Matt responded: “In 2014, a client in Derbyshire suffered one of the first outbreaks of Phytophthora ramorum in the Midlands. We liaised with Forest Research and the FC, working harvesting timings and programme delivery around the commercial shoot. Complying with the Statutory Plant Health Notice, we clearfelled 7 ha of larch and removed rhododendron across 50+ ha. We secured grant funding to assist with rhododendron removal and the restocking of a productive and resilient woodland: productive broadleaves (oak, sycamore, beech) and conifer (Douglas fir, western red cedar, Scots pine) for sawmills in the future, and some ornamental giant redwoods. The crop now is six feet tall, fully stocked and it looks great!”

In this time of change, what are Forwoods’ plans for the immediate future? “Staying at the forefront of industry updates (latest policy and guidance) in order to make solid judgement calls, and continuing to offer a consistent and quality product, for existing clients and new.”

Was leaving the public sector for the private sector the right choice? “At the National Forest, we dealt with woodland creation applications coming in,” said Charles. “Now, working with a client to make their aspirations a reality, the freedom of a blank sheet of paper to design a woodland to fit their site, I gain satisfaction from that. Working with Woodland Creation applications, through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme where it makes financial sense and choosing species – even when we get frustrated by red tape and bureaucracy – I enjoy that. On the other side, I enjoy realising income for and from woodlands and seeing them before and after works have been completed.”

Through the relative turbulence of 2020 and the possibility of much more to come in 2021, he is, they are, “enjoying consultancy big time.”

Forestry Journal: Matt Brocklehurst.Matt Brocklehurst.

Matt, originally from Doncaster, settled on a career in forestry because it offered the opportunity to travel with the job and work outdoors.

Aged 19, Matt spent two years (mostly) in Canada. From Vancouver, he travelled down through Oregon to California and throughout the Rocky Mountains. Seeing old-growth woodlands and spectacular landscapes, he thought that a forest would provide a good work setting. Unsure of which area of wood to pursue, back in England, he enrolled simultaneously on a basic joinery and a basic forestry course (NVQ2, Askham Bryant, York). Forestry won.

Following a year’s work experience with the FC in south-west Scotland, he enrolled on an HND at Newton Rigg, spending the sandwich year in Australia. Topping up the HND to a degree, with one semester spent studying tropical forestry in Holland, Matt graduated in 1999.

From the FC at Thetford to the FC at Sherwood Forest, in 2008, he joined the National Forest Company on secondment. “I enjoyed the culture and professionalism there and the project itself; being part of something positive, creating significant areas of new forest to benefit the local landscape, environment and economy.”

After several extensions he joined the NFC full-time, learning the benefits of good leadership, a clear organisational structure and the processes required to deliver success. “Without good leadership, systems and people, you are not going to deliver the high-quality product (or other) that you aspire to deliver.”

For Matt, in terms of job satisfaction and variety of work, forestry has been a brilliant career. “The future of forestry is going to be challenging and good foresters are, and will be, in demand. Ambitious woodland creation targets from government, climate change, evolving grant support systems, and demands for timber will ensure that our industry remains increasingly relevant and important.”

He urged those considering forestry as a career to keep going and offered some pointers. “When you are managing multiple clients, project works and large expanses of woodland, you must be good with time management, be well organised, well planned and knowledgeable. A lot of thought goes into the planning of an estate and the works required in those woodlands. Work out what is best for the woodland, factoring in the owner’s objectives, and work a timeline back to your starting point. That and a terrific amount of communication with all vested parties to smooth the way forward.”

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