On his latest expedition, planting trees in Berkshire, our young forester waxes lyrical about his new colleague.

AS a young forester, my career to date has been greatly influenced by my upbringing and those around me. It’s not just about opportunity. There is a wealth of experience out there to be tapped into. Kevin Longbottom is no exception to this rule. I can work hard (as those who know me will testify), but with Kevin you have to step up to another level.

Kevin plants 15 hectares of new woodland by hand every year, along with 5,000 metres of hedges. Over his 32-year career that’s 480 ha of woodland and 160 km of hedges.

That’s astonishing!

Aside from these statistics, Kevin is a remarkable individual. You just don’t get characters like this anymore, and it’s heartening to know that in this current climate people like him still exist. To me, individuals like this are national treasures and while our current crop of youth struggle with their ‘woke’ agenda, Kevin’s already been up for several hours and done more for the planet than the average person might achieve in a lifetime.

Forestry Journal:

For Kevin it all started 32 years ago. Many of you will remember the famous Michael Fish prediction that there was no hurricane coming, although “it will be very windy in Spain!”

Devastation followed, mainly across southern England, taking the lives of 18 people and destroying thousands of hectares of woodland. What the general public probably never considered amidst their insurance claims was that aside from their own personal loss, this entire woodland mess had to be cleared up. Not just cleared up, but replanted.

Thinking and writing about this brings to mind the situation in my own native Northumberland, where the extent of recent storm damage is vast. It will take many many years and many Kevins to rebuild after Alwin, Barra, Malik and Corrie.

Kevin’s outlay on equipment is meagre, to say the least. His tool of choice is a homemade spit. It weighs twice as much as an ordinary spade and, to the uninitiated, feels a little like a snow shovel. The day begins at first light and ends at dusk. Seven days a week, four weeks a month and six months a year. Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, birthdays – no day is special. I’ll return to the other six months in good time. Nothing will stop him from working, with the possible exception of an antique sale. Every stake he has placed in the ground (current estimates around 800,000) is placed with unerring accuracy and care. Not only are they perfectly vertical, but their distribution and the distance between them is almost to the inch.

Kevin claims that moving down south to work (he originates from the Coquet Valley in Northumberland) was one of the best things he’s ever done and he’s grateful to Wessex Woodland Management for keeping him busy all these years. Throughout this time he’s been fortunate to have John Parker as a manager. John is probably the most knowledgeable individual in the UK when it comes to tree planting and certainly my ‘go-to’ man with any queries.

Forestry Journal:

I’ve worked with Kevin on many occasions and, as I’ve implied, I’m no slouch, but I find it very difficult to keep up with him – a point he reminds me of on a regular basis. He’s now in his mid-fifties and twice my age and I know in the long run I’ll catch him, yet thus far he shows little sign of slowing down. The reason I mention this is not to elevate his status, but he does it all on a fairly meagre diet of bread and cheese. Once a month, provided there’s a deal or a discounted offer, he’ll push out the boat and add a little ham.

In sharp contrast, I eat whatever my body tells me it needs. This is hour after hour of high-energy work and my body needs high-energy food. Pork belly is my super food. I know the current trend is towards broccoli and beetroot, but this doesn’t provide me with the energy I need to put in a full day’s work. I’m not sure veganism and a full day’s tree planting are compatible, although I’m sure there are those who will disagree. I remember reading recently that one of the great leaps in human evolution was the consumption of meat. The energy this provided meant humans could spend more time on other things, rather than spend the entire day sitting in a tree eating vast quantities of leaves. Meat works for me.

Apart from sitting in his caravan, planting trees and consuming small quantities of bread and cheese, Kevin does like his bling. He has a top-of-the-range Hilux with all the extras.

The vehicle is festooned with gadgets and buttons, the functions of which he mostly has no idea. Maybe one day he’ll read the manual and find out what they do. Regardless, no muddy boots are allowed in the cab. I’ve worked with him in the foulest of weather in mid January, but when we break for lunch there’s no retreat to the warmth of the cab.

You need a tarp or a cagoule or some other form of protection as there’ll be no muddy boots permitted. And while you sit under a tree in the snow and the rain or whatever else nature wants to throw at you, he’ll identify every single bird and animal call as he nibbles his bread and cheese.

Forestry Journal: Kevin is a class above Kevin is a class above

What he doesn’t know about antiques you could write on a postage stamp and his knowledge of royalty and landowners (basically anyone who has amassed a few more quid than himself) is vast.

Because much of what he does is quite solitary, he’s never been a one for rules and the strict adherence to the use of PPE. Wellingtons and waterproof trousers are his mainstays. On one site in particular, the farm manager made several complaints to John about Kevin’s casual attitude to health and safety. I would imagine it was his unwillingness to wear a high-viz jacket, though if you’re working by yourself I’m not sure what relevance it has. 

One afternoon, John received a call from the farm manager to say Kevin had been rushed to hospital. Fortunately, it was nothing to do with chainsaws or the like. Kevin had been standing on the back of his pickup, attempting to alter the position of the aerial on the caravan so he could watch his beloved Antiques Roadshow. Unfortunately, as he was getting down he slipped, fell and dislocated and fractured his arm. After two nights in hospital Kevin was back in the field, spade in one hand, cast and sling on the other.

READ MORE: Danny, Champion of the Woods (February 2022): Settling in and a man named Kevin

Business as usual. Apparently he was more annoyed that he had missed an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

On another occasion Kevin was based near Alston on the Northumberland–Cumbria border. This is a very remote area and Kevin was doing long days, often without seeing anyone. John’s father lived up in this area and for peace of mind John sent his dad up to see Kevin just to check up on him and see he was still alive. It took him some time to reach the very remote location and, when he arrived, he was immediately concerned.

Kevin’s pickup was there, but there was no sign of Kevin. For about half an hour he combed the area, becoming more and more concerned. In the end he resorted to shouting and calling his name which was made all the more difficult in the wind and the encroaching darkness. Just when he was beginning to despair this naked figure appeared from the burn, snow under his feet and covered in shampoo. 

Forestry Journal: Danny is continuing his journey up the forestry ladder Danny is continuing his journey up the forestry ladder

I referred earlier to the remaining six months. For the last 32 years the bulk of Kevin’s work has been in and around Wiltshire. His home is in the Upper Coquet Valley in Northumberland and over the winter months he ups sticks with his caravan and heads south to plant trees for six months. When he returns he spends much of his time helping or assisting other people, which can be on farms or in woodlands or anywhere. Last year we had a particularly large heather order and he came up onto the moor to help cut, stack and bale. He was there first thing in the morning before anyone else, was maintained throughout the day with bread and cheese and then was often the last to leave in the evening. Only when the job was completed and all the heather had been cleared from the moor did he move on to another task. For all this effort he refused any payment.

I contacted a friend of mine who suggested getting him something ‘antique’ as a thankyou for his effort. He called at a nearby centre and purchased a small Victorian oil painting. I’m pleased to say Kevin was delighted.