In its inaugural year, Confor’s Introduction to Forestry Machinery event gave 16 candidates a taste of forwarders and harvesters. Jack Haugh went along to Tay Forest to find out more. 

ALL was quiet and all was still in Tay Forest, but not for long. Gurgling, spluttering, huffing and puffing, the Perthshire silence was broken by the battle cry of a John Deere forwarder roaring into action. In the blink of an eye it had one of the unsuspecting logs, sat a little further up the hill, in its grasp and the fun began. 

Twisting, poking and probing, the machine jinked to its right and safely manoeuvred the wood on board. Six logs and a little over 15 minutes later, it all started again, only this time the operator was asked to move them back to where they were found. With a smile, he did just that. 

If this had been the work of an experienced pro, it would be impressive. The fact it’s Scott MacFarlane’s first-ever day in a forwarder – it was really his first half-hour – made it all the more so. The reason this “rookie” has been let loose around 30 miles from Perth? It’s simple, really. 

He was one of three candidates taking part in the third of four Introduction to Forest Machinery taster events run by Confor, with partners such as Forestry and Land Scotland and AW Jenkinson. Launched for the first time this year, it was day three of four when Forestry Journal joined them on the hillside on a wet and windy morning. 

“I’ve struggled to know what I want to do after leaving the military, but I feel the forestry sector is a place I could feel happy working,” Scott, a serviceman of 15 years, said as he stepped down from the cabin. In August, he’ll finally hang up his uniform after a globe-trotting career. An army musician – he plays the trombone – he currently lives in Edinburgh with his young family and jumped at the chance to find out what forestry was all about. “I want to see how it goes.”

Asked if he had any background in the industry, he replied: “Absolutely nothing! I just like the idea of it, being in the outdoors. It’s an exciting place to be. You feel like you are doing something that’s worth doing.

Forestry Journal: Scott MacFarlane, who is due to leave the Army in August, was among those to join the event Scott MacFarlane, who is due to leave the Army in August, was among those to join the event

“I wanted to dip my toes in and get the chance to see if forestry is somewhere I would be happy working. Leaving after 15 years, I’m trying to figure out what to do next.” 

On the day Forestry Journal attended the course, the practical session was being led by Gavin Robertson, a forwarder operator with Walton Logging in Dumfriesshire, and Gordon Robertson, FLS forestry supervisor, the latter of whom stepped in at the last minute when a colleague fell ill. 

Gavin, unsurprisingly, was on forwarder duty, talking the trio through the basics before giving them a go, while Gordon took the two Stuarts – McKeag and Connacher – further up into the clouds to find a harvester. They returned three hours later, a little muddier but no less keen to get their hands dirty. 

It was all good fun, but there was a serious side to it and that became clear when speaking to Gavin. Unless you’ve been living under a particularly stubborn rock, you’ll have noticed there’s an impending – some might say catastrophic – skills shortage coming forestry’s way. As many as 10,000 roles may need to be plugged – according to the Institute of Chartered Foresters – and issues around Brexit and Covid have hardly helped. 

“I’m a full-time forward operator myself and we’re here because we just want to get bums on seats and more folk into the industry,” Gavin, who works with his brothers and dad, said. “There’s going to be a shortage of drivers in the very near future.

“We have a lot of older, more experienced drivers, so we need some younger faces to get involved and to carry on the industry.” 

Forestry Journal: Gavin Robertson, of Walton Logging, passed on his expertise to budding forestry recruits Gavin Robertson, of Walton Logging, passed on his expertise to budding forestry recruits

According to Forestry Skills Forum’s Forestry Workforce Research analysis, published last year, England will need to plug around 2,500 roles by 2030 and Wales just shy of 500. When a number of businesses were asked by researchers why they’d struggled to recruit, 39 per cent blamed a “lack of skills/expertise”. This was by far and away the most commonly cited reason; “pay” was a distant second at 14 per cent. That’s why the taster sessions were thought up. 

Across four events – in Dumfries, Inverness, Perth and Lochgilphead – candidates were given a shot on simulators, taken around several working harvesting sites, placed into the cabin of a John Deere 1510G forwarder and, finally, an emergency first aid at work qualification. 

“That means they can land on their feet, with the experience of using a machine,” added Gavin. “Hopefully, the event takes off. It’s a good change for me as well to get out and about, my bum off the seat, and help people.” 

Forestry Journal: Rookie got a taste of life inside the cabin of a John Deere 1510G forwarder Rookie got a taste of life inside the cabin of a John Deere 1510G forwarder

A total of 16 aspiring operators took part during the month-long run of sessions, many coming from military backgrounds. Others like Stuart Connacher did not. He had tentative links to the sector, operating heavy plant machinery for a recycling company, but has been trying to get into forestry for “a while”.

When asked what about forestry appeals to him, Stuart looked over his shoulder and chuckled. “This,” he said, pointing towards the stunning Tay Forest surroundings, which, despite the dreich conditions, were picture-postcard perfect. “And the machines. It doesn’t appeal to everyone but I want to be out in the woods, getting the peace and quiet.

“I love this part of the world. It’s great. I’m from Perth so it’s not too far. 

“The course has been great. Yesterday we went out to a couple of AW Jenkinson sites. It was good to get a chat with the operators.

“They had a lot of inspiring things to say and were really positive about us making the switch.” 

Born out of that urgent skill shortage need, the taster sessions were also inspired by the Timber Haulage Academy classes, which are now run alongside Confor and partners. 

“We wanted to try and highlight that there’s more to forestry than what people traditionally think of,” said Confor’s teaching and industry support manager, Richard Hunter. “The days of the checkered shirts and lumberjacks are long gone. 

Forestry Journal:

“Modern forestry is done by professionals and being able to operate these machines takes a lot of practice. People don’t realise how hard it is. One of the guys on the course was a pilot and he was flying for the RAF. He loved it and thought it was so technical; it was the high level stuff he was used to working with.” 

Money was originally pledged by Skills Development Scotland (SDS) in 2020 for the project but, for obvious reasons, it was placed into cold storage. When the country slowly reopened towards the end of last year and SDS enquired if Richard and the team were still keen, they didn’t need to be asked twice. 

Forestry Journal: Stuart Connacher inside the John Deere forwarder.Stuart Connacher inside the John Deere forwarder.

Working alongside charity High Ground – which helps ex-servicemen and women find new careers – he spent months telling anyone who would listen about the plan, and it paid off. Even though only 16 places were available, Richard believes around 60 showed interest and he’s still hopeful some of them will find a way into the sector via other means. 

“We want to build people and involve them in the industry,” Richard, speaking over the phone from the Lochgilphead event, added. “If I can get across to Joe Public and the wider section that if you want to get out of the urban environment, we want you. Lochgilphead is a perfect example. It’s very rural and very forestry-focused, but they are still saying they need people.

“It’s not just a case of bringing new people into forestry, but also to these areas, which can be crying out for people. 

“There are skills people take for granted in the military that are so easily flipped over into forestry. We can make use of them and get people involved. It’s a good recruitment area for us, rather than convincing people to leave a job and come to us. 

“We do need to push hard to get ahead of the other industries who are also trying to appeal to ex-servicemen and women. 

Forestry Journal:

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of interest.” 

Only time will tell if the event takes place again in its current form – it’s an annual fund from SDS – but there’s clearly appetite for it. Similar sessions could take place south of the border, too, with plenty of interest being shown in England. 

“There has been a lot of industry support for this. I’ve asked for things – sometimes cheekily – and they’ve said yes. So there’s a feeling from them that they know they need to do something to support this and try to get more people into the industry.

“We can’t thank all the sponsors enough. It wouldn’t have been possible to run the event without them.”