Piece-work rates paid to tree planters have been stagnating for a long time. As the cost of living crisis begins to bite, it’s time for forest managers to take a serious look at this issue.

THERE is a concerted drive to plant more trees in the UK, essentially to contribute to the perceived threat of global warming. Anyone who has planted trees, either as a way of earning a living or voluntarily, will have experienced the benefits this work can bring. The pleasure of working outdoors in some of the most scenic parts of the country is difficult to quantify, but for many it is an uplifting experience.

Being physically fit is a big advantage to a tree planter, but even if you are not quite as fit as you would like to be, a few weeks of planting will leave you feeling if not ‘on top of the world’, at least a bit nearer the top. You will be creating a natural resource that will not only dampen some of the impacts of climate change but also provide habitats for flora and fauna, assist with the retention and control of surface and underground water, and provide a valuable source of a renewable, natural material.

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There is much to be said for working as a tree planter, but what about the downsides?

Most obviously, particularly as a sub-contractor on piece work, the need to work through the worst the UK climate throws at us. Don’t work, don’t get paid. Investment in waterproof (and preferably breathable) workwear is essential for anyone who is afraid of developing pneumonia or bronchitis. Safety is an issue, particularly on cut-over sites retaining a lot of felling debris, but in my experience it doesn’t often inhibit planting to the extent it is impossible to work.

What about remuneration? Is a living wage possible? On the face of it, yes. Those fit and agile enough can earn in excess of £200 a day if they plant between 2,500 and 3,000 trees. This would be fine if it were possible to work flat out every day during the planting season (and the season is at most six to seven months). Yet there are periods, often lasting weeks in upland areas, when planting is not possible due to snow and/or frozen ground. From November to February, short daylight hours limit the time available to plant. Many planters will have experienced downtime due to the non or late delivery of trees from nurseries. Planters on the whole accept these bugbears, but the situation with piece work rates needs to be raised and brought to wider attention.

Forestry Journal:

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) calculates earnings in the UK have stagnated if not fallen in real terms since 2010 and remain below their 2008 peak. There have been wage increases but since 2010 the growth in earnings has not exceeded inflation. How does this picture compare to planting piece-work rates over the same period? Having planted on and off since 2010 (due to my advanced age I didn’t plant to earn a living but to stay fit and in contact with forestry), and having spoken to many planters in northern England and southern Scotland, I can safely say that piece-work rates have hardly moved in the past decade.

Currently, the average rate for mound planting in the north of England varies between £70 and £80 per 1,000. These rates are virtually identical to the rates in 2010. Current rates for staking, planting and sheltering hardwoods are on average £55 per 100. This is identical to the rate in 2010. In other words, there has been no increase. Beating-up rates can vary quite widely depending on a variety of factors including replacement density and site conditions, but broadly speaking, beating-up rates have also stagnated.

There will be outliers to these rates, but the broad picture is that rates have barely moved for at least 12 years.

The Bank of England calculates UK inflation since 2010 at 2.9 per cent a year. Other organisations give a slightly lower inflation rate of 2.63 per cent a year. Since 2010, cumulative UK inflation has been between 32 and 36 per cent. This means that in order to maintain earnings at the 2010 level, planters being paid the same rates as in 2010 have to plant up to a third more trees. 

I wanted to understand why rates have hardly moved for at least 12 years and so asked forestry organisations, both public and private, to provide information relating to general contract prices for mound planting, sheltered planting and beating up for as far back as records allow. Forestry England and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) responded and I thank them for their openness and transparency. Forestry and Land Scotland was unable to provide any data, citing confidentiality issues. The data asked for in all cases is anonymised and aggregated and it is therefore hard to understand why commercial confidentiality would be an issue. Besides, equivalent authorities in England and Wales cooperated. Confidentiality was not used as a reason. A number of private sector forest management organisations were also approached, but only one bothered to reply and, six months after the initial request, contract price data has still not been provided by any private sector company. 

Forestry England (FE) provided contract rates for the North and Yorks forest district. Mound planting and beat-up rates are available from 2005 to 2021, while data for planting/sheltering are available only from 2015 to 2021. The results are shown in Table 1.

The first thing to note is that contract prices paid to tree-planting contractors by Forestry England have increased for all three types of contract over the 16-year period records cover. In other words, the reason for holding down piece-work rates paid to sub-contracted planters is not because contractors have not seen an increase in the contract prices they receive from FE. 

The second point is that contract price increases are proportionally greater for beating up and sheltering than for mound planting. The median contract price for mound planting has increased by only 24 per cent since 2005, yet inflation over the same period is estimated at 50–55 per cent. Conversely, the increase over the last six years in the median sheltering contract price is almost 18 per cent, just above inflation. The increase in the median beating-up contract price has been a whopping 34 per cent over the same six-year period.  

A question that needs to be asked by FE and answered by tree-planting contractors in the North and Yorkshire is, if contract prices have increased significantly, particularly for sheltering and beating up, why haven’t some of those increases been passed on to sub-contractors? 

Perhaps FE also needs to ask why mound-planting contract prices have lagged so far behind inflation since 2005. I can anticipate one of the reasons FE will put forward: the contract bidding process, which favours the lowest bidder. Well, if FE now know that sub-contract piece-work rates have hardly changed for more than 10 years, do they not have a responsibility to ensure sub-contract planters do not bear all the burden? 

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What are the impacts of pay stagnation over such a long period? The obvious impact is that planters are increasingly forced to plant more trees year after year just to maintain earnings at the 2010 level. Will this impact planting standards? Undoubtedly. Is it likely to encourage bad practice such as burying trees? Probably. Is it a deterrent to new planters who might be discouraged from entering the sector by flatlining piece-work rates and the prospect they will be earning no more in 10 years’ time than they would today? Possibly.

I have included data provided by NRW which is shown below. I have no personal or anecdotal experience of planting in Wales, so don’t know what planters are paid there.

The data is included in order to compare contract rates between Wales and England.

The contract price data provided by NRW includes not only prepped ground but also walking excavate (presumably bare ground without screef) and screefing. Comparing prepped ground prices from the two countries, it is immediately clear that prices were significantly higher in Wales in 2019/20. Prices were also higher in Wales in 2014/15 for prepped ground, but there was little difference in tubed/staked and beat-up prices between the two countries over the period.

Without access to any data from the private sector in England, it is not possible for me to compare planting contract prices between the state and private sectors. Having planted on both FE and privately managed sites, I can say there is no difference in piece-work planting rates and for obvious reasons contractors are not going to tell planters the value of their contracts.

So what is happening? Are contractors failing to pass on increases or do they have justifiable reasons for holding down piece-work rates for the past 12 years? If the state and private forest management organisations which issue contracts are not curious about this, perhaps they should be. Is it not time contractors were encouraged to be more transparent about what they pay planters?

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One final observation. Last year a large rewilding scheme in North Yorkshire featured in this magazine. It was 100-per-cent sheltered hardwoods. One of the contractors organised the work so that he was responsible for banging in stakes and planters planted and sheltered. Planters were paid £0.25 per tree. Materials were placed close to planting sites but this is only what should be expected. The site manager would not tell me what the contractor had been paid but did not look too surprised when I mentioned a figure of £1 per tree as the average for this type of contract (the contract price for FE and NRW).

Is this just one example of gross, ongoing exploitation or can anybody come up with credible reasons why tree planters continue to be so poorly rewarded for their efforts?