A new initiative took root in Ireland last month, aiming to educate young people about the world of forestry – and organised by the industry. Its success, if replicated elsewhere, could help transform the way forest management is perceived.

THE acute shortage of people taking on careers in forestry is a deeply concerning problem for the UK and elsewhere. Of equal importance is the perception among young people that forest management is an inherently bad thing – a notion cultivated by misinformation and ignorance. However, thanks to recent efforts on the part of industry and educators, a new initiative has been started to address the issue in Ireland. 

Working in forestry does not simply mean chopping down trees, as many in the general public may assume. It also takes in ancillary careers like road engineers, specialist machinery operators, wood processing and many more. 

Even with these opportunities, the industry continues to be overlooked by younger people when it comes time for them to consider which career paths they wish to pursue.

Often this is because, in the minds of many young people, forestry means ‘deforestation’, which means destroying the planet.

With this in mind, Irish contractor and founder of the Forest Machine Operators Blog, Mark Curtis, from XCut Logging, set about trying to find a way to showcase the industry and the positive role it plays in addressing sustainability and mitigating climate change to students from the same college he attended in his youth.

He approached a number of industry stakeholders who were keen to get involved, including Balcas, Coillte and John Deere Forestry. 

After months of planning, the event took place in Bragan Forest in County Monaghan, where XCut Logging has been clearing a 12 hectare area of spruce for wood product supplier Balcas.

The forest is one of many under the management of state-owned commercial forestry body Coillte. The total area of forest in Ireland is estimated to be around 770,020 hectares, or 11 per cent of the total land area of the country. 

Of the total forest area, 391,357 ha, or 50.8 per cent, is in public ownership. The forest estate is comprised of 71.2 per cent conifers and 28.7 per cent broadleaves, and almost 75 per cent of the stocked forest area is less than 30 years old. 

A key message for young people to understand, and which Balcas, Coillte and John Deere Forestry were eager to get across, is that forests and forest products play an important role in mitigating climate change by sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. In 2019, Ireland’s forests removed close to five million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

On March 7, a group of 20 students (aged 15–17) from O’Carolan College in Nobber, County Meath, travelled to Bragan Forest under the leadership of teacher Jonathan Irwin. 

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Jonathan said: “Mark Curtis had previously contacted the school to open dialogue in terms of developing a link to highlight the forestry industry and all it entails with his former post-primary school. 

“This topic links in with my subject area as I am head of department in construction studies/wood technology in O’Carolan College. We strive to promote a curriculum that allows students to develop as environmentally-conscious citizens who respect the materials they use in the classroom, and to continue when they progress to third level and the working world, and gain a greater insight into how and where they are sourced. 

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“We hope this initial visit allows this idea to grow into a partnership that can help promote this area for generations to come, with possible career pathways and educational opportunities broadened in this area so we can highlight the endless benefits of this industry in a positive way. 

“We have never been on a similar trip as a school, but we are a Green School and have been awarded a Green Flag for our litter initiatives, so biodiversity and habitats are area that can be expanded on under Green School themes in striving to develop global citizens.” 

Forestry Journal: Mark Curtis speaks to the students. Mark Curtis speaks to the students.

Students were shown John Deere machines at work harvesting the timber and piling it up for collection. Short talks outlining the forestry industry in Ireland, as well as on the uses for the wood and on the machinery, were given by the support companies to the students.

Various lengths and diameters of timber were on display for the students to examine, accompanied by imagery of their end product – fencing, packaging, construction, etc – to showcase what the raw material will be used for.
Coillte was fully behind the initiative taken by Mark to help promote the forestry industry to students. 

Mike O’Shea, harvesting process manager with Coillte, said: “As part of my brief, I am a member of the Forest Harvest Training Forum. This forum is made up of different organisations and individuals across the forest industry. The forum members are made up of representatives from sawmills, forest owners both private and state, harvesting contractors, machine operators and educational organisations.

Forestry Journal: XCut Logging’s John Deere machines were seen at work in the woods. XCut Logging’s John Deere machines were seen at work in the woods.

“There is a shortage of people to operate forest machines such as harvesters and forwarders, and it can be very hard to identify new operators and get them trained. 

“There is also a significant volume of trees that will need to be harvested in the coming years. We need to promote forestry as a career choice to school students with a specific focus on operating machines.

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“I think this is a great initiative from Mark. Mark is a harvesting contractor and he is also part of the Forest Harvest Training Forum. We are hoping to be able to repeat this initiative in different schools around the country. 

“In my experience, most people don’t have a good understanding of forestry in Ireland. It is like a hidden industry. Usually, if something is reported in the media it can be quite contentious or negative, but forestry has a lot of great aspects to it.

Forestry Journal:  Raitis Vietnieks drives the John Deere 1270G harvester at XCut Logging. Raitis Vietnieks drives the John Deere 1270G harvester at XCut Logging.

“It is a significant employer in rural Ireland with around 17,000 people employed across the industry, directly or indirectly. It contributes €1.6 billion annually to the economy, and there are a lot of biodiversity and environmental initiatives that take place in woodlands and forests all over the country.”

While Milly McDowell and Conor McGoldrick from Balcas explained the wood types and everything that can be made from it, John Deere Forestry’s Ed Power (who also represents the forest machine manufacturer on the Forest Harvest Training Forum) gave an overview of the machinery Mark uses in his business, before the students were introduced to operator Raitis Vietnieks, who entered the industry when he was just 19. 

Driving large machinery is every boy’s dream and for Raitis, who drives the John Deere 1270G harvester, that dream really has come true. 
Originally from Latvia but now living with his family in Sligo, Raitis said: “I’ve been driving forestry machines for over 12 years now and really enjoy it. Technology has quickly developed over the years, especially in the harvester. 

“This John Deere 1270G is very operator friendly, and is more comfortable, which is very important as we can be in the cab for up to 10 hours per day. 

“I encourage anyone with an interest in machinery to consider the forestry industry for a career as it can be very rewarding.”

Student Cathal Walsh was very impressed with the machines and said it was a direction he would seriously consider. 

He said: “It has been really enjoyable to watch these machines in action. I’ve a good interest in machinery and will definitely consider operating forestry machines in the future. It’s still early yet for me to decide on a career but this event has given me food for thought alright.”

Forestry Journal: Ed Power from John Deere Forestry describes the machinery.Ed Power from John Deere Forestry describes the machinery.

Two more students who attended the educational morning were Orla Winters and Ciara Burns, both 15 years old. 

Orla said: “I have really enjoyed this look at forestry and all that it entails. It’s not an industry that I would have initially thought of as a career but this event has really opened up our minds to new possibilities.”

Ciara added: “I have no idea what I want to do as a job. We have both studied woodwork before at school and thought it was really interesting. This event has really highlighted all the various career opportunities that are incorporated into forestry and I have enjoyed it a lot.”

For Mark Curtis, while it was a pleasure to hear the youngsters express interest in pursuing career opportunities, it meant much more to see them finally gaining an education in what sustainable productive forestry is, putting some negative stereotypes and misconceptions to bed.

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It was specifically his concern that young people are going through their entire schooling without being given any education about the forestry industry that spurred him to take action.

He said: “It was simple to organise the event with everyone pulling in the same direction. All it cost me was some of my time and a few phone calls. Everyone who gave a talk on the day was fantastic.

Forestry Journal:  Supporters of the education day were, from left, Milly McDowell, Balcas; Steven Kelch, Coillte; Mark Curtis, XCut Logging; Mike O’Shea, Coillte; Conor McGoldrick, Balcas; Ed Power, John Deere Forestry; and Raitis Vietnieks, XCut Logging. Supporters of the education day were, from left, Milly McDowell, Balcas; Steven Kelch, Coillte; Mark Curtis, XCut Logging; Mike O’Shea, Coillte; Conor McGoldrick, Balcas; Ed Power, John Deere Forestry; and Raitis Vietnieks, XCut Logging.

“At the beginning, I asked the students to put their hands up if they’d ever witnessed or been told about sustainable forest management and where their forest-derived products come from. Not one hand went in the air. Then I asked them to raise a hand if they’d always thought knocking trees and everything else we do was destroying the environment. All hands shot up.

“In short, these kids left with a totally different outlook on what we do than when they arrived on site. They will tell their friends and, if nothing else, we have changed the mindset of a few. Anyone can do this in their own area and should.”

All the companies attending on the day agreed that the educational event was extremely beneficial to the forestry industry, planting seeds that will help develop a better-informed future generation, and that it should be replicated across the country – and beyond.