For the first time in three years, hundreds of forestry professionals gathered for the Institute of Chartered Foresters’ flagship national conference. Held in Glasgow on April 26–27, it saw climate-smart forestry put firmly on the agenda. 

IT was back to basics at this year’s Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) national conference – with members more than making up for lost time. When the nation’s professional foresters converged on Glasgow for the first face-to-face meeting since 2019, there were hugs, handshakes, and, no doubt, long-awaited reunions. By the end of the two-day event, delegates were ready to put the words they had heard into action.

Those words, delivered by expert speakers from within and outwith the industry, focused on the fundamentals of ‘Climate-Smart Forestry’. With the conference held as a hybrid event for the first time, around 300 guests – both in-person and online – heard about a range of topics, from the evolution of tree species to irregular silvicultural systems. 

Opening Part I: The why 

Forestry Journal: Mairi McAllan opened the conference Mairi McAllan opened the conference

Chaired by Dr Rebecca Heaton, it was standing room only when keynote speaker Mairi McAllan addressed the room with the conference’s opening remarks. Urging more to be done to encourage young people to consider a career in forestry, Ms McAllan, Scotland’s environment minister, said the opportunity for the sector at this “crucial moment” is “immense”, insisting the COVID pandemic had focused minds on the value of the nation’s forests.  

That sentiment was certainly echoed throughout the conference, with clergymen, farmers and government officials all singing from the same hymn sheet. They were equally on song when it came to the impact changes to the climate are having on woodlands. 

None more so than Chris Stark, chief executive of the UK Climate Change Committee, who followed Ms McAllan’s presentation with a warning; it’s too late to reverse the worst effects of climate change and foresters need to prepare now. 

“You see the changes in the climate first-hand,” he said. “You really are, I’m afraid, our last line of defence on many of this stuff.” 

Throughout his presentation, Chris referenced some worrying statistics. Not only have the last six years been the warmest on record, the ten warmest years in the UK have all occurred since 2002. 

Forestry Journal: Chris Stark warned of a bleak future ahead Chris Stark warned of a bleak future ahead

The long and the short is, by 2050, the UK will see wetter winters, more heatwaves, and drier summers. But, what does this all mean for foresters? It’s not, Chris said, good news.  

“We are expecting more pests, more pathogens, more invasive species. There’s more of that coming.” 

Opening Part II: The why 

By the end of the opening remarks, delegates were well-versed in what had to happen, but now we moved on to more practical matters; just how do we afford it all? Offering the view of the private side of the industry, Oliver Hughes, managing director (forestry) of Gresham House, detailed how investment had changed in recent years. 

Explaining that Gresham manages around 140,000 hectares of British and Irish woodland – with its forestry division worth £3 billion alone – he said that “not a day” goes by where a client doesn’t ask about sustainability. Investors, Oliver said, range from private individuals to pension funds and insurance companies. 

One trend, he said, was that investors were less likely to purchase a forest – suggesting even £10 m doesn’t “buy you much”– and instead go down the route of establishing forest funds, offering continuous access and cash flow via dividends. The method of investment is likely, Oliver concluded, to evolve again as the sector does. 

Dr Darren Moorcroft, chief executive officer of the Woodland Trust, followed Oliver’s presentation with his own lively one, kicking it off by looking at how land is used across the UK. Woods, trees and timber make up a “relatively small” proportion, he said. 

In contrast to Oliver, Darren focused on the public, saying its opinion was important in all of this. “The current financing from the public purse is potentially not on solid ground. It could all change very rapidly.” It’s important to maintain the public’s enthusiasm and trust – and not to lose it. 

Forestry Journal: Around 150 delegates attended in person and 150 virtually Around 150 delegates attended in person and 150 virtually (Image: ICF)

Rounding off the opening session was PhD researcher Eilidh Forster, of Bangor University, who explored productive forestry’s role in the route to net zero. Referencing her paper ‘Commercial afforestation can deliver effective climate change mitigation under multiple decarbonisation pathways’ (2021), she said: “There is not enough focus on productive forestry. It is often compared unfavourably to natural or semi-natural systems.

“The paper showed productive forestry can achieve twice the carbon impact of semi-natural systems.” 

Even though the sector does emit CO2 throughout the whole cycle, mainly by its use of diesel, the impact is negated by the avoided emissions. 

Session One: The site 

Following a short pause for lunch, where many delegates also took time to explore the exhibitor area, attention switched to ‘The Site’ and just how woodlands should be designed. 

Dr Eleanor Tew, natural capital and resilience manager for Forestry England, was the first to take to the stage. Taking delegates through the example of Pleasant Forest, in Kent, she outlined the principles of the project. 

A resilient forest, she said, can withstand the threats of pests and diseases and climate change, while continuing to provide major benefits, including timber. When designing one, the process has to be broken down into four key stages: defining objectives, site assessment, species and silvicultural choice, and maintaining ecosystem integrity. 

Sticking to the theme of the conference, Eleanor went on to outline how Pleasant Forest’s species and soil-type selection had been made with the future in mind. With its climate likely to resemble that of modern-day northern France as the century progresses, choices have been inspired by forests in that region. 

Digging a little deeper, Professor Andrew Moffat turned delegates’ attention to soil selection. ‘What are the likely effects of climate change on forest soils and what can foresters do to help?’ was the subject of his presentation, during which he mentioned soil’s role in the UK’s forestry organic carbon stocks (two thirds of which sits in soil) and the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS). Referencing Chris’ earlier warning of changes to the climate, Andrew outlined how the above- and below-ground aspects of a forest are intrinsically linked. For instance, an increase in carbon dioxide might, he stressed, reduce tree growth, or soil warming could increase it but reduce the amount of carbon stored. 

Forestry Journal:

“The take-home message is that we know changes will occur but we can’t really say what these will do with any certainty at all.” 

Summarising his thoughts, Andrew insisted foresters should follow (not just consider) UKFS guidelines and always endeavour to understand the soil they are working. 

The challenges ahead for woodland creation were the focus of the session’s final presentation, delivered by Tilhill’s Andrew Vaughan, who provided some context to the discussion around planting rates in Scotland. These are set to exceed expectations, but it’s not all good news. 

“We have issues with tree supply, we have issues with ageing contractors,” Andrew said, sharing the concerns held by many across the industry. “We’re at capacity with our planting fleet. I don’t see how we’re going to do it. We need more qualified staff coming through.” 

He went on to say: “If we get things right, we might be able to keep timber production at 15 million m3 each year in the UK but it’s a tough ask. The next 25 years are crucial.” 

To get anywhere near the target, he said, we need to better balance competing land uses, increase the use of wood and timber products, and overcome many preconceptions. This includes the idea that broadleaves and conifer species are always in competition. 

Session Two: Species

Speaking remotely, Chris Reynolds, tree species silviculturist at Forest Research, kicked off the final session of day one by offering an “evidence-based approach” to expanding species choice. 

“Our forests are not very diverse,” he said. “About 50 per cent of conifer forests are Sitka spruce. There’s a huge risk due to the lack of diversity.” 

He explained how there are principal and secondary species, the former includes Sitka spruce, while European silver fir is among those to fall into the latter camp. There are 15 principal species and 24 secondary. Plot-stage species – 49 all in, including dawn redwood – and 120 specimen-stage species complete the line-up. 

With the goal of moving species from specimen-stage to principal, Chris and his team are working through a 10-year strategy, developing “a climate matching procedure”, looking for “alternatives to Sitka”, and identifying species for “growing in the warm/dry zone”.

They rely on extensive data from around the world to do so. 

Joking that he was a “non-native” species to the UK, Dr Jens Haufe, who leads Forest Research’s technical development branch, continued on a similar theme. He outlined Forest Development Types (FDT), an “essential tool for diversifying British forests”. 

A 2018 project funded by Forestry England and Forestry and Land Scotland, FDTs, are a guide to facilitate the management of site-adapted stands, Jens explained. With 61 FDT cards having been made up, they contain three main elements: description, ecological suitability and management objectives.

“Having three different species is no longer good enough,” Jens said. 

So, there’s a lot to consider with species selection but just what does this choice look like in practice? To try to outline this, the conference heard two case studies. First came Ben Clinch,  woodland manager of the Moray Estate. He was followed by Andrew MacQueen, a forester based in the south of Scotland. 

With 30 years of experience, Ben outlined how historical factors – including the Enlightenment – had affected Moray’s tree species, today dominated by Scots pine.

Other species include Douglas fir.

“There are 200 years of plantation forestry there,” he said. “There’s a blurring and a blending of species. It’s not unusual to see four species in a stand.” 

Again, referencing how Scotland’s climate will mirror that of other parts of modern-day Europe by the end of this century, Ben presented some examples of the different species being grown on the estate, including birch and eucalyptus.

Andrew, meanwhile, spoke about the need to move away from “assumed knowledge”. Detailing the hardships, such as extreme weather and disease, faced by his estate, he argued we can’t be “tone deaf” when it comes to species selection, “particularly at a time when we are getting a lot of money from the public”.

To address this, Andrew has tried out cryptomeria, which has “grown fantastically well”, Douglas fir and hemlock (although he has concerns over the spread of Phytophthora pluvialis), and western red cedar. This has fared less well. 

Session Three: Silviculture systems 

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When Graham Taylor arrived in Herefordshire, Pryor & Rickett was a relatively small, local firm. Now it’s a national enterprise, with Graham overseeing 10,000 hectares of land. 

Much of that land features irregular silviculture systems and these were very much the focus of his presentation, which opened day two. Saying he believed they “improved resilience” in his forests, he began by outlining the county’s prominence of oak and ash woodlands.  

Working in Herefordshire since the early 1990s, he said improving resilience was an “absolute necessity”, adding that it was important to find a balance between that and what the “client wants”. 

Other factors considered by Graham include: sporting resilience, biodiversity resilience, and the local conditions, including soil and climate. Concluding, he insisted “reduced windthrow” and “enhanced growth rates” were among the benefits of irregular systems. 

From irregular silviculture systems, to ‘irregular’ farms. Stephen Briggs, director of Abacas Agriculture, made a compelling case for the benefits of agroforestry, as he outlined the effect it had had on his Cambridgeshire plot. 

Detailing how he had planted fruit and nut trees alongside his farming stock, Stephen explained that his trees and crops relied upon water and light at different times, adding: “They are not competing.” 

According to Stephen, 1 hectare of mixed use provided the same benefits as 1.4 ha of divided land. 

Luke Barley, senior consultant, trees and woodland at National Trust, was the last to speak, providing an update on the charity’s management of its 26,000 ha of woodland.

In 2015, the Trust, Luke explained, changed its focus to “create a healthier, more beautiful natural environment”. 

With goals to improve conditions on all the trust’s designated sites by 2025 and to establish 20 million trees by 2030, Luke said the trust was “pretty much on track” to achieve these. 

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He explained how income generation was not “the priority”, so the Trust’s silviculture systems “are very mixed”. 

“Some of our best management comes from people who wouldn’t know what silviculture systems mean,” Luke said. He went on to give examples of continuous cover across England, and patch clear-fell. 

Albeit, the latter will no longer be used unless officials can provide “very good reasoning”. 

Coppicing remains the Trust’s most widely used system. 

Session Four: Climate-smart plant supply 

Where we’ve gone wrong and how we may get sustainable plant supply right was the subject of the day’s second session, with Forestry England’s Chris Hardy detailing how nurseries were adapting. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve not always been very good at seeing nurseries as part of the sector,” he said. “That needs to change.” 

Explaining the UK was still “very reliant” on seed imports, Chris said: “We really need to improve domestic seed production and diversify species.” 

Forestry Journal: Guests could also speak to exhibitors between sessions Guests could also speak to exhibitors between sessions

So, what’s being done? Chris outlined moves towards biocontrols and “water use efficiency”. Referencing the conference’s common theme of the changing climate, he said indoor growing environments provided “many benefits”. 

He said: “This allows us to move towards what Forestry England is proposing and use a hybrid model between cell-grown and bare root.” This could improve production to around 90 per cent, Chris added. 

Dr Joanna Clark, head of research at the Future Trees Trust, next spoke of the need for climate-smart seed supply, which could only come by “choosing the best parents from a wide genetic base”. 

“We aim to get improved seeds (both qualified and tested) to the market for main commercial broadleaved species,” Joanna said. This is done by collecting seeds from across the UK, carrying out progeny testing and creating clonal seed orchards. FTT also works with the likes of DEFRA and the Forestry Commission. 

She showed delegates an example of sycamore; one which had been selectively grown and another not. The “improved” sycamore had grown substantially more than the “regular”. 

Noted academic Professor Richard Ennos, of the University of Edinburgh, highlighted his work on evolutionary approaches to forestry. Again talking about the changing climate and the lessons learned from history, he said “tree species can withstand” great change.

“The trees we have got are very tolerant to climatic variability,” he said, using an example of a beech tree in Scotland that, less than a month on from suffering frost damage, was already growing again. People say variation in trees takes far too long. Well, I beg to differ.” 

Session Five: Timber market and logistics 

As the final session drew to a close, delegates felt well-informed about what the UK’s future forests might look like. But how will this affect the timber trade? Harry Stevens, of BSW Timber, sought to address the effects of species diversification during his presentation. 

Reminding the room the UK is competing with the world’s timber market and factors outwith its control, he admitted he might sound like an advocate for Sitka spruce, but said there would be “more complexity” in the future. 

With the increase of species choice – and the difficulties that, in turn, will bring – Harry compared it to a box of Liquorice Allsorts. At BSW’s Fort William sawmill, 10 different species had already been cut in the last year. 

Finally, the conference was brought full circle by Roland Stiven, of Scottish Forestry, who spoke of the sector’s need to decarbonise. In the UK, 10 million tonnes of timber are moved every year, he said, with harvesting, forwarding and transporting all key parts of the cycle.

Forestry Journal: Each session ended with a Q&A panel Each session ended with a Q&A panel

“At almost every stage we are heavily, or totally, reliant on diesel,” Roland added, estimating 30 m tonnes of the fuel are used in the harvesting phase alone each year. The recent change to red diesel’s tax status had, he said, shifted focus on how we move away from it. 

“We are going to have to shift that to a whole new energy system and the sooner we start that process, the better.” 

He went on to suggest other sectors, including steel, are already making moves towards fossil fuel-free vehicles. Foresters should, Roland concluded, begin to develop decarbon plans now. 

Session Six: What will you do different? 

Bringing the event – which was widely hailed as a resounding success – to a close, keynote speaker  Rt. Revd. James Jones said foresters have never been so needed or so in demand. Referencing Glasgow’s hosting of COP26, the chairman of the Independent Forestry Panel said: “Every landscape is shaped by the political mood of the time. It reveals the priority and values of that generation. 

“Once planted to build ships and later for war, trees are now being planted for a more important battle.”