Back for its second year, Confor’s Introduction to Forestry Machinery event gave around 80 would-be operators a taste of the sector. We went along to one practical day to find out more.

“I can’t stop smiling,” said Janis Saldaks, a hand cutter turned would-be machinery operator, speaking shortly after spending his first hours behind the controls of a forwarder. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop!” 

It was a wet, cold Thursday in mid-March (isn’t it always?) and Forestry Journal found itself in the middle of a mature pine woodland near Biggar in South Lanarkshire, watching two rookies handle a John Deere 1510G with relative ease. The duo – also including Shaun Love – were the participants on day nine of Confor’s latest Forest Machinery Taster event, which was back for its second year. 

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The scheme – run with the support of partners including the aforementioned manufacturer, Scottish Forestry and Euroforest – had one key purpose; to get bums on seats and make sure they stay there. Whittled down from a much larger initial intake, around 20 entrants were given the chance to test out their forwarding skills across a fortnight block, with John Williamson, an experienced head of H&W Training, there to guide them. 

READ MORE: Confor's Introduction to Forestry Machinery: Plugging the skills gap

One of those under his watch was Janis. Originally from Latvia, he moved to the UK in 2008 and, in between jobs outside of forestry, has worked in a number of sector roles. But he had longed for the opportunity to see what life in a forwarder was all about. 

“I took a chance for this beautiful opportunity to give it a go,” the 35-year-old said. “It’s a very rare opportunity to get a go on these machines, especially for a full day. Someone might give you a go for an hour or two, but it’s usually on the side. This is absolutely brilliant.

“I am a hand cutter, and as I progress through the industry I want to learn some new skills that will give me a better chance of employment in the future. This was a perfect opportunity to give it a go and maybe potential employers will see me as a potential employee.

“It’s hard work to start with but the way the event has been done is so great. It gives you the real, 100 per cent taste of what you can do.

“If you’re in forestry, you’re either here or you’re not. It’s a lifestyle and you need to love it.” 

Janis is the exact type of character Confor has set its sights on in its mission to address forestry’s skills shortages, which have long been discussed. In fact, little has changed in those respects from last year’s event but it is a long-term project. As many as 10,000 roles may need to be plugged – according to the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) – and issues around Brexit and Covid have hardly helped. The Forestry Skills Forum’s Forestry Workforce Research analysis, published in 2021, found that England will need to fill around 2,500 positions 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. Earlier in 2023, England’s forestry minister had even warned there are simply not enough foresters to manage the country’s woodlands in the coming years.

While less has been written about the current state of play in Scotland – and the taster events were purely for workers north of the border – anecdotal evidence suggests things aren’t exactly rosy there. 


But the appetite certainly exists to change it. 

“We took those people who showed a real interest in the industry and brought them out into a real machine in the woods,” said Richard Hunter, Confor’s teaching and industry support manager and the leader of the project. “An often talked about problem is the lack of new entrants coming into the industry, and certainly those wanting to use a machine. 

Forestry Journal:  Around 18 would-be operators got the chance to try their hand at driving a forwarder. Around 18 would-be operators got the chance to try their hand at driving a forwarder. (Image: FJ)

“Machines need to be productive and need to be working, so the downtime it takes to put someone new in one is not something a lot of contractors can commit to.

“Hence why we have stepped in, with support of partners like Scottish Forestry.” 

Every participant who signed up – around 80 in all – enjoyed stage one of year two’s event, a day spent on simulators at the Scottish School of Forestry (SSF) in Inverness and Perth’s Battleby Conference Centre. Three of the simulators were supplied by John Deere, while Komatsu Forest and Blacklock Harvesting were among those to provide the others. 

It was during these simulator sessions that Richard – alongside others such as Elliot Henderson’s Neil Purves – made sure to separate the wheat from the chaff. They did so by simply being honest about forestry; there was no sugar-coating here. Candidates were told in no uncertain terms about the long days, the conditions, the pay. Some decided at that point it wasn’t for them, others felt even more enticed by the opportunity. 

“There were quite a few who were interested in forestry, but when we drilled down into what it involved, you discovered machinery maybe wasn’t for them,” Richard said. “But we could send them down another forestry pathway that would be better suited to them. That included management positions. 

“So, I don’t feel I’ve lost them, I’ve just not gained them yet. 

Forestry Journal:  Instructor John Williamson passes on tips to participant Janis Saldaks. Instructor John Williamson passes on tips to participant Janis Saldaks. (Image: FJ)

“You also find that people can look really good on paper, but in reality it’s not for them. We didn’t sell a rosy picture but sold a realistic picture of what they will be doing. We didn’t want to tee anyone up falsely.” 

A few changes were made on 2022’s pilot. Not only were the simulator sessions opened up to a larger number, but the practical days were kept to one place, as opposed to moving around the country. This, Richard says, was partly through ease but also to see which candidates would be willing to travel, and which ones would not; after all, you can’t move woodlands and where the work is needed. 

While Janis had a forestry background, most participants did not, but their sectors were all ones Confor believes could prove fruitful breeding grounds. Not least of all the military, with Richard again working overtime to spread the forestry message to servicemen and women on the verge of leaving the armed forces. 

“Quite a few had machinery elements in there somewhere,” said Richard. “Whether that be mini-diggers, quarry workers, a couple from agriculture. Some were just looking to shift over from those into forestry. 

“Very few came from no machinery background at all. But I am not surprised as trying to break into those sectors is very difficult – it can also be expensive to market in their industries.

Forestry Journal: This year’s event took place in a mature pine woodland near Biggar.This year’s event took place in a mature pine woodland near Biggar. (Image: FJ)

"A lot of the operators who have come here were already thinking about it, and touching around the edges of forestry. This is just to pull them in a wee bit more. If we went down the route of, say, pulling people out of IT, it would take an awful lot of work – and I am not sure what our conversion rate would be.” 

Under John’s watch, the participants handled mature pine cut at 3.7m, but those who showed proficiency got to move some Sitka spruce first thinning cut at 2m for a greater challenge. On the day FJ joined the sessions, both Janis and Shaun appeared to be getting to grips with it all pretty quickly. 

“It’s important to try and get new blood into the industry,” John said. “It’s been a problem for years – a consistent problem. The demographics of the drivers are getting old now and we need younger people involved. Some of the contractors can’t get drivers to drive these machines.

“The two weeks have been absolutely amazing. The days on the simulator have been really worthwhile by the time they get here. The guys have been really keen and you have to drag them off the machine at night because they don’t want to leave! They’ve all really enjoyed it. 

“We are going to try and tie them up with contractors who are looking for drivers for the future. 

Forestry Journal: John WilliamsonJohn Williamson (Image: FJ)

“The taster days are a great way of bringing in new blood and encouraging women into forestry. It’s a great insight into forestry.” 

So, what did the two candidates make of it all? 

“I have absolutely enjoyed my day, and was so happy to learn some new skills,” said Janis. “Hopefully this will lead to some new opportunities that I am looking forward to.

“It is amazing. There is so much more to learn but I have enjoyed every minute of it.

“It feels lovely and you enjoy your role at work. That’s one of the main things about life. If you want to be successful, you need to love what you’re doing.” 

Shaun, a 37-year-old construction diver, agreed. 
“It’s been an absolutely great experience to be able to sit in the machine and get a feel for what it would be like to be an operator. 

“I saw the day come up and came along to see what it would be like, and what I could gain from it. 

Forestry Journal: Janis and Shaun Janis and Shaun (Image: FJ)

"It’s quite simple to operate when you understand the controls. I had an idea of what it would be like but it has far exceeded my expectations; I am really enjoying it. 

“I’ve been in construction for a long time and I am really just looking for a wee change. It’s not a bad place to be!”

Now, Richard just hopes the industry will step up and give the participants a chance. 

“We’ve taken out the timewasters. They are all interested. Talk to them.”

If you are looking for new forest machine operators and are interested in speaking to delegates from the event, email