The need to recruit 3,000 new entrants to the forestry sector by 2025 – and a potential solution in the form of the UK’s military veterans – was the focus of the latest meeting of the APPGF.

THE All Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPGF&TP) met in Room O of Portcullis House in Westminster on 6 June.

The annual AGM saw Ben Lake MP reappointed as APPG chair and Confor reappointed as secretariat to the group.

Martyn Atkins, clerk of the Environmental Audit Committee, gave members of the two Houses in attendance an update on the inquiry into sustainable timber and deforestation.

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He said: “Evidence sessions ended in May, including hearing evidence from Forestry Minister Trudy Harrison MP and DEFRA officials and from Lord Goldsmith on deforestation. The EAC report, published around mid-July, will contain recommendations to government on current strategies. Government has 60 days to respond.”

Atkins asked Confor to update the EAC separately on the development of a national wood strategy, the prospect of a timber sector deal and DEFRA’s thinking on revisions to the UK Forestry Standard. 

Ben Lake MP opened the hour-long session, commenting: “There is work to do. The latest woodland-creation figures are likely to show a slight dip, just when we need it the most. But today we are looking at skills and the challenges faced by the industry, and specifically at a project aimed at bringing more military into the sector.”

Session host David Lee invited Richard Hunter, Confor’s technical and industry support manager, to set the scene. Richard said: “Having spent several years teaching forestry (Newton Rigg), I am passionate about getting people into the industry. 

“Forestry is a tough, demanding and professional sector. It is also modern, making use of drones, satellites and bespoke equipment, similar to the way the military work. We need good people to enter the forestry arena.”

A recent research survey, co-funded by (amongst others) the FC and NRW, highlighted the need to recruit 3,000 people across the UK by 2025 (in England 2,000 by 2025), “to have any chance of meeting targets for climate change, net zero and to address the biodiversity crisis.”

Forestry’s public and private sectors work together through the Forestry Skills Forum. Richard said: “I chair the sub-group ‘Attraction and Retention’, working with the charity HighGround (supporting service leavers and veterans into rural jobs) and with the MoD’s official career advisors, the Career Transition Partnership (CTP).”

Before Richard’s engagement, the CTP worked with (UK) national organisations such as DHL and British Airways, which offer a variety of roles. “They didn’t interact with SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) because they did not fit with their model of working. For forestry SMEs that are Confor members, I can be that bridge to the CTP.”

Military training facilitates team players and good leaders. “Skills such as forward planning are crucial to forestry. The ability to visualize the process of harvesting and restocking, potentially five-to-10 years in progress, is a lot to get your head around. 

“Veterans have skill-sets not taught in schools or universities that take years to master, such as thinking on your feet or taking action when needed. To veterans, these are second nature.”

When asked what they want, veterans often state the wish to work outdoors in a rural environment, to be active and hands-on. “Forestry, coupled with environmental factors, offers this, and the opportunity to be able to make a difference, again another reason why they may have joined up in the first place.”

Practically, the military often provides those serving with a home. “They could lose their house (barracks) as well. For forestry, this is a positive. Rural population densities are decreasing and we need to bring skilled people back into rural areas.”

Forestry Journal: Ben Lake MP; Scott Cooper, Forestry England; Lord Colgrain; Lord Clark; Stuart Goodall, Confor; Richard Hunter, Confor.Ben Lake MP; Scott Cooper, Forestry England; Lord Colgrain; Lord Clark; Stuart Goodall, Confor; Richard Hunter, Confor. (Image: FJ)

Speaking at CTP events, Richard said that most veterans don’t see forestry as a career and ask how their skills would fit. “Machinery operations and management and logistics fit into many businesses, including forestry.” When asked by a cyber-security expert where he might find a role, Richard responded: “A harvester is a £500,000 piece of equipment linked, via software, to the owner and the manufacturer. When there is a problem, they look at the data to see how the machine is performing. That needs protection.

“Hacking a manufacturer like John Deere, which supplies half the machines in the country, would infect half the supply chain. I could see the chap thinking, ‘Yes, I get this’. It illustrated that he has skills the rural sector wants.”

Attending CTP and other events is also about challenging attitudes and misconceptions, “of foresters wearing a checked shirt and walking the forest with an axe. We do get there, and when I finish there is generally a positive feeling about forestry.”

Transitioning from the forces to civilian life takes time (a minimum of 12 months), giving veterans time to plan. To actively engage veterans in Scotland, Confor has run well-received taster sessions funded by Scottish Forestry and Skills Development Scotland.

The means of engagement (equipment) is supplied by the industry. “John Deere supplied a £200,000 harvester (removed from working production) so that military veterans (and others) could experience driving these machines. It’s like nothing you have driven before. We need to run tasters in England and Wales. The interest is there.”

Richard concluded: “The last CTP event at Murrayfield had 80 exhibitors: five had links to the land, only two were promoting forestry. Unless we engage with the CTP and military leavers they won’t know the sector is here. Forestry has much to offer veterans and vice versa. We must keep that communication going.”

Guy Opperman MP suggested writing to Johnny Mercer MP, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, to see if he can offer funding for events run elsewhere in the UK.  

Veteran Scott Cooper works with Forestry England in North Norfolk. In 1989 he joined up as a junior soldier, serving a full career (23.5 years) with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the skilled corps that maintains and repairs the equipment of every unit within the British Army. Cooper spent most of his tours in Germany (Cavalry), before his last posting to East Anglia. He left in 2013. He said: “For several months before leaving, I did not know what I wanted to do. Others are in the same boat.”

The military organises career fairs for those in their final year. “There was no mention of forestry at all,” said Scott. “I heard from a family member that the Forestry Commission was looking for a mechanic. I applied and got the role. After a year, I transferred to forest machine operations and stayed for nine years. I have now taken over as direct production harvesting supervisor.”

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On his transition to civilian life, Cooper suffered mental health issues, finding support through the NHS. “For example, daily decision-making. In the military, it is all done for you. You turn up, do your role and you get paid. Coming out, what is normal for most people you have never come across. It takes a long time to adjust.”

A skilled mechanic, used to working on tanks (Challenger), recovery and repair vehicles, using cranes and more, Cooper quickly adapted to forest machine operations. He said:

“In the military, you are not working at the speed required on forest machines, but the skills are easily transferred. You pick up the pace and adjust.”

As harvesting supervisor, he manages multiple sites and multiple contractors, implementing site safety and more. “I enjoy being outdoors and the variety in the job. A lot of ex-military people tend not to like crowds. In forestry, you can be out working in the forest, but you still have your place in a team.”

Via video link from Perth, Charles Bushby, regional director for woodland managers Scottish Woodlands, shared his transition from the Black Watch (Infantry). In 1987, Bushby began officer training at Sandhurst, followed with postings to Berlin, Ireland, Shropshire and finally Hong Kong, where as captain his last role was as operations officer. He left in 1994. 

Forestry Journal:  A recent survey highlighted the need to recruit 3,000 people across the UK by 2025. A recent survey highlighted the need to recruit 3,000 people across the UK by 2025. (Image: FJ/Stock/Jack Haugh)

“Some colleagues went to London and became fund managers,” he said. “I wanted a job that met my expectations, would allow me to move back to Scotland and to have an outdoor life, with some indoor as well.” While considering chartered surveying, he came across forestry. “At the age of 30-ish, I flew back and enrolled in a three-year forestry degree course at Bangor, supported by my wife for much of that time.”

In 1997, Charles moved to Scotland to join Tilhill. Joining Scottish Woodlands on the west coast as Junior Forest Manager, he now works from the office in Perth.

Of all the transferable skill sets, for Charles the most useful has been dealing with people (communication and confidence). “We think we are individuals moving around forests by ourselves, but it is quite different,” he said. “We deal with people in the office; with change-resistant members of the public; and with clients, high-net-worth investors who want their interests represented by someone competent. It is about confidence – particularly as a junior manager when you don’t know the answer straight away – to go off and find the answers to then communicate to your client. Having the confidence to communicate with people, I use that every day.”

Other transferable skills include planning and writing accurate and succinct documents. During training exercises, he saw what military machinery could do, and the roads and bridges designed and built by engineers to move that equipment. “In Argyll, we harvest across many steep sites, building roads and bridges safely, with minimal costs, in P1970s and P1980s forests. Having seen the machinery and knowing what civil engineers can build is very helpful.”

David Lee summarised: “Two very different stories doing two very different jobs. The crossover into forestry has worked well in both.”