Voices of Forestry is a new series of features offering analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures from across the forestry industry. This month, offering his views on the issues facing machine operators is Ireland-based harvester driver – and founder of the Forest Machine Operators Blog – Mark Curtis.

I started the Forest Machine Operators Blog group on Facebook to give machine operators a place to chat, share stories and pictures. It was something I did because I was a bit bored one day. I never expected it to take off the way it did. Six years on it has nearly 40,000 members, we’ve raised over £70,000 for charity, it’s made me a lot of friends and changed my life. If you want to know what issues are really worrying the minds of operators, the Blog is a good place to start.

There are subjects I won’t discuss here because they’ve been talked to death (and I’ve only been given so much space), and some I wouldn’t comment on because I have no direct experience of them. But there are some pretty big challenges that need to be addressed.

One is that the number of operators in the industry is dwindling. It’s always been a niche job, but if you think it’s tough to find operators now, in 20 years’ time it could be close to impossible.

There are several reasons for that. The first is that the job, which requires you to spend a lot of time on your own, away from home, is not particularly attractive to young people. That’s if they’re aware it exists at all.

READ MORE: Keith Threadgall, Association of Scottish Hardwood Sawmillers: “It seems crazy that the mill wood price has gone up so much”

Forestry generally does not do a good job of promoting itself, leading to a poor perception from the general public and youngsters in particular. They’re not told about it in schools. They’re not educated about sustainability or carbon sequestration. Too many people think we’re just out to kill trees for profit. For too long the industry has stood back and let self-appointed experts on the sidelines declare what we’re doing is wrong, whether that’s to do with spraying, wildlife, conifers vs hardwood or the simple truth that if you want to build anything from wood, trees have to come down.

I have a daughter at school now who would be ashamed to tell her classmates what I do for a living, because they’ll think I’m destroying the planet. There’s something very wrong with that, especially when you think about how effectively farming is promoted in schools. The part of Ireland I live in, if a timber harvester drove down the street, they’d think it was a spaceship. But they’d know the make and serial number of every combine and tractor. Forestry clearly has a job to do to change the way it is perceived.

That said, even if we managed to inspire a new generation towards a career driving forestry machines, that wouldn’t improve their chances of finding work. What contractors want are experienced operators, but no-one gains experience unless they’re given a chance. Unfortunately, the cost and risk involved for contractors is currently too great.

I would like to see contractors subsidized so they can train their own operators. I believe a contractor would be quite happy to take a risk on a young operator if he could sign up to a scheme where the driver’s wages in his first year – during which he was assessed by a qualified assessor and received his certificates – were classified as a tax write-off.

The government wouldn’t have to pay anything out in additional funds, but the financial burden on both contractor and trainee would be eased. It’s an idea I would really like to be discussed more and ideally seized on by a forestry lobby group who can take it to the government.

We can all see the problem looming in the future if we continue as we are, but it feels like the industry has its priorities all wrong, finding new and imaginative ways to lumber contractors with more costs and complications.

READ MORE: Jock McKie, John Deere Forestry UK: “Fair payment will improve efficiency and protect our industry”

I’ve been a machine operator nearly 30 years and feel confident saying the job has grown much more intense in that time, with the volume of paperwork alone – some essential, some maybe not so essential – making it much more difficult and driving some away to an easier, happier life in construction or agriculture. Maybe this could be better streamlined and made more user friendly.

Health and safety is paramount in the industry, especially to those working on the forest floor. I believe there have been massive strides in the last 10 years to make it one of the safest, most regulated and certified professions in Ireland and the UK and this has been proven by the sharp decline in serious incidents in our forests compared to other, less dangerous industries.

But I also believe we have to be careful in that respect not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because if you take away the ability for a person to have to think for themselves they will drop their guard and accidents will happen. Some seem to think someone else should be responsible for their actions all the time (by that I mean if they think something is too dangerous to do, they should voice their opinions and not rely on others to say it), but on saying that let me stress that everyone should have the proper training and be given the proper advice and tools to do their job safely.

Another problem at present is the lack of insurance companies willing to take on commercial forestry contractors (in Ireland, anyway), causing the cost of insurance to spiral upward along with fuel and tools and machines, but that’s a whole other story for another rant...

READ MORE: Stuart Goodall, Confor: “We must work together to make our voices heard”

Above all, my biggest concern is the fact the basics are still not being handled. There are lots of issues in the world of commercial forestry that need to be addressed, and most of the big ones are the responsibility of landowners. We need adequate barriers and security cameras to keep our machinery safe on site. We need adequate stacking areas, adequate parking areas and adequate service areas. Crucially, we need well-maintained roads. Is that too much to ask for? It shouldn’t be compulsory that you need a 4x4 to get to work. I’ve complained about operators being bent over backwards with health and safety, but God forbid, in the event the worst happened, should we be satisfied with roads too warped and broken for an ambulance to navigate?

If I had my way, these are the issues that would be tackled first. Once landowners have been persuaded to raise their standards and address the basic necessities required in the forests, then we can talk about other stuff. Right now, it feels like the cart is being put before the horse.

It’s frustrating to me that, as an industry, we are failing to get the basics right. That’s a big issue.

My issue? I probably talk too much about forestry.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.

What do you think? Share your thoughts by emailing editor@forestryjournal.co.uk. Feedback will be published in a future issue.