Voices of Forestry brings analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures across the forestry industry. Offering his views on the haulage sector is Neil Stoddart, who has been in timber harvesting for 27 years, plying his trade in the Borders and, for the last 17 years, in the west of Scotland. He has held senior positions with Scottish Woodlands and JST Services. After a health scare, Neil established Creel Consulting in early 2020 and keeps himself busy with shipping, floating piers and specialist logistics projects for a wide range of state and private sector forestry clients.

SLEEPWALKING, also known as somnambulism or noctambulism, is a phenomenon of combined sleep and wakefulness.

As an industry we seem to have been in this state for about a decade in terms of considering labour resources for all positions, from management to professional operators. In terms of HGV drivers, this news has, of course, recently gone mainstream with the big logistics companies struggling for drivers and supermarket shelves going bare. Salaries being offered to haul crisps up the M74 are on the up.

So, if it’s hard to attract drivers to work motorway miles, think of the challenges of getting drivers into the forest sector. The spoof advert on this page underlines some of the issues, which realistically are far from humorous.

Much has already been written, but my personal take on some of the reasons for the lack of forest industry ‘rural’ entrants are as follows:

Mechanisation – On a kind of ‘pop will eat itself’ basis, the chainsaw gangs I used to supervise in the early 1990s are, of course, no more. Often as much as 15 strong, these teams had an eclectic mix of characters, good, bad and ugly (all attracted by the ability to ‘make good money’). This created a deep gene pool of talent and good guys progressed onto skidders and forwarders, then harvesters. Some forwarder drivers then naturally crossed over into haulage.

Farmers’ sons – Traditionally farmers and crofters had big families for a variety of reasons (long cold winter nights being one, I am sure). Again, as increased mechanisation crept in, fewer bodies were needed down on the farm, so sons and daughters were traditionally a ready source of skilled labour, keen to get into an alternative rural employment and bringing strong work ethics. I am not sure of exact figures, but suspect most farming families are perhaps now more in line with the 2.4 children model, so that supply of talent has dried up.

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YTS (youth training schemes) – Often derided in the 1980s, the ‘yoppers’ didn’t get paid that much (or cost employers too savagely) but recruits learned vital life and working skills. All my peers who were on these schemes have gone on to be a mix of high-earning operators, tradesmen and company directors. Today’s modern apprenticeships etc seem too complicated to both employers and candidates alike.

Deep down we all know the only way we will attract more people is to offer good money. As Stevie V said in the 1989 dance hit ‘Dirty Cash’, money talks.

So, what about other issues facing those in the logistics side of the forest industry? The recent Timber Transport forum GB Haulage survey distilled some key issues from hauliers:

Forest roads – Another old chestnut, but seriously, have you seen the state of some of them at times? While the old FC CAT1A standard seems to have fallen away, there are some good documents on the Timber Transport Forum’s Knowledge Base section. Organised pre-planning is essential and should involve a haulier to help review road widths, gradients, corners and turning, stacking and strapping areas. If these are not adequate it simply makes a hard job harder. Road surfacing needs to be fit for purpose too. Nowhere have I read that CTI translates to mean ‘walk on water’ and, at the other end of the scale, expensive truck tyres do not like sharp, crushed rock that doesn’t have a layer of fines that can be graded.

Customers – The lack of ‘understanding’ from customers is wide ranging. The advert below hopefully reinforces some of the issues faced by drivers, but do customers really understand the pressures? Do they realise the investment required to purchase trucks, trailers and cranes and the true maintenance costs involved in running a timber truck?

Costs (haulage rates) – To be honest, the haulage sector is sometimes its own worst enemy with this issue. European counterparts have sensible rates per km which are reviewed annually in line with grown-up metrics like RPI. In the UK we seem to always be in a race to the bottom with rates, especially when pricing standing sales. FWMs, of course, seek efficient (tight) rates, and yes, before you say it, I am a poacher turned gamekeeper here, but they also demand reliable equipment and switched-on drivers along with high safety and quality standards.

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The reality is that increases can easily be afforded to cover the costs of these requirements. However, to navigate around the ‘I bet they are getting done cheaper than us’ paranoia, any increases need to be wholesale and pan industry. How about hauliers working to an ‘advised’ minimum-rate-per-mile schedule that could be adjusted for local conditions and reviewed annually, and that would allow those remaining in the sector to invest in kit and drivers? In return, customers could expect minimum deliverables of quality metrics and standards to meet their landowners’ and accreditation scheme standards.

Next on the horizon for the sector is for us all to climb aboard the journey towards net zero with all that brings in terms of alternative fuels and lowering carbon footprints. It’s exciting, but will certainly bring costs and offer even more challenges over the next 10 years. Let’s hope there are lots of hauliers willing to make the next step forward.

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.

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