Voices of Forestry brings analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures from across the forestry industry. Offering his views on the challenges facing the sector this issue is Donald MacLean. A chainsaw operator for 40 years, Donald is best known for being the chairman of the Forestry Contracting Association – and for his habit of telling people at the top of the industry exactly what they don’t want to hear.

FORESTRY contracting encompasses all the disciplines required throughout the entire cycle of forest works, from bare ground to final felling, with haulage and subsequent restock completing the circle. The contracting resource has underpinned the entire forest industry for decades and, without it, there would be no industry. It wasn’t always this way. 

Once upon a time, long, long ago, most of the work would have been carried out by staff directly employed by the forest owners. However, when it was discovered things could be done much cheaper by contractors, it was hardly a surprise to find forest owners moving to the current model. The early breed of forestry contractor could be a little bit difficult to manage, so the forest owner seemed quite content to have someone else manage them.

This was the cue for the management companies to enter the arena. When these ‘men in suits’ appeared on the scene, the industry as we now know it was born.

READ MORE: Digby Guy offers his take on payment for timber debate

These components of the common supply chain – consisting of forest owner, management company and contractor – have seldom worked together to complement one another in the way you would expect of a mutual dependency. Increasingly, forest owners have become less interested in their forests and have passed more and more control to these management companies, who have been more than willing to accept.

With one or two notable exceptions, the forest owner has no involvement beyond signing the cheques. If only they knew how much this was really costing them. 

I was heartened to read Digby Guy’s excellent article in last month’s magazine, in which he articulated his concerns about the losses being sustained by both forest owner and contractor as a direct result of the control and influence that others hold over the industry. If only other forest owners would open their eyes, we might still have a chance. 

In those early days, the Forestry Commission would have directly employed staff working in forests, but also have contractors plying their trade in the next compartment. This only highlighted the gulf between the two systems. The contractors’ work was being done to the same standard, but quicker and cheaper, even though the contractors usually got the poorer blocks to work in. The overall cost savings were obvious to see and some came to realise that another advantage to using contractors is you can blame them for everything that goes wrong because you hadn’t bothered to plan things properly.

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However, things are seldom exactly as they seem from the outside. The industry’s hierarchy conveniently ignored the fact we were comparing apples with pears. FC staff got paid holidays, contractors got none. FC staff had a pension, contractors had none. FC staff had tools and equipment provided by their employers, contractors had to buy their own (or, in many cases, just worked without any). FC staff benefited from ‘wet weather’ agreements, while the contractors just got wet. I’m sure you get the idea. The double standard had arrived and was here to stay. I’ll not dwell on the fact that significant numbers of ‘self-employed’ workers were being paid in cash while still claiming unemployment benefits.

Sadly, the illusion that it is cheaper to run a contracting business rather than directly employ staff is just that – an illusion. And if it was then, it most certainly is now. The main reason private sector enterprises, including contracting businesses, run more cost effectively is because they are better managed and there is a hard work ethic that is less common in the public sector. This is because there is usually more incentive to work hard. Without this, few will actually bother. Why go out in the pouring rain if you get paid just the same for sitting in the van? Or, to look at the modern-day equivalent: why go to work when you can get paid just the same for sitting at home?

Don’t get me wrong. This was an opportunity for us to develop a business in an industry we knew and cared about, and without having to go to college or university beforehand. Few of us had sat any exams in school, never mind entered further education, so this was definitely our chance. However, this also made us vulnerable. We were naïve and didn’t know quite as much as we thought. We were fair game for any fast talker who came along with promises of riches to come, if only we could knock out this rough job at a good rate. Sadly, the cream didn’t often appear; because everybody was so desperate to work in the good stuff, someone would offer to do it for next to nothing. You didn’t get a sniff – unless, of course, you would work it for less than nothing.

So now we know how we got here. What exactly has changed in the last 40 years and what are the current challenges that contractors have to overcome to ensure their businesses are viable?

Firstly, the cost of running a business has risen massively, particularly in recent times. It doesn’t really matter what has caused it. The fact is everything has risen sharply in price. Fuel, machinery, spare parts, tools and other equipment have all seen big hikes. Everything bought in the supermarket is getting more expensive, increasing the cost of living, which means wages have to go up. Of course, we are already paying high wages just to keep people in the industry. This is set to get much more difficult with the general shortage of skilled workers and the high incentives, both in pay and conditions, offered by other industries. Many of our skills are portable, after all.

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Changes in legislation have also increased costs, and government expects business to do more and more. Employment and health-and-safety laws affecting terms and conditions of employment, holidays, working hours and pay, pensions, maternity and parental rights, discrimination, discipline, grievance and dismissal procedures, data protection, employment tribunals and redundancy – and that’s just scratching the surface. And who can forget the re-interpretation of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, causing another substantial cost to be passed to the contractor?

Now, in a fair and equitable supply chain, these factors would be discussed amongst all involved and solutions sought to the benefit of everyone. Not so in forestry. Because of the decades of exploitation that have gone before, it seems many involved in the supply chain feel that it is still the contractor’s responsibility to bear all these cost increases. 

Nowhere is this more obvious that in the public sector, where contracting rates are so depressed that it is no longer possible to work for the rates offered. Forestry & Land Scotland, Forestry England and Natural Resources Wales have gotten so out of touch with what is actually happening on the ground that we are now seeing some private sector companies paying contractors close to double the rates for the same kind of work.

And with the shambles that is public sector procurement, they can’t bring tenders to the market. Sometimes, contractors don’t even get paid on time, which has to be the ultimate demonstration of contempt. No wonder contractors don’t want to work for them any more. 

The state forestry bodies can’t retain staff themselves, it’s so easy to tempt them across to the private sector. So let’s spare a thought for the many skilled and hard-working practical foresters who are trapped in this top-heavy bureaucracy. Talk about lions led by donkeys. If that sounds a bit cruel, then how else do you explain why the leaders of these organisations are strangers to the realities of life on the forest floor? 

Methods to communicate with one another must be among the most significant technological and social developments we have seen in the last half-century. You can now meet folk face to face while sitting in your own house, without even bothering to tidy up. This was science fiction when I started in the industry, yet we still remain as isolated from one another as ever. Despite all these new opportunities allowing us to talk, they do not increase the likelihood of anyone listening, which has always been the main problem. 

READ MORE: Voices of Forestry: Calum Duffy on the future of chainsaw operators

How else can we explain why we are unable to get the timing between ground preparation and planting right? We still have planting contractors complaining about having to plant on sites where they are quite literally up to their necks in uncontrolled vegetation, on mounding done years before. The ground-prep guys are still finding huge pieces of timber damaging their machinery because there has been no discussion or acknowledgement of their needs with the harvesting contractor. Of course, the harvesting contractor is just trying to get the timber cut as cheaply and quickly as possible, his main concern being the survival of his own business. He can’t afford to worry about someone else’s. Indeed, it might be easier than ever to communicate, but we don’t seem very good at it. This could explain the recent burning of millions of trees because there is nobody to plant them. 

Working together??? Forgive my cynicism but you’re having a laugh, surely.

This industry needs to wake up and get a grip. There are still enough people, just about, who know what they are talking about and are able to implement the sorts of changes that are necessary to put this all back together. However, this will mean getting rid of an army of so-called experts who know little about the industry, its culture or the people who work within it. Some may have the ‘ear of government’ but, as they are incapable of listening to those who work in the forest, what kind of message are they sending to ministers? And while I don’t doubt the intentions of some of them, they lack the knowledge and experience necessary to develop initiatives that will make positive changes to benefit the whole industry, not just the few who are paying their wages.

So what are the answers? As is customary, a moan such as this should be followed by my recommended solutions to all the problems. Get real! The only way we’re going to find solutions to the many problems that exist is for ‘different’ people to ‘get together’. The current cohort is failing miserably, so why would we continue to place any more faith in them? In short, there isn’t sufficient political will to make any of the changes we need.

We are just as likely to find a credible solution within the columns of this publication as we are in the offices of those who control forestry. This is a direct consequence of self-interest taking priority.

However, I will take the opportunity to list the main priorities as I see them:
• Recruitment and retention of high-quality workers
• High-quality and affordable training made available for those workers
• Adequate levels of pay for those workers
• Sustainable contract rates
• Substantial improvement in the skills level of forest works managers

Not heard any of these before? Where have you been? Forget COVID or Brexit, which are just things that have exposed our vulnerability. None of the problems we face are new.

They’ve existed for years – decades in most cases. In reality, the solutions are not difficult to find either. These longstanding issues have seen credible solutions proposed in the past, but they have never been implemented, largely due to self-interest and a lack of political will.

The next step is for the large majority who make up the supply chain (forest owners and contractors) to exert pressure on the remaining small minority to come to the table and start accepting that things can’t, and won’t, continue as they are. Let’s all join Digby Guy and those like him, to make the changes happen.

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.