Voices of Forestry brings analysis and insight direct from forestry figures working in all sectors across the industry. Sharing his views this month on the challenges and opportunities ahead is Richard Stanford, who last year was appointed chief executive of the Forestry Commission.

I am delighted to have been asked to write an article for Forestry Journal. I have joined the Forestry Commission at an extremely exciting time: trees, woods and forests are very much the centre of governmental attention. I think it is crucial that the Forestry Commission, along with organisations such as the Royal Forestry Society, helps to shape the debate in an informed manner based on science and evidence.

I am quickly discovering that it is rare to find someone without an opinion on trees. I am less convinced by the number of opinions which are properly informed by evidence, experience and science. Having joined the Forestry Commission in August of last year, I am in no way qualified to write in this journal, except by my appointment, and so do so as someone who is under instruction!

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I’ve spent much of my first months as chief executive visiting Forestry Commission sites and talking to as many of our passionate and dedicated staff as I can. The best way to understand an organisation is to speak to the people on the ground about the work they do, and get their views on what’s important and the issues we face.

Through these conversations, it’s become clear to me that, as a sector, we have both tremendous opportunities and significant challenges. 

First, the opportunities. This is the most exciting time for tree planting and growing for a generation. Last year saw the launch of the England Trees Action Plan (ETAP), which sets out the government’s ambitions for trees, woods and forests. This will guide much of our work for the next decade and beyond. We have very ambitious planting targets and a whole range of schemes and incentives to help us meet them, including the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO). There has never been a better time for landowners to plant and grow trees.

The government wants us to achieve a lot through planting and growing trees; carbon capture, the creation of habitats to encourage biodiversity, better public access to nature, and a sustainable timber industry that reduces our reliance on the 80 per cent of timber we currently import.

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Together, all of this should help grow the green economy and create good jobs right across the country. We need to work as a sector to champion the need for productive forestry, use more timber in construction to lock up carbon for the long term, and decrease the reliance on carbon-intensive products such as concrete and steel. The excellent report by Forest Research on ‘Valuing the mental health benefits of woodlands’ clearly illustrates the need for connecting people to trees, woods and forests, and this is something we must do more of. 

And what are the challenges? We have a limited supply of land and landowners are seeking clarity on what ELM grants may offer them. EWCO may represent excellent business sense from our perspective, but landowners are waiting for certainty over ELM before making decisions which will affect land-use change for generations. We also need to be mindful of what is planted and grown, and where. ‘Right tree, right place’ is a well-used mantra which can mean very different things depending on your starting position. We have to recognise that society, and the government, demands multi-purpose woods and forests. We need to plant productive forests, we need to connect people with them and, where appropriate, there is a place for natural colonisation and rewilding to support woods and forests in increasing bio-diversity. The UK Forestry Standard has to be the guiding document and we must increase the number of woods under management.

Balancing all these requirements will not be easy, and all of us in the sector need to contribute to the debate from an informed and evidenced basis.

There is also a shortage of skilled workforce right across the industry, which we are working to improve, but it will take time. The ever-present threat of pests and diseases seems to be increasing, along with the impact of deer and considerable damage by grey squirrels. The changing climate will test the resilience of our natural landscape, and we need to plant and grow resilient woods.

Forestry Journal: The mental health benefits of woodlands were laid bare in a recent report. The mental health benefits of woodlands were laid bare in a recent report.

At the Forestry Commission, it’s our job to help our stakeholders make the most of these opportunities, while recognising and working to overcome the challenges. Our organisation, like our sector, is full of committed, experienced professionals, who are among the best in the world in their respective fields. If we come together as a sector, recognising and embracing the need for balance, co-operation and collaboration, we can seize the chance to increase woodland and forest creation at a rate we have not seen for decades. In doing so, we can make sure that everyone benefits and all the needs and aspirations are met. 

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As chief executive of the Forestry Commission, I recognise that the requirements and standards of today are different to 102 years ago. As any good forester tells me, our mistakes persist for generations. I am confident and optimistic that we are now entering a golden age for our sector and that we have the skills, expertise and commitment to deliver what the government, and society, wants and expects from us. Together we need to champion forestry to make our nation more resilient for the future. I look forward to working with you all to make this happen.