Voices of Forestry is a series which presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, offering her views on the challenges and opportunities facing forestry from the perspective of a new entrant to the industry is FLS apprentice and recent recipient of the ALBAS award for Trees and Timber Learner of the Year, Rachel Orchard.

I HAVE been part of the forestry world for about a year as a Trees and Timber apprentice with Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), based in Durris, Aberdeenshire. After finishing my Liberal Arts & Sciences bachelor’s degree online during the pandemic, I quickly realised I did not want an office job staring at a screen, so looked into outdoors-based industries. With a love of trees but knowing very little about what working in the sector would be like, I was particularly drawn to forestry and curious about what forest management involves. 

Thankfully, the outdoors lifestyle has turned out to be everything I hoped for. Whether it is wildly windy and wet or glorious sunshine, the weather makes every day unique and is a key part of most conversations with colleagues. 

As part of the Durris squad, my job is to carry out practical tasks to keep FLS forests working effectively for their multiple purposes, namely for recreational use, habitat generation and sustainable timber production. Personally, I find the variety of work mentally stimulating and take great satisfaction from completing tasks that have a physical impact, such as learning to safely fell a tree with a chainsaw. 

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Over the course of my apprenticeship I have gained insight into many facets of the forestry industry. Often site visits and tasks have caused concern about current challenges and sparked excitement for new opportunities at every stage of our trees’ lives, highlighting how the sector can evolve. For example, I visited both a private and an FLS tree nursery to see the process of rearing saplings and hear about the challenges of anticipating which species will grow to be tomorrow’s forests. The demand for trees is rapidly increasing to meet government planting targets as part of the climate change mitigation strategy, so unsurprisingly both the nurseries are expanding. However, they also both explained the difficulty in trying to predict what tree species will be most popular in the years to come given the uncertainty of new pests and diseases and warming growing conditions. I found the challenges around seed provenance especially interesting as our warming weather opens up the debate for whether assisted migration is appropriate for certain tree species. I am also intrigued to find out how nurseries will source a greater variety of species’ seed to meet the demand for diverse, and thereby more resilient, woodlands.

FLS’s own forest adaptation programme is trialling species like western red cedar, western hemlock, Macedonian pine, European silver fir and Pacific silver fir, along with more mixed species planting. In combination with staggering restock planting to have a greater range of tree ages, I think this diversification will help address the biodiversity emergency by providing more niches for wildlife. This is critical as forests can only regenerate if they are in a balanced relationship with their various inhabitants, such as how jays plant acorns that can sustain and spread oak woodland. I think more diverse forests are also needed to meet our human demands by reducing the vulnerability of tree crops to pests, diseases and extreme weather, thereby ensuring there is sufficient local, sustainable timber to reduce our reliance on timber from overseas and support the transition of multiple industries to renewables.

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After leaving the nurseries, most broadleaf saplings are planted with plastic tubes and stakes for deer protection. One of the tasks I carry out is removing forgotten tubes to free the trees that have survived the deer’s persistent grazing. These tubes, if left uncollected, pollute the environment and can distort the trees they are supposed to be protecting. While plastic-free tree tubes are being developed and will hopefully soon become the norm, I think we should be more diligent about removing the legacy of plastic tubes. As the trees mostly outlive and certainly outgrow us, I do not wish for future foresters, walking in parts of forests that no-one has been to in decades, to also be picking up bits of plastic tubing.

There is a strong sense of community among foresters and that community is a great place to learn, by word of mouth, about original forest management practices. For example, using regeneration instead of planting, soil enrichment through broadleaf rotations and mixed-species planting to enhance and maintain mycorrhizal networks.

This community network is key for new, young foresters to pick up knowledge and learn skills from those with decades of forestry experience so that past mistakes can be learned from and best practices continued and developed. This knowledge sharing is also available to tap into through Scottish Forestry’s open-access database which, in conjunction with other GIS programs and tools, can equip foresters with detailed information to support management decisions. However, this could be improved through the addition of an accessible dataset for all forest owners and managers to input methods and species they are trialling, as well as progress updates. 

READ MORE: Rachel Orchard: Trees and timber trainee claims prestigious gong at 2022 ALBAS

This could strengthen our understanding on what management practices are working well and where, and encourage innovation to help the sector adapt to its multiple challenges.

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With the future in mind, I hope to play a positive part in addressing the changes forestry faces in the coming decades, whether that is on the ground or, when I feel I am ready, through a management or planning role. There are a lot of older foresters keen to pass on their knowledge to discerning and enthusiastic new entrants, but more could be done to spread the word about the multifaceted world of forestry. For example, community woodland groups can play an important role in engaging people of all ages and backgrounds to learn about and try out forest maintenance. Similarly, science and outdoor-education teachers, from primary through to university level, could be encouraged to advocate forestry careers for those interested in STEM and the outdoors. 

In addition, Scottish Government initiatives, such as the Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Practical Training Fund, fund forestry and ecology training to provide accessible skills development for those hoping to enter the industry.

Most importantly, we need to convince people that forestry is not only for big, beardy, 6’ 7” men (no-one in my team is over 5’ 8”!). My fellow apprentice and Lantra’s ALBAS runner-up, Victoria Potts, and I are trying to help change this narrative and represent women in forestry through sharing our work on Instagram (@_treekind).

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 of Forestry Journal.