Forestry has an enormous task ahead to put people on the ground and trees in it. In our latest Voices of Forestry, Tim Cumine, chair of discussions in the Confor Woodland Show’s Forest Workers Zone, expands on Forestry Journal’s account of the event (October 2023, FJ 350) and welcomes a model of mutual support in building best practice.

It was my privilege to facilitate discussions on diversity in forestry at last year’s Confor Woodland Show. Thanks to the commitment of Toby Allen at Say it With Wood to gathering people in the trades, and to Steve Fowkes at the Forestry Commission for making it possible, the Forest Workers Zone provides space for those organisations that represent the forest workforce to gather under one tent.

As Toby said: “We really wanted to have everyone in the same space and, while we do have the public coming in and out, it’s as much about the people who are there with their stands talking together. That’s where the real magic happens.” 

Not everyone gets to a trade fair, conference or show every year. But each year it’s a lot of us. That relief of realising, whatever we wrestle with virtually alone the rest of the time, we might now be among several, if not dozens, who harbour the same challenges and interests. Lay on tea and biscuits and we’re companions already. 

Forestry Journal: Toby Allen, Say it with WoodToby Allen, Say it with Wood (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

30 years ago researchers looking back at apprenticeship suggested the master must have been too lofty, busy, and fearsome to teach the novice directly and concluded that the novice learned from other learners, some just a bit ahead, others more advanced. Recognising how gathering practitioners fosters education gave rise to the notion of communities of practice. It’s easy enough to imagine the difference between a community of practice and a community of interest. I belong to various communities of interest, like leatherworkers’, luthiers’, and lumber groups on Facebook. Yet, much as I admire others’ moccasins, mandolins and Wood-Mizers, what could I offer to anyone wanting to learn how to stitch soles, scrape bellies or saw butts?

Yet, cutting coppice, I do that. I’ve swung my hook at hazel and hedge, cleft handles and graded out turning rods, stakes and three sizes of pea fan. I’d happily sit with others who do likewise, hungry for their ways of bundling, pointing, and pleaching, and hope they’d be as eager to learn my tricks with bark and besom.

The Forest Workers Zone’s discussions of diversity in forestry gathered a wide range of practitioners from all over the country. We wondered together how forestry might evolve to meet the challenge of putting 30,000 hectares of additional trees in the ground each year, ensuring that the workforce we engage reflects all facets of society. We listened to each other’s accounts and built the prospect of better practice ahead. Some observations . . .  

Industrialisation expects similar, standardised elements, whether they be cogs, call-handlers, or carpenters, to mass-produce goods and services. It once fell to those who differed from the norm to stand up, speak out and be counted. Recent decades have acknowledged the value of attending to equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the workplace, understanding that diversity in society is like biodiversity in living systems, each element an indispensable part of a healthy whole.

There are nine ‘protected characteristics’ in the current Equalities Act – age, sex, race, disability, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and religious background. Government advice makes clear what may or may not be taken into consideration in employment situations.

The myth that young people are too engaged in their screens to work in the outdoors isn’t borne out by the accounts of young people themselves, who are keen to engage in forest industries. It’s just not clear how they would enter the workforce, particularly not without the wherewithal to volunteer first. Many come into the industry as a second or third career, and opening doors to older entrants is apt to attract a greater diversity of workers from other sectors of the economy.

The arb and utility trades in urban settings have made progress in diversifying their workforces, given the concentration of multi-ethnic communities in our towns and cities. Might there be lessons learned by rural sectors from urban partners? Black Environment Network has become a beacon of improving access of ethnic minority communities to work in the landscape.

Industry could enable minority interest groups to discuss their own issues, developing narratives and responses themselves. Landworkers’ Alliance makes space for groups dedicated to hosting conversations between and for people of colour, younger workers and for women and diverse genders. This approach goes beyond posting signs that minorities are welcome.


There are various forums where woodland organisations build best practice by gathering practitioners’ experience. FISA has distinct working groups for saws, plant, haulage, utilities, worksites, managers, owners, documents and change. The Forestry Skills Forum (FSF) in England and Wales and the SFTT Skills Working Group in Scotland are effective arenas for sharing stakeholders’ experiences, focussed on training and recruitment. UKWAS Steering Group reserves seats for owners, practitioners, national forestry bodies, environmental agencies, processors, users, workforce, trainers, manufacturers, LAs and National Parks in framing requirements for certified woodlands that reflect UK and international standards.

The National Coppice Federation’s membership gathers regional coppice groups from South Hams to Sutherland, a key community of practice in the management of underwood, whose cyclical fall and spring guarantees diversity in birds, bugs, ground flora, species under management, marketable product, and billhook patterns. 

And how many others of us contribute to social media platforms, voluntary working groups and other trade discussions? 

Oh! That someone soon invents a device for building knowledge bases out of chat. I think we might once have called it a workshop, with actual benches, edge tools, and a kettle.

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.