Tilhill Forestry, June, 2020

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Rob Baker, Assistant Forest Manager

A Blog by Assistant Forest Manager Rob Baker in North Highland. 

So here we are, part way through 2020 and in the grips of a worldwide pandemic, who’d have thought it! You’ll be relieved to hear I’m not taking this opportunity to dwell on the current situation and explain the many and various ways it’s impacting on our lives. Mike Page’s Blog has already given us a far more entertaining account than I could ever hope to replicate! I have instead taken the time to delve through my memory bank to make sense of how I find myself ten months into the Tilhill graduate scheme as an Assistant Forest Manager. 

Having grown up with a 20-hectare neighbouring woodland as an extension to our garden I was always destined to work with trees. Some of my earliest memories involve haring around the woods with my two older brothers on pedal tractors collecting bits of wood in our makeshift trailers. From there our woodland playground developed into a proving ground for all sorts of contraptions from shoddy old BMX bikes to off road adapted ride-on lawnmowers. If we weren’t busy trying to out-do each other on some form of transport, we were seeing just how far we could climb up the big Cedar in the yard without bottling it. All in all, a fantastic childhood! 

With all this enjoyment to be had in my spare time, it’s probably no wonder I found school a little tedious, particularly as I was nearing the end of my secondary education. By the time my final two years had swung round I’d fallen out with learning and most of my teachers too. Careers advice was centred around doing A-levels, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than another two years stuck in a classroom. It was at this point I was offered a lifeline in the form of two weeks work experience with the local authority tree team.  

Having had an amazing time with a great bunch of like-minded people I was offered a two-year apprenticeship to start as soon as I left school - result! I think it’s fair to say I stopped attending careers meetings from that point on, in my head there was now only one option. Fortunately, I was blessed with supportive parents who saw this as the fantastic opportunity it was, rather than baulking at the thought of sending a 16-year-old to work with a gang of hairy tree climbers. An excellent five years in arboriculture followed; the tractor driving, tree climbing and comradery turning out to be a professional extension of all the things I enjoyed most as a child, except the health and safety protocols were much stricter. There was, however, an allied industry that I had always hoped to revisit since my first trip to the APF (the Exhibition is the UK’s largest forestry, woodland, arboriculture, fencing and biomass show.) at the age of 8. 

Unfortunately, Warwickshire, the county I grew up in, is one of the least wooded areas in the UK. In fact, at just 5% woodland cover its probably some sort of statistical miracle that we had a wood on our doorstep. Needless to say, forestry as an industry in that part of the world was virtually non-existent.  The whole industry did (and still does) however, descend on middle England for three days once every two years to show the UK all that was new and exciting in the world of forestry in the form of the APFSafe to say my 8-year-old brain nearly imploded with amazement the first time I saw a harvester in action. 

It was these early shows that enlightened me to the fact that there was a way to turn trees into a career, be that forestry or arboriculture. The reality was that the latter was the most convenient employment option where I was based, but I could never shake the appeal that large scale commercial forestry had on me. And so it was, at the age of 21, I took the difficult decision to tear myself away from arboriculture to discover exactly what forestry was all about.   

The University of Cumbria was good enough to let me onto their Forestry Management course based on previous work experience rather than UCAS points. A refreshing approach as I feared every application that didn’t reach this arbitrary points score would be binned. Having slipped in through the back door, I never looked back and relished the change/challenge that further education was throwing at me.  

Graduation threw up another tough decision “what to do next?”.  

  1. a) Return to a career in arboriculture that I kneand loved. 
  2. b) Fully embrace a new career and discover if forest management is the world for me. 

The fact that I’m writing this tells you which way I decided to go. I regret nothing. 

 So, ten months in how’s it going? My background didn’t set me up terribly well for spreadsheets, meetings, or anything desk based, so aside from feeling like an office imposter and incoherently fumbling my way through tasks they never warned us about at university, I’d say it’s going well.  

With my sole intention to learn as much as possible I couldn’t have picked a better company or role. Being based in North Highland I’ve been able to draw upon lifetimes of experience from colleague’s right across the region and be involved with projects I could only dream of when I first saw the Tilhill emblazoned marquee at the APF all those years ago.   

But what exactly have I been involved with since I arrived?” I hear you ask. Well if this hasn’t bored you to tears maybe you can tune in next time to find out…….