From seed bed to sideboard – The unsung heroes of the forest industry (Part 1)

By Assistant Forest Manager, Ben Crisford in South West Scotland 

As forestry professionals, when we take a walk in the woods, we see a different forest to the one that most people see. 

Where trees are being planted, we see a restocking design matched silviculturally to site conditions and shaped by an in-depth and highly regulated planning process. 

Where trees are being felled, we see a carefully monitored operation (planned to minimise impacts on landscape character and wildlife), providing sustainable wood products and employment. 

And when we see domestic wood products on the shelves in our local hardware store, we appreciate the sheer range of skilled workers here in the UK who were involved in its production. 

In my view, one of the great opportunities of this Tilhill blog series is to increase public understanding of forestry in the UK and to help the general public to see the woods through a foresters eyes. So far, my colleagues have done an excellent job of explaining the role of a Forest Manager, as well as outlining some of the challenges we face. 

With this article, my aim is to expand the scope slightly, and try and give some of the unsung heroeof the wood supply chain a mention. In doing so, I hope to give readers a fuller understanding of the breadth of the UK forestry sector and an appreciation for the many jobs that it supports.  

The environmental and social benefits of forestry truly feed all the way through the supply chain; From seed bed to sideboard. 

For a tree grown in UK forestry, life begins in the seed beds of one of our specialist nurseries. These nurseries range in scope from small family run enterprises up to large companies with dozens of full time-staff. All have complex operations and each play a vital role in our wood supply-chain. 

The trees will spend up to three years growing in nursery beds, being skilfully tended by nursery staff. It is undeniably true that the interventions made by research scientists and nursery staff at this early stage are crucial in growing the robust young trees we foresters desire for planting.  

Once the trees have been carefully lifted from the nursery beds, they are sorted into size grades – by hand. An experienced ‘grader’ can sort thousands of trees per day, their experience telling them instinctively which tree belongs in which category, and in the UK’s largest nurseries, teams of graders work hard to grade as many as 30 million trees in a single season. 

Whilst the nursery staff are busy getting our planting stock ready, the forest is already a hive of activity. Our sites for replanting will have recently been felled, and still contain mats of branch wood (known as brash) which the harvesting machines used to support their weight and minimise ground damage. To create planting positions in amongst this, most frequently we use specialist excavator operators, who windrow the ‘brash’ into shallow trenches and distribute ‘mounds’ of earth for the trees to be planted into. 

Using no fancy technology other than a steady hand and an experienced eye (calibrated by frequent sample plots with a length of rope), mounding operators distribute mounds, spaced to achieve our desired planting density (usually 2,700 trees per hectare).  

Meanwhile, foresters are busy checking that drains on the site are compliant with Forest & Water Guidelineswhich are in place to prevent pollution and protect water quality. Old drains which are found to be too steep, or  directly connected to watercourses, are replaced with new, gently sloping drains which terminate well away from watercourses to allow water to naturally filter through the earth. 

Areas to be designated as ‘open ground’, including buffers around archaeology and watercourses are carefully marked off, as well as areas to be re-planted with native broadleaves to enhance biodiversity. 

Next comes a logistical challenge. Millions of trees are sitting in cold storage at the nursery, dozens of planters are sitting poised with their spades and hundreds of miles of road lies between them. 

Many trees are delivered by pallet, but for larger sites requiring deliveries of 20,000+ trees, sometimes dozens of miles off the public road, this is simply not feasible, and instead a more specialised resource is drawn upon. 

The delivery of these trees  (of which each year there are millions) is facilitated by just a handful of specialist drivers. Undaunted by mile after mile of unpaved road, and able to turn a wagon in spaces few of us would think to turn a car, these true unsung heroes of the forest industry face unique challenges and play a crucial role in getting our trees planted. 

So comes the arrival of the planters, a day which, even on the most straightforward sites, is the culmination of years of work. 

Tree planting is hard graft – one of few truly laborious jobs that has not been replaced with mechanisation. Professional tree planters navigate some of the steepest and roughest terrain the UK has to offer, all with a bag of trees strapped around their waist. 

Their careful handling of seedlings and correct planting technique is essential to ensure the survival of trees once they meet the soil, which makes it all the more impressive that experienced planters will usually plant well in excess of 1,000 trees per day. 

Until the trees are established, we rely on these same contractors in subsequent years to keep the trees free of competition from weeds and protect the planted trees from damage by pine weevil. 

Once these trees have established and become what most would recognise as a wood, there are many who could claim ownershipThe nurseryman who was out walking the beds at 6am each morning, the delivery driver who endured three punctures getting the trees to site, the mounding operator who prepared the ground, the forester who supervised the operations and – probably  most legitimately of all – the planter who stood on it with a bag of trees. 

The point is that all of these roles are essential, and all are supported by consumers of wood products – which is all of us! From the structural timbers in your house, to that book on your wooden book shelf that you’re definitely going to read some day, our lives are built around products made from trees, and it’s difficult to imagine another material that could match its versatility and environmental credentials. 

In the first part of this blog we have followed the journey of a newly germinated seedling in the nursery, to becoming an established tree in the forest. This seems to me like a good place to leave things for now, a pause while we wait for the trees to grow. 

When we re-join our trees in part two, it will be time for a first ‘thinning’ and from there we will follow their progress through to a harvesting operation, the sawmill and beyond. I hope you can join me then.