Research & Innovation: Q & A with Former Forestry Commission’s Chief Research Officer, Julian Evans

Research & Innovation, an interview with author and former Forestry Commission’s Chief Research Officer, Julian Evans

Julian Evans was formerly the Forestry Commission’s Chief Research Officer(S). For more than 30 years he has owned a 30-acre wood in Hampshire. He is a member of the Small Woods Association, Royal Forestry Society, The Woodland Trust, is a vice president of the Commonwealth Forestry Association and the International Tree Foundation and is a past president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. He is chair of the Forestry Commission’s Expert Committee on Forest Science.

Julian was appointed OBE for services to forestry and the third world. He has written or edited some 15 books of which the two most recent are God’s Trees – Trees, Forests and Wood in the Bible’ (DayOne) and Getting Started in Your Own Wood (Permanent Publications).

Julian’s own wood has featured on BBC Radio 4′s ‘Ramblings’ and in ‘Country Life’. He lectures frequently about owning and caring for his woodland including, amongst others, to the National Trust, natural history societies, local conservation bodies, regional branches of Council for Protection of Rural England, International Tree Foundation, Royal Forestry Society, and Young Farmers clubs.

What initially captured your interest in forestry?

I was a scout and was awarded the forester’s badge at the age of 14. I remember going home afterwards and thinking, this is the career for me, That was it, I never looked back. 

Can you give us a brief history of your career?

I graduated in forestry from Bangor University in 1968 and went on to study for a PhD on the subject of sustainability of plantations in Swaziland. I then joined the Forestry Commission in 1971, first serving as a district officer at Neath in South Wales and then in research at Alice Holt Lodge.

During my time at Alice Holt I twice took spells of unpaid leave, at the University of Technology in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s and with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in the mid 1980s. As a forest scientist at Alice Holt I worked mainly on the silviculture of broadleaved woodland. I finally left the Forestry Commission in 1997 from the post of Chief Research Officer (S) and head of station at Alice Holt. 

From 1997 to 2007 I was Professor of Forestry at Imperial College London. It was a part-time post but allowed me to continue my research in plantation sustainability and to establish a Masters programme in forest protection and conservation.

As well as author of many scientific papers I have written or been principal editor of some 13 books on forestry including the massive four volume ‘Encyclopedia of Forest Science’ (Elsevier, 2004). My latest book is about trees, woods and forests in the Bible, it’s called ‘God’s Trees’ and is my first coffee table book. It has sold astonishingly well and in the year it was published (2014) was a finalist for the People’s Book Prize for non-fiction.

I have held several honorary positions in British forestry, most notably Chair of DFID’s forestry research advisory committee, Chair of the Commonwealth Forestry Association,  President of the Institute of Chartered Foresters and Chair of the Forestry Commission’s Expert Committee on Forest Science. In 2017 I was made an Honorary Fellow of Bangor University

I was appointed OBE in 1997 for services to forestry and the Third World.

What elements of your career did you enjoy the most?

  1. I enjoyed studying the sustainability of plantations with personal research in Swaziland spanning 50 years. The biggest question was: ‘Can you grow crop after crop on the same site or does it cause declining productivity?’The good news is, Yes you can and ‘no’, declining productivity with successive rotations is very much the exception provided plantation silviculture conserves soil values.
  2. Forest research into the silviculture of broadlead woodlands.
  3. Chairing two United Nations inter-governmental panels on the future of plantations worldwide in Chile in 1998 and again in New Zealand in 2003.
  4. Writing 12 books on forestry or forestry related subjects since the1980s.
  5. My most recent book: ‘God’s Trees’, Trees, Forests and Wood in the Bible’ (2014, 2015)  with a  2ndedition in 2018.
  6. Recently presenting over 120 talks throughout UK and even on board cruise ships(!) based on my Christian faith and the connection to trees. 

When looking back through history what do you consider have been the biggest advancements within forest research?

  1. The UK‘s development of yield models in the yield class system developed in the 1970s. It was, in my opinion, world leading. The way crops are assessed in crop productivity and classification based on potential mean annual increment achieved.
  2. Planting on poor sites.The thorough research underpinned our very successful afforestation effort. 
  3. Quality of science. The top-notch science researching pests and diseases. 
  4. The invention of tree shelters. Graham Tuley when with Forest Research revolutionised small scale tree planting with his ’Tuley tubes’. This was in 1979 and I was proud to have had some association with this work having an office opposite his at the Alice Holt.

What do you consider to be the most positive news stories for forestry in the UK over the last 100 years?

The multiplication by two and a half times of our forest cover and the growing appreciation that trees and forests provide benefits to wildlife conservation, human wellbeing, the environment and much more as well as timber production. Showing that our woods and forests are genuinely a superb resource.

What do you feel still needs improving in the world of forestry?

We need to keep on with afforestation.

I want to see the embedding of professional qualifications in forestry to celebrate the Institute of Chartered Foresters and ICF member status and forestry as a profession. Professional Forest Managers should be up there with accountants, engineers and doctors. This is something Tilhill Forestry does well in promoting for their staff.

If you could look into a crystal ball and predict the future, what could be the next breakthrough for forestry research? 

I would like to see the wide spread adoption of forest products: far more buildings using wood, less use of plastics, and a balance approach to biomass. Wood plays a role in most of our everyday products even the LCD displays in televisions, monitors on smart phones has a component made from pine trees.

I want to see the accord of world-class to scientists whereby forest research is funded in the same way as cancer research – obviously not in amount but in status –  so we attract the best scientists to work on tree problems and diseases.

What advice would you give to our future generations in caring for our forests and woodlands?

Be enthusiastic about this fabulous resource and don’t take it for granted.

What one piece of advice could you give to someone aspiring to have a career in forestry?

Enjoy God’s creation and your custodial role as its steward: that way you won’t go wrong.

 You can purchase Julian’s books online:

 God’s Trees – Trees, Forests and Wood in the Bible’ (DayOne) and Getting Started in Your Own Wood