Q & A with Tilhill Forestry’s Ecologist John Gallacher
John Gallacher has many years’ experience both as an ecologist and also with Tilhill Forestry. Here he gives an insight into what his job entails and what makes his job so critical to not only the Company but the forest industry overall:
Q. Please tell us about your job role and a brief career history.
A. I’ve been the ecologist for Tilhill Forestry for, and this is hard to believe, the last 20 years. I essentially provide advice on ecological matters from habitats, protected species, diffuse pollution, new planting schemes and Environmental Impact Assessments.
I have always worked as an ecologist, starting with the Nature Conservancy Council in the Lake District in 1983 and then with Scottish Natural Heritage until I joined Tilhill in 1999.
Q. What is the importance of your job role?
A. Tilhill Forestry were the first commercial forestry company to employ ecologists and, at its most basic level, my role is to ensure Company compliance with environmental legislation and thus protect our financial position and our reputation.
Q. What led you to a career in ecology?
A. For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in wildlife and spent my youth bird watching with my first pair of binoculars bought by my parents when I was about 13. I carried this through to university by taking up biology and environmental science. It was here that I was encouraged to take up ‘botanising’ which continues to this day as part of the vegetation surveys I undertake for woodland creation projects.
I have now passed the 35-year mark but the incredible thing is I’m always learning new things, taking on new challenges. Interestingly, when I started in nature conservation in the early 1980s the real threat to wildlife was seen as commercial afforestation as it was during the time of the Flow Country of peatland versus forestry issue in Caithness and Sutherland. At this stage, I never saw myself working for a forestry company but what my career shows is that things change, we learn from our experiences and move on in a constructive and positive manner.
Q. In your role, you must have to expect the unexpected. What problems or challenges do you sometimes face as an ecologist?
A. In my role I always expect the unexpected and the maxim “never work with animals” always holds true. Raptors always seem to nest where you least want them to but the trick is to work around them by changing timing of works or relocating works until the sensitive nesting period is over.
As the forest environment becomes more diverse in terms of structure, species and non-woodland habitats then the number of environmental constraints are likely to increase. This is a challenge for all of us.
The key part of this job is to keep our operations going while still complying with the law and the requirements of protected species. The option to stop works, be it harvesting, forwarding, roading or ground preparation, remains a control measure but we try, whenever possible, to avoid this scenario.
Q. How do the changing seasons impact your job role?
A. The seasons impact the role and that of most people in the Company. March to August is particularly sensitive in relation to the breeding bird season when all active nests are legally protected. Equally, the winter can be sensitive in relation to the risk of diffuse pollution.
Late spring is the ‘field season’ when we plan our work and that of our ecology team for undertaking vegetation, bird and protected species surveys for our woodland creation projects. We have covered some 2 to 3,000 ha per annum of open ground surveys in the last few years and this trend looks to continue especially in Scotland with its target of 10,000 hectares of new woodland per annum rising to 15,000 hectares by 2025.
Over the years I have been to most corners of the UK though most of my work is focussed in Scotland. From 2019 we will improve the coverage of the ecology team with me continuing to be based out of Dunblane and our new ecologist, Sarah Oakley, being based in our Jedburgh office. This will give a better spread of ecological expertise and bring us closer to colleagues in England and Wales.
I have never regretted my career choice and remain absolutely committed to helping Tilhill Forestry lead the way in sustainable forest management. We can often get caught in the headlights of the major global environmental issues and feel helpless. My coping strategy is to come down to the most basic level and try and make sure that I do my bit – no matter how small.
Q. What is the most significant challenge you have faced at Tilhill Forestry?
A. Golden Eagles which stopped a woodland creation project in its tracks. Three years and an EIA later we turned the project around to create the first commercial woodland within a Golden Eagle core area. Oh, and two very notable sites where five years later and an EIA we have finally have approval. Persistence, good data and compromise on all sides were key in these cases.
Q. What makes Tilhill Forestry a good employer?
A. Quite simply, its staff.
Q. What changes/improvements do you think still need to be made to the ecological culture within the forest industry?
A. I can’t speak for the wider forestry industry, but fundamentally there is an excellent ecological culture within Tilhill. When I joined from the public sector all those years ago there was the usual ill-informed quips about ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’. I have never seen it this way and work with people who chose forestry as they are interested in the environment. On day one at Tilhill Forestry, back in 1999, my main concern was that my ecological principles might be compromised. This has never been the case as we are all striving to do the right thing for the environment – making our mark and making a difference.