Outdoor life with a growing legacy

January 13, 2006

Forestry training has branched out into new ways of seeing the woods and the trees. Jessie Anderson reports

From the windows of his cottage in the Cumbrian village of Calthwaite, 63-year-old Jim Plowman can look across to the trees on the Lazonby Fells that he helped to plant 47 years ago. Plowman worked as a forester on the same estate, under three generations of the same family, until his recent retirement. He started in 1958 when he was a 15-year-old straight out of school. "I liked the outdoor life and seeing things grow,"

he says.

He was one of nine foresters on the estate, working a 48-hour week for a weekly wage of £4 10s, the equivalent of £68.50 today. The work included felling, planting, fencing and working in the sawmill where, on wet days, the foresters creosoted the timber. "We were never laid off because of wet weather," he says.

Some of the timber went to make soles for clogs, some to a paper mill in the region; but most was used by the estate itself, which had farms.

"Nowadays you have to have more training," Plowman says. "We learnt from the older workers." But when he was 18, Plowman studied one day a week for 12 weeks in Kendal, where he gained a "woodman's certificate". The course, he recalls, was run from Newton Rigg.

It's a far cry from today's National School of Forestry, based on the Penrith Campus at Newton Rigg, which is now part of the University of Central Lancashire. In Plowman's day, the school, which was set up in 1958, was called the Cumberland and Westmorland College of Agriculture and Forestry.

The National School was created in 1965 by a parliamentary select committee "to address a skills shortage in forestry". In 1998, it gained degree-awarding powers within the university and is now the largest university forestry department in the UK. It has about 70 students on a full degree course, and it offers a plethora of full and part-time higher and further education courses that range from apprenticeships to PhDs.

Since 2002, it has been developing a programme of professional and continuing education. "We have delivered courses in ancient tree management, natural woodland conservation and management of rare and endangered plants," says Ted Wilson, senior lecturer in silviculture.

The school has achieved a happy marriage between the practical and the academic. Its students learn in the field how to plant, climb and harvest trees, and how to use equipment and pesticides safely. But they also learn to look at the role that trees and woodlands play in adapting to climate change, to take an integrated "whole ecosystem" approach to woodland and plantation development and to understand the role of woodlands in improving people's health, wellbeing and quality of life.

This year there has been a record intake on the part-time higher national certificate/higher national diploma course. The cohort includes 26 mature students, some of whom have given up office-based jobs, and others who are consolidating their careers in forestry.

Together with Myerscough College near Preston, the National School of Forestry was awarded full Centre of Vocational Excellence (Cove) status this year and has become the first such school to offer forestry apprenticeships.

With a Cove grant from the Learning and Skills Council, the school has bought a mixed woodland of just over hectares near the college. This allows it to develop work-based programmes and apprenticeships that meet the needs of the forestry industry. The Cove programme will help to address the growing gap in the workforce now that the majority of skilled forestry workers are approaching middle age.

Mathew Wilson, an 18-year-old student on an apprenticeship course, chose forestry because he likes to be outdoors. "I wanted hands-on work rather than something purely academic. The course gives me the chance to learn while getting practical experience," he says. This includes planting and felling trees, dry-stone walling and hedge laying. "It's hard work, but I expected it to be. It's what I had hoped for," he says. He works on the estate from Monday to Friday and comes into college for four one-week block releases in the year.

"Each work placement is completely different. Each apprenticeship has to be designed for each apprentice," says Mark Tomlinson, a lecturer in forestry who has responsibility for the Cove apprenticeship programme.

Plowman entered forestry before the advent of chainsaws. "We worked with crosscut saws and axes," he recalls. And, he admits, there were occasional accidents. "Health and safety was not as relevant as it is today," he says.

In contrast, Tomlinson says, "health and safety is the first thing that is stressed today".

"Forestry in this country has not got the reputation it deserves," says Eunice Simmons, who is head of the National School of Forestry and the School of Natural Resources. However, she adds, the Government now recognises that forests have a value far beyond that of timber. "Forestry is a professional subject, but the link to industry is very important," she says. The school is also looking to encourage people "who are completely green" - such as those from an urban background - to take the course to widen the base of people coming into the field.

It is a misconception, Simmons says, that young people do not want to work outdoors and that they prefer to sit in front of computers. School groups can find out what the outside offers with taster days on campus.

Graduates of the National School tend to obtain senior jobs with the Forestry Commission - an organisation with which the school works closely - or they go into research or consultancy work. Many work abroad on development projects. "It (the degree) is transferable across the world,"

Simmons says. "We train our students to look at the whole environment - the space between the trees as well as the trees."

The Forestry Commission recognises the importance of its role in education and leisure. In February, the commission is offering two professional development days on the subject "Forests of the future". The days will be held at Grizedale and Whinlatter forests in Cumbria. They will give secondary teachers an opportunity to learn how the commission combines business operations with social and public benefits. The programmes will explore the commission's objectives from conservation and recreation to timber production and landscape planning and will consider local and global issues.

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