When Kevin Martin was a child he spent days beneath the canopy of Hampshire woodlands while his father, a tree surgeon, scaled the heights of oak and ash above him.
Twenty years later, with a degree and with research for a master’s under way, Martin is in charge of tending to the 14,000 trees at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. With trees at the forefront of the UK strategies to reach net zero by 2050, Martin and others like him are key professionals on the frontline of the fight to mitigate the impact of climate change and adapt to the changing conditions.
But the army of tree experts needed to fulfill the government’s promise to increase tree planting to 30,000 hectares a year (90m-120m trees) by the end of 2024 is nowhere to be seen. Skills shortages in arboriculture and forestry are at critical levels, and a new generation is not being recruited to take over from an ageing workforce. A report from the Institute of Chartered Foresters says the industry needs to recruit 70% more people to meet planting targets set by government and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC)
“We need to have a big campaign using social media, public billboards, television, to start recruiting to fill this skills shortage,” said Martin. “It needs to come from industry, but it also needs to be addressed in education when kids are starting to choose what subjects they are interested in. We need to change the culture in education, which is very much that you only go into land-based industries if you are thick – which is absolutely not the case. Everyone needs to be involved in this.”
Within the industry there is a degree of soul-searching going on to understand why young people are not coming through to the profession. Outdated stereotypes of male “lumberjacks”, need to be addressed, according to John Healey, a professor of forest sciences at Bangor University, as do questions of diversity. “There is a shortage of young men wanting to come into the profession, but that is even more acute amongst young women.”
It was at Bangor where in 1916 Mary Sutherland became the first woman in the world to graduate with a forestry degree, he points out, which makes the university even more aware of the need to bring women in.
“It has been a distinguished career that many women since have taken up, but the profession clearly still suffers from the kind of macho image of a lumberjack cutting down trees, whereas it is all about an environmental ethos of expanding woodlands, biodiversity and green space . We spend a lot of time communicating that, but it doesn’t register sufficiently.”
The Committee on Climate Change, a government advisory body, laid out the target of 30,000 hectares a year of forests and woodland by 2024 in its net zero report. The CCC says increasing forest cover to “at least 17% of the UK’s land area”, along with improved woodland management, would sequester an additional 14m tonnes of CO2 each year.
But the workforce to grow, plant and care for these trees is in short supply both in forestry and within arboriculture, which involves tree care ranging from looking after urban trees to running nurseries to produce the new saplings. John Parker, the chief executive of the Arboriculture Association, said: “The trouble is that people do not know what arboriculture is. Schoolchildren don’t say ‘when I grow up I want to be an arboriculturalist’. We need to change that.”
He said the government needed to address the shortages in the workforce. “Treees are so high up the political agenda at the moment, but if we want to have all these wonderful trees doing all these wonderful things for us, we have to have tree professionals to work on them. There is no point planting millions and millions of trees if you are not going to look after them.
“We also need to produce the trees in the first place. We haven’t got enough trees available to meet the planting promises that are being made. It takes time to produce trees of the size we need, it has to start years in advance of when they are required.”
Many of the next generation of tree experts will come from places such as Myerscough College in Lancashire, which offers foundation as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in arboriculture, tree management and urban forestry. But student numbers remain stable, with no sign of the increases that will be required to fill the skills gap. Alex McKelvie, the head of green space and creative studies, said: “There is a struggle to get young people to know about the industry and to recruit and keep them. So we are lacking a skilled workforce at a critical time.”
The college works hard to attract young women into the profession, he said. “There is nothing in this profession that a girl cannot do rather than a boy; In fact, girls make phenomenal tree climbers and the industry is working hard to attract more young women.”
It is not just among the ranks of school leavers that the industry is seeking to recruit its future experts. Healey said there was a noticeable rise in mature students joining the forestry master’s program at Bangor. “The students are significantly older,” he said. “Some have been in other careers – for example, working in the City of London – and want to do something quite different,” he said.
The attractions of a career with trees, Healey believes, are numerous. “The work really matters,” he said. “It is fulfilling to do a job that makes an important difference to the world in terms of the biodiversity crisis and climate change.
“Choosing this career means you are right in the midst of an intriguing and exciting challenge. There are no easy solutions, there is practical challenge and there is intellectual stimulation to decide how we get this right.”