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Jeremy Thompson and Alice Brawley talk to Forestry & Timber News

Mar 25, 2021

Plant The Future | Forestry and Timber News April 2021

Plant The Future

Forest Direct Ltd was set up by Jeremy Thompson in 2003 in the Scottish Borders. After being a relatively small (but mighty!) operation for many years, Jeremy’s passion for planting as many trees as possible to help mitigate the effects of climate change has put the company on a steep upward trajectory over the last year and a half.

Catering mainly for landowners, the business provides the full range of forestry services: woodland design and grant development, new planting and restocking, woodland carbon code services, continuous cover forestry, harvesting and marketing, as well as community woodland work.

However, over the last 18 months, they have put woodland creation at the centre of their business offering. “In light of the climate change agenda, this is an area we are particularly passionate about”, comments Jeremy. “We want to put more trees in the ground whilst continuing to offer forest management, thinning and harvesting services to our existing clients.

Attractive woodlands with a commercial core

The team at Forest Direct is aware of the negative perceptions that persist regarding commercial forestry. Alice Brawley, whose background is in GIS and spatial planning, highlights the company’s philosophy : “We design multipurpose forests that inspire a sense of awe in people. The timber production objectives remain important but should not come at the detriment of the environmental or social benefits.”

Catering for the farming community

When visiting the Forest Direct website, what immediately catches my attention is a prominent strapline: “Forest Direct are forestry consultants for the farming community.” I am keen to learn more about how the company came to choose this particular market niche and if it requires a slightly unconventional approach to delivering forestry services.

“We can look back on decades of close working relationships with farmers, and our network in the farming community is strong”, explains Jeremy. “We are aware that forestry sometimes has the reputation of being detrimental to local communities when large tracts of farmland are converted to commercial forestry. We prefer to look at trees on farms as an option for farm diversification rather than farm conversion. We cannot approach farmers with the expectation that the traditional concept of forestry will work for them. We have to adapt forestry to the farm context.”

Jeremy and his team quickly established a flexible and open-minded approach when working alongside farmers. “Rather than target trees onto the poorest areas, we can demonstrate the value of following “the right tree in the right place” ethos.

“We work through the options and advise on the best scale, type and location for a woodland. For example, when designing a commercial woodland, good access is vital for future timber lorries. Size of woodland is important, whether to provide good livestock shelter or economies of scale when selling timber. We know some farmers have had bad experiences with small, unmanaged shelterbelts, which produce little or no return. We can show them that well-designed forests can pay and how they can be incorporated into the wider farming operation.

Alice adds that when it comes to good relationships with farmers, it is crucial to understand and respect their aspirations. Modern farmers mainly think in terms of their lifetime, or possibly that of their children. ”To reconcile farming with forestry, we need to instil longer-term thinking. We are keen to work with them to identify what they want from the trees and how trees can help them– be it income in the future, protecting their lifestyle or habitat creation for wildlife. And from our perspective, we need to acknowledge that changing a large area from farming to forestry involves a significant culture shift”.

A corporate culture moving away from top-down

Throughout my conversation with Alice and Jeremy, I can feel their genuine passion for what they do – making the interview the highlight of my workday! But there is one aspect of their business approach that leaves me amazed and hopeful for the future of our industry: it is their focus on people and their openness to harnessing staff’s unique talents and skills, which means, at times, defeating entrenched recruitment conventions in our sector.

Jeremy has created a corporate culture where the business benefits from a blend of older experienced forestry experts and younger professionals – potentially from different career paths – who challenge the way things are done, catalyse innovation and keep the company flexible and adaptive to change.

“The ‘oldies’ are the very experienced foresters, and landscape architects – several of us have decades of experiences in traditional forestry work. In forestry, it is essential to do a job for a long time to gather substantial experience. However, there is the risk that we become entrenched in our ways. To combat this, we have recruited younger people who have given the business a renewed passion and energy and a different perspective. They care deeply about climate change and the effect it may have on the next generation; they care about biodiversity, the environment and how we treat it; and they have been born into a world driven by technology.”

“The younger members of our team are much more intuitive with picking up and using technology, and this is something our business and our sector can benefit from”, says Alice. “Our generation can understand how technology can speed up and enhance workflows.”

Traditionally, forestry businesses would recruit young graduates, put them through a formulaic training scheme until they’d acquired ‘senior’ status. Forest Direct’s training approach is different. Young recruits come in and the team engages with them straight away, harnessing their interests and talents from the beginning. Every team member is willing to learn from the others, independent of position or years of experience.

Alice, who joined the company only 18 months ago as a GIS specialist, appreciates Jeremy’s commitment to giving his team the flexibility to follow their interests and develop as professionals. In the short time Alice has been with Forest Direct, her role has evolved, and she is now the woodland creation and woodland carbon developer. She is still involved in GIS and is training up other members.

Jeremy talks about his motivation for making the time to prioritise staff and to work with clients who share similar values. “People are at the heart of our business; we want to work with those who share our vision of creating well-designed, diverse woodlands, whether that be as a member of the team or as a client. The average age of the older guard is over 60. We have already had one career and proven ourselves, so now we want to give something back. A lot of what we do at Forest Direct is about training and handing over skills to the younger generation. Mentoring and training come at a cost, but I am confident this is the right approach for our business and determined to make this investment in our industry’s future.”