Fresh branch of employment for the teenagers learning to tend our forests

Modern Day "Lumberjills" Sarah Bell (left) and Corinne McMinnis
Modern Day "Lumberjills" Sarah Bell (left) and Corinne McMinnis
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With Yorkshire’s rural economy under threat from an ageing workforce, Sarah Freeman meets the young recruits hoping to reverse the trend.

Earlier this year it looked like Britain’s countryside had faced and survived one of the biggest challenges to its future in living memory.

When the Government announced it was thinking of selling off large swathes of forest back in 2010 the strength of the public backlash caused an immediate and embarrassing U-turn. Hastily rewriting policy, the final decision, Ministers said, would not be made until the results of an independent inquiry were known.

That final report came out in the summer and successfully buried the Government’s original proposals, describing England’s publicly owned forest as a “national asset” which should not only be preserved, but which could in fact “help drive a sustainable economic revival”.

The great big forest sell off was abandoned, but according to research a much more serious threat to England’s green and pleasant woodland is likely.

The industry’s workforce is ageing – in the last few years the number of 35 to 44-year-olds working in the sector has more than doubled – the age group now accounts for 35 per cent of the total workforce – and with fewer younger recruits coming into rural industries there is a real fear that in another decade’s time the country’s forest could be facing a critical shortage of skills.

“Forestry is at the heart of our aspirations for a green economy, but there are some real issues around skills shortages that threaten to undermine its potential,” admits Pam Warhurst, the Hebden Bridge-based chair of the Forestry Commission. “A national review identified key problems for the forestry sector associated with both an ageing workforce and a lack of skilled new recruits.

“Forests and woodland are already an important part of the rural economy. Forestry alone supports around 110,000 job, twice as many people as work in the mining and quarrying industries.

“With considerable growth in the wood fuel and firewood markets, rising timber prices, the boom in forest leisure activities and the rise of low carbon fuels all point to an even brighter future for the forestry sector.”

“It is essential to attract new people into the forestry industry and apprenticeship schemes will provide the high level of practical training that we will need in the future.”

Over recent years, the booming property market in rural areas, priced many young people out of the countryside and the economic downturn has done little to ease the problem.

According to the National Housing Federation, an average home in rural parts of Yorkshire and the Humber now costs £201,638 – more than 10 times the national income. In the knowledge they are unlikely to be able to afford a home of their own, many have already taken their skills elsewhere.

The rural economy has been hit by a significant brain drain, but in North Yorkshire there are moves to reverse the trend. Ten years ago, the North York Moors Park Authority launched its own apprenticeship scheme are there is hope the project may provide a blueprint for other rural organisations looking to plug a skills gap.

“Honestly, I can’t tell you how much I’ve learnt,” says Sarah Bell, 21, who now works with the Forestry Commission as a 21st century lumberjill. “When I left school I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew if possible that I wanted to stay near home.”

Sarah grew up in Kirkbymoorside and while having initially enrolled on a travel and tourism course at college, she later spotted an advertisement for the rural apprenticeship scheme.

“I’ve always loved being outdoors and so this job is perfect,” says Sarah, whose official title is work supervisor. When we speak she has just completed a stocktake at one of the forest’s timber supplies and later that afternoon she’s heading over towards Helmsley, which has recently suffered from relentless rain. “I know it’s a cliché, but every day is different and I really look forward to coming to work, that’s not something everyone can say.

“Earlier this year I was introduced to one of the lumberjills who worked in the forest during the Second World War. The job is less back-breaking than it was say in the 1940s. Back then the only way to cut down a tree was to use a saw or an axe, chainsaw still hadn’t been invented, but the core of the work is much the same. There has been a long tradition of young women working in the forests and I’m really proud to be part of it.

“Obviously there are days when its tipping down or when the snow means you struggle to get out on the road, but generally it’s nothing a good pair of waterproofs and a thick coat can’t solve.”

At the Forestry Commission and across the North York Moors as a whole, the work ranges from managing ancient woodland to mapping the area’s scheduled ancient monuments and moorland restoration. The skills required often take years to perfect and given the nature of the work even those employees who spend their entire careers there might not see the full fruits of their labours.

“It’s certainly true that some people retire before a particular project has reached maturity,” says Ian Nicholls assistant director of corporate services at the North York Moors Park Authority. “We are blessed with an incredibly loyal workforce, when people join us they often find it very hard to leave.

“However, we do recognise the need to ensure that there is a new generation who can continue the work. That was the reason why we launched the apprenticeship scheme and it has transformed the business.

“Our experienced members of staff are really keen to pass on their skills to our younger recruits. But it works both ways as they arrive with fresh ideas and that enthusiasm can be infectious. Lowering the average age of the workforce has brought more vitality to the place.”

The apprenticeships are open to 16 to 24-year-olds, the only requirement is candidates don’t already hold a degree. During the initial training period the apprentices are paid £112 a week and the evidence suggest that it pays off long term.

Between 2010 and 2012, five apprentices supported by the Forestry Commission, Bicton College and the Silvanus Trust complete a trial two-year apprenticeship package. All have gone on to secure fixed-term jobs either with the commission or on private estates.

“In many ways we were ahead of the game, but we know that we can’t rest on our laurels,” says Ian. “For young people growing up in the countryside forging a career can be really difficult, but one of our roles is to help them take that first step on the career ladder. Apprenticeships aren’t just a cheap way of getting staff, they are a vital way of maintaining the lifeblood of the countryside.

“Having the Yorkshire countryside as my office is pretty special,” says Sarah. “I think there is probably a tendency to think of rural skills as something which are dying out, but that’s just not true. Techniques are changing all the time, but we will always need someone there to protect the countryside.

“I feel really privileged to be part of a team that every day has a direct impact on the countryside. Who knows what will happen in the future, but at the moment I’m just really grateful to have a job I love. I still have so much to learn, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”

An apprentice’s story of work

Dale Sutherland Roberts knew from an early age that he was not made for an office job.

Instead he signed up to one of the rural apprenticeship schemes run by the North York Moors Park Authority and now at 26 he is one of a team working for the Forestry Commission across North Yorkshire and Cleveland.

“It is hard at the moment for young people, particularly those who live in rural areas and the apprenticeship gave me a really good foundation to start my career.

“A lot of the things I have learned can’t be taught in the classroom, you just have to get out there and do it. Just listening and watching people, who have spent all their lives working in the forest, is a real education.”