Into the woods

Nicola Abbatt explains how she came to work in forestry, and provides an overview of the industry’s current guidance and issues around sustainability

This is a great time to work in forestry, with ambitious targets for tree planting, demand for wood products (whether for construction or as a plastic alternative), and a renewed focus on sustainability and climate change mitigation. Tree planting and woodland creation hasn’t been higher on the UK government agenda since the World Wars. However, a lot has changed since then, when it was the norm to plant conifers from streamside to hilltop. Now the focus is on climate change resilience and sustainable wood production, bringing real benefit to the natural environment – alongside the economic value that ensures a woodland’s viability.

Into the industry

My first degree was in forestry and applied zoology. After graduating, I worked for 11 years as a forestry and contracts manager before moving into a central role supporting my then employer in environmental protection and safety management. I went on to work in several different industries, and moved back into forestry a few years ago as an environment and assurance manager for a leading forestry management and harvesting company.

Those in the industry have the passion and skills to achieve sustainable forestry’s multiple objectives. These days, graduate foresters join the profession with degrees across a range of subjects – from environmental science and ecology to physical geography, as well as the traditional forestry degree.

Finding a balance

The UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) sets out the government’s approach to sustainable forestry and provides a standard for regulation. This applies to all woodlands, regardless of who owns or manages them. It sets out clear guidelines on, for example, water and soil management, ensuring that international agreements and conventions on sustainable forestry, climate change, biodiversity and the protection of water resources are applied in the. Compliance is regulated by the Forestry Commission, Scottish Forestry, Natural Resources Wales and Northern Ireland Forest Services.

There is also the UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS). UKWAS certification verifies sustainable woodland management in the UK and is a requirement for woodland owners who wish to sell wood products under Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification and Forest Stewardship Council certifications. It sets out requirements for management of the natural, historical and cultural environment, alongside forestry. 

Modern forestry is about balancing wood production with sustainability and conservation. Its biodiversity benefits are not just about broadleaved trees; for example, coupes of conifers planted in a sustainably managed forest provide food for a variety of fauna, with pine martens thriving in these areas and raptors finding nesting sites. During her time as policy researcher at the Confederation of Forest Industries, Dr Eleanor Harris wrote a report ( on how well-managed UK wood production benefits biodiversity in all types of forests and protects global forests, highlighting how timber production can help to improve the condition of native woodlands and how important homegrown wood is for biodiversity beyond the local forest.  

Mitigating impacts

While forestry has many environmental credentials, it does have impacts on our natural environment. The industry is proactive in working together to find solutions and share good practice. I sit on the Forest Industry Environment Group, which includes members from private and public companies and organisations; we have recently prepared a set of guidelines, Guidance on Responsibilities for Environmental Protection in Forestry ( These were completed in collaboration with, and complement, the Forest Industry Safety Accord guidelines Managing Health and Safety in Forestry ( The aim of the guide is to support communication of legal responsibilities to landowners and others new to the industry.

“Modern forestry is about balancing wood production with environmental sustainability and conservation”

Additionally, much of my focus has been on diffuse pollution. Clean water is imperative for the natural environment, and the potential for diffuse pollution from sediment and silt entering watercourses – particularly during harvesting or ground preparation work – is high. Historically, there has been little structured and tested environmental training for forestry contractors. One recent focus in the development of tested online training was on ensuring forestry machine operators, who are at higher risk of contributing to a diffuse pollution event but are also best placed to monitor site conditions, have a good understanding of diffuse pollution, the consequences of an incident and how to prevent one. Last year, my company made this mandatory for all forest machine operators before they start work in our managed properties.

Planting without plastic

The BBC’s 2017 series Blue Planet II has made everyone aware of plastic waste. Within Tilhill I was already working with an internal waste improvement group that was looking for ways to prevent and reduce plastic use and improve recycling of legacy plastic.In forestry, this tends to be from tree delivery bags and tree protection tubes, which enhance tree growth and prevent animal browsing damage.

To change plastic use, a collaborative industry-wide approach was needed. With a group of like-minded people, I helped start up the Forestry Plastics Group, which has gone from strength to strength and includes members from across the industry. Its key aim is to reduce adverse environmental impacts and find balanced and sustainable solutions for tree protection. Our primary concern is to avoid a knee-jerk reaction and ensure we don’t swap plastic for materials that have greater environmental impacts in their production and disposal. The group will shortly be starting a research project looking at different plastic tree tube alternatives, examining their efficacy, durability and end-of-life impacts. 

Raising awareness

The forestry industry excels at working together on environmental and safety improvement projects, but is still quite insular; we tend to talk among ourselves, perhaps not doing enough to communicate, raise awareness and promote sustainable forestry management to the public. It is great to work with others on environmental improvement projects in a collaborative and mutually beneficial way.


Nicola Abbatt, MIEMA CEnv is environment and quality manager at Tilhill.

Back to Top