Critical shortages in the skilled forestry workforce are putting the UK's climate change targets at risk, according to the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

In a position paper sent to politicians across the UK, the Institute estimated that, if the sector was going to deliver on climate change and biodiversity commitments, it would need at least 60% more skilled workers – around 10,000 properly trained individuals – over the next few years.

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"In line with the Prime Minister’s COP26 mantra – ‘coal, cars, cash, and trees’ – we agree that trees are fundamental to tackling the climate and nature crises," said the ICF. "People need trees and trees need people – we cannot hope to achieve what is needed without urgently expanding, upskilling and diversifying the forestry and arboriculture workforce. Immediate action is needed.

"If we do not get this right, there will be grave consequences for the UK’s climate leadership, biodiversity and the environment on every level," it warned. " If urgent action is not taken across the UK, there will be both short- and long-term consequences.

"An understaffed and under-skilled workforce will lead to poorly planted and managed woodlands, urban trees that do more harm than good, and the wrong trees in the wrong places, with increased susceptibility to pests and diseases. In effect, we would fail to play our part in addressing the environmental crisis and in making the most of the huge green growth opportunity."

The ICF highlighted projections from recent research indicating that the number of skilled people required to meet these targets 'vastly outweigh' both the current reality and the future trajectory of new entrants.

"Further and higher education providers are unable to provide the training and education under current resourcing models," it said. "We are simply not educating or developing enough people to the high standards needed to deliver what is required. Lack of awareness of forestry as a fantastic green career and poor accessibility of courses are major barriers to recruitment.

"We are particularly concerned that there are not enough suitably qualified and experienced professionals to address the complexity of modern, sustainable forestry as the UK delivers its planned rapid expansion of woodlands of all types. The small number of forestry professionals – fewer than a thousand – in a sector responsible for 13% of the UK’s land mass emphasises the scale of the challenge."

ICF called on governments, public bodies, private and third sectors, higher and further education, and allied professions to commit to resourcing the sector’s education, training and development needs, work to raise the profile of forestry and arboriculture careers and create new pathways into the industry to widen access.

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It suggested 'three quick wins' to get this effort underway –

  • Fund the development of a new Forestry Training Hub to foster higher education connections, employer networks, links between academia and business, good practice and online learning, and to act as a resource for businesses to engage with apprenticeships;
  • Mobilise a national recruitment campaign about working with trees to encourage more young people and career changers into training for careers that tackle the climate crisis;
  • Support the delivery of a leadership training programme to ensure strong, long-term, inspirational leadership for delivering on the climate change agenda.

"We need more people from a more diverse range of backgrounds with the broad range of skills essential for modern forestry to thrive," it concluded. "It is imperative that in the rush to deliver on government targets we don't marginalise expertise and professionalism, lest we end up with a temporary fix that requires a much more expensive investment in future to repair the damage."