Frontline forestry: Updates from a nursery manager

Saplings growing in a field

We're still nurturing tomorrow’s forests

While many of us may not be able to visit forests right now, the trees continue to grow and our staff are still working hard behind the scenes. Trees start life as tiny seedlings and, as well as looking after our existing forests, we are growing our future forests too.

In 2020 we caught up with Vernon Stockton, Delamere Nursery Manager, to find out what it takes in difficult times to ensure we're still nurturing the trees that will become the forests of tomorrow.

My role is to make sure we’re growing trees and giving the Plant and Seed Supply team the tools to get the job done. We supply a total of 12 million trees a year from the polytunnels, outdoor nursery and glasshouse at Delamere, with a further 6 million each year being produced at the open nursery in Wykeham, North Yorkshire. Growing and distributing 18 million trees across England, Scotland and Wales involves a lot of planning. Of course, none of this can be done without the seed extractory at Alice Holt, but that’s another story.

The first lockdown came at a critical time of year for us. During spring, we're at the end of the planting season and start of the growing season. The team are busy preparing young trees to leave the nursery ready to be sent out for planting, as well as sowing the seeds that will grow into trees to plant in two years’ time. If these two things don’t happen, there will simply be no trees to plant. This would have a huge impact on the 'business' of forestry and the forests of tomorrow.

Since the coronavirus outbreak my role has had to become very reactive. Things have changed by the hour and I have to make sound decisions very quickly. The main priority in everything we do is always staff safety. 

Man standing in nursery field
Tractor spreading seed in field to plant trees

We swiftly introduced social distancing measures, reducing people in the nursery at any one time to ensure they work three metres from each other. We’re staggering start times, breaks and have added an hourly clean-down. Many staff have had to self-isolate. It’s been very challenging, during spring 2020 our staffing reduced from over 70 staff and agency workers to just 15 people working 12 hours shifts, seven days a week. 

There has been a huge commitment from all of our staff and fantastic support from senior management. Staff who are able to work from home do so, such as admin and finance staff, and those who have had to self-isolate did so immediately. Many have felt guilty that they can’t join their colleagues, but they are all playing their part. 

It is important to me, first and foremost, that people are looked after and those who need to be kept safely away, are. I am extremely proud to be part of a team who have looked out for each other, while still being dedicated to getting the job done.

We’ve also had crucial support from staff in other teams, allowing our nursery staff to have well-earned breaks, be rested and carry on with important tasks like preparing beds, watering and managing our irrigation system. The staff joining us to help out have taken on a whole host of tasks, including packing the young trees to dispatch and netting beds that have been sown to stop birds taking the seed, ensuring they can germinate. 

I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to all staff across Forestry England. The support, the banter and the solidarity, all these things help us to continue with our planned programme and deliver trees for all, well into the very bright future. 

This blog was written by Vernon Stockton, Delamere Nursery Manager.

Saplings growing in large glasshouse

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