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Root and Branch: Managing the MOD's woodlands

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Forestry, Military Training, Working at DIO
A Gurkha recruit, in full uniform including helmet and body armour, and carrying his weapon and a bergen, moves through an area of growing trees with a mature copse in the background.
A Gurkha recruit from ITC Catterick moving across woodland plantation.

I bet you didn’t know that 'forester' was a real job in the Ministry of Defence, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense - the MOD’s vast estate has over 18,000ha of woodland. I'm the MOD's Senior Forester.

Most of our training areas have large blocks of forestry planted specifically for military training, but we also have large areas of urban and amenity woodland around our barracks, Service Family Accommodation homes and garrison towns. The cultural value of this resource is often linked to the historical use of the sites, and many magnificent veteran and specimen trees contribute to the overall landscape of sites such as RAF College Cranwell and RMA Sandhurst. Although impossible to accurately count, we have at least 60 million trees in the UK alone.

Painting, photography and forestry

I’m based at Catterick, although I do spend a great deal of time on the road, travelling to other parts of the MOD estate, working with the three regional foresters who make up the rest of the MOD Forestry Department. Catterick is where my MOD career started, initially as a forestry student then returning a few years later as the Catterick Training area forester.

I originally studied painting and then photography, but soon realised this didn’t suit me so I sold my camera gear and bought chainsaws – as you do! I then spent a few years in Scotland and elsewhere working as a forestry contractor, before heading to forestry college. I was lucky enough to get a placement working in MOD forestry as part of that course, so when an MOD job came up a couple of years after I graduated, I jumped at it.

Thirty years later, I still love forestry and trees! It’s not unusual for me to be out and about in my working day and see a tree I planted a quarter of a century ago. One of my goals is to get as many trees in the ground as I can before I leave this mortal coil. I even have a personal nursery of hundreds of trees I’ve found growing in places where they wouldn’t have survived. Once big enough, these are then planted in areas where they can grow freely, and contribute to my woodland legacy.

Military training

Military personnel must be prepared to fight in all circumstances: day or night, urban or rural, out in the open or under cover; and training in woodlands is part of that. Facilitating military training is therefore our primary role as MOD foresters. Catterick Training Area alone sees about 1,000 troops a day, just from the Infantry Training Centre, without even including other Catterick-based units.

A Gurkha recruit, in full uniform including helmet and body armour, and carrying his weapon and a bergen, kneels in an area of growing trees with a mature copse in the background. [Crown Copyright/MOD2018]
A Gurkha trainee moving through growing woodland at Catterick Training Area. [Crown Copyright/MOD2018]
I’ve spent time with training troops to see how they operate and use the woodlands. It can range from cover for artillery to learning how to defend a wood from attack and even learning bushcraft skills. For safety reasons, we like to clear up a lot of the windblown wood from the ground, but troops quite like it as it can replicate the appearance of a wood after being hit by artillery.


Our forest cover is around 56% conifer and 44% broadleaf. This reflects the planting of large areas of conifer woodland during the Cold War to replicate an eastern European landscape. Most of the conifer woodland is mature or over mature, and due to species and the management systems chosen at the time of planting, is now in decline. Large areas of conifer woodland have started to blow down, which has resulted in a significant harvesting and restock program.

A crassy area in the foreground, with a warning sign reading "Tanks crossing 100 yards". In the background is a wood. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2018]
A woodland at Catterick Training Area. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2018]
Although providing a military training resource is our primary aim, sustainable woodland management often generates income though timber sales. We currently harvest around 40,000 tonnes of timber each year, with the revenue generated being used for replanting and regenerating the aging woodland resource.

We work with two service delivery contractors to manage the woodland resource – Amey manages the trees within RAF bases, barracks, garrisons and Service Family Accommodation while Landmarc manage the woodlands on the army training estates. We work well together, and share our enthusiasm for trees, which always helps.

Other considerations

Aside from military training, there are other factors we must consider. Safety is obviously paramount, and we must ensure our woodlands are safe places to train. Due to the isolated nature of much of our estate, we have more than our fair share of rich and varied natural habitats, with large areas being designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. For this reason, it’s very important for us to have good relationships with colleagues from Natural England and the Forestry Commission as well as charitable groups such as the Woodlands Trust.

We’re putting a great deal of thought and effort into climate change resilience to ensure what we plant now will still be around in hundreds of years. Also, the increasing number of pests and diseases affecting trees in the UK is having a significant impact on the MOD woodland resource. I never thought that during my forestry career I’d effectively see the demise of ash due to ash dieback and larch due to Phytophthora ramorum.

To that end, we’ve set up a Biosecurity Working Group with the Forestry Commission and Animal and Plant Health Agency so we can utilise some of the country’s best plant and animal health experts. There is always the risk that diseases can be carried on military vehicles, and as our troops can be travelling around the country and on to different training areas, we must ensure all the necessary bio security measures are followed. Following an outbreak of Phytophthora ramorum, a highly infectious disease that kills larch, at Sennybridge Training Area, we worked closely with the units who were great at making sure all their kit was properly washed down to prevent spreading disease.

We’re currently working on long term woodland plans to make sure the MOD woodlands are still working for the military long after I’ve retired. You really need to think ahead in this business!

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  1. Comment by Denise Barsdell posted on

    Are the military responsible for trees between houses in sp11 9tw and the old railway line in ludgershall

    • Replies to Denise Barsdell>

      Comment by DIO Communications Team posted on

      We'll check with the foresters and let you know.

      • Replies to DIO Communications Team>

        Comment by Preston Barsdell posted on

        Thank you, cos the fluffy seeds that come from the trees its just like a snow storm and they get in side houses, it REALY is. Bad for ASTHMATICS

        • Replies to Preston Barsdell>

          Comment by DIO Communications Team posted on

          It's hard to be certain without a more specific location, but we believe those trees may be managed by Amey. Best to call their helpdesk - 0800 707 6000

  2. Comment by Preston Barsdell posted on

    Hi thank you for getting back to me. The only way I can describe were the trees are,
    Is as your COMMIN from Tidworth you have the gates that entire the train depot on the right, carry on down towards Ludgershall. Just before you get in line of the houses on the right you have the fencing and a line of trees, it's them trees. If you can meet me I would be able to show you. My phone number is [phone number removed by Admin]. My name is [name removed by Admin].

    Many thanks

  3. Comment by Anon posted on

    Hello, I was wondering if it possible to collect fallen wood from a public mod site?

    Who do you have to contact to request permission?

    • Replies to Anon>

      Comment by DIO Communications Team posted on

      Hi, thanks for your question.

      Unfortunately the public is not permitted to remove wood from our sites. Some fallen wood is used by training personnel, such as in building rudimentary shelters, and what remains provides a valuable habitat, especially for insect life and fungi.

  4. Comment by noel ryan posted on

    good conservation

  5. Comment by Mark posted on

    Can you point me in the direction for who is responsible regarding trees in MOD quarters and where the legislation is laid down regarding maintenance, blocking windows, dangerous trees etc.
    I have had a job put in 2 months ago when a Tree surgeon gave advice regarding the tree and VIVO have still failed to contact regarding this. We have been trying to get clarity for 4 years now with conflicting information and false promises from housing officers.

    • Replies to Mark>

      Comment by DIO Communications Team posted on

      Hi Mark, apologies for the late reply! Assuming you are living in SFA yourself, you will need to raise it with Pinnacle who will pass it on to the local contractor.

  6. Comment by m.coleman posted on

    I have done that several times over 4 years and still get no where.

  7. Comment by Simon Coban posted on

    Does the MOD Sub out forestry work to contractors regarding the maintenance of trees?


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