Tree planting is known as one of the toughest jobs in the world, and with growing international commitments to plant trees as part of the effort to fight climate change, we need tree planters now more than ever. Forests are critical to the health of the planet, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and preserving the biodiversity that allows us to survive. With initiatives such as the ‘Trillion Trees campaign’ and the UK government’s commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025, there is increasing urgency around protecting and increasing forest cover globally.
Very little attention is paid to how the millions of trees promised will be planted, however, and some tree planting commitments are already faltering. Trees need to be planted to replace forest lost to wildfires, to reforest areas that have been cleared by felling, and to create new forests. Although allowing forest to regenerate naturally or direct seeding can be an effective strategy in some areas, it is a slower process and there are some situations where it is not suitable. In sites without existing forest cover, or where forest needs to be established quickly, it is preferable to use saplings planted by tree planters. This hidden workforce is at the vanguard of nature-based climate change solutions and yet most of us know very little about the work that they do.
Many afforestation schemes use volunteer planters but there is an army of professional tree planters around the world, who can each plant thousands of trees a day, rapidly accelerating reforestation rates. Most professional tree planters can plant up to 4000 trees a day, at a rate of more than 7 trees a minute, creating a carpet of saplings. They work in all weathers, scorching sun, snow, wind, driving rain and hail, and battle clouds of insects on summer sites, planting tree seedlings with astonishing speed. There are differences between countries in the timing of tree planting seasons, driven by whether the saplings are bare root or not. In the UK, the tree planting season is during the winter, from November to May, whereas in Canada trees are planted during the summer.
Professional tree planters are mostly young people who are boosting their income for a few months during the summer or winter. Tree planting attracts a certain type of determined, environmentally conscious, active person who appreciates being outdoors. Planters are paid for the number of trees they plant (around 7p a tree in the UK), so there is a strong incentive to push themselves to the limits of their endurance. It is difficult to overstate how hard tree planting is physically and mentally, and it regularly appears on lists of the toughest jobs in the world.
Planters tend to live together in communities, either in camps (e.g. in Canada where planting is done in the summer) or in rented accommodation (e.g. in the UK where planting is done in the winter). Living and working together builds up intense relationships, and many tree planters mention being drawn back to the job year after year because of the friendships they form. There is a healthy sense of competition within the community, with the fastest planters being known as ‘highballers’. There is also a great solidarity and camaraderie between the planters, despite often working alone for long hours.
It may seem idyllic to be spending hours outdoors, surrounded by nature, contributing to something as worthwhile as restoring forests, but tree planting is gruelling work. Tree planters spend hours working repetitively, bending over to plant seedling after seedling, whilst carrying around 400 trees in bags that can weigh up to 18kg. Although being outdoors all day can be exhilarating, it is also miserable if they are working in rain or snow as there is no time or opportunity for shelter. Tree planters are exposed to all the elements and inclement weather can also make the ground harder to work with, slowing their planting rate.
Tree planters often work alone, planting in a widely spaced team, but each focused on their own trees. They are driven to site before sunrise, or flown in by helicopter to more remote locations, and they barely stop until daylight fades. The task is made easier if they can get into a rhythm based on making their movements as smooth and efficient as possible, which also helps to avoid repetitive injuries.
Many planters use music to help their momentum, carrying small speakers that drift the slightly surreal sound of Fatboy Slim or the Red Hot Chili Peppers across planting sites. Physically demanding work can be quite meditative, and planters speak of an immense satisfaction which accompanies the aches and bone-deep exhaustion at the end of the day. Tree planting can be mentally draining as well, however, and it requires considerable determination to get up and keep going day after day.
Community living means that many tree planting teams eat together and spend the evening socialising and swapping stories across campfires or over a beer. The relief at completing a day of intense, physical work outdoors makes the downtime all the more appreciated.
Tree planters use purpose-designed ergonomic equipment to make them as comfortable as possible. They use specific tree planting shovels and because they wear gradually in use, each planter becomes very attached to their own unique shovel. Most planters also used tree planting harnesses with bags for the seedlings, which spreads the load across their shoulders and chest and allows freedom of movement.
Planters tend to wear stout walking boots with gaiters, gloves and, rather surprisingly, leggings rather than thick trousers, because they allow for flexible movement. Their leggings are often brightly coloured and frequently quite holey, which can give planters quite a unique appearance. Tree planters often use gloves or tape their fingers with duct tape to protect them and some use duct tape around the tops of boots to stop debris falling in.
The terrain varies from soft ploughed fields to rocky slopes, and there may be tree stumps and piles of logs to clamber over, making it an arduous task. The advantages of using professional planters are the speed that they work at and their ability to select the best micro site for each seedling, greatly improving its chances of survival.
The technique that tree planters use is carefully monitored to give the seedlings the best chance of survival and to ensure that the planters are moving as efficiently as possible. Repeating a misaligned movement thousands of times a day risks causing repetitive strain injuries and planters are highly trained to mitigate this risk.
Planters pace out the required space between seedlings, spotting the ideal planting micro-site as they walk. They may test the ground with their shovel to check for obstructions, then slam the blade of the shovel in to open a small slot, drop in the seedling, and close the hole with their foot in a seamless movement. The force required to get the blade into the ground varies depending on the substrate, and planters must be careful not to slam the blade hard into rocky ground as the reverberations can cause tendonitis.
Seedlings are often tucked in between rocks and roots, wherever they can fit in. At the point that they are planting one seedling, planters are already scanning ahead to find the micro-site for the next seedling. Experienced planters become experts in assessing the ground visually, spotting whether there are likely to be rocks or other obstructions blocking the spade so they can skip the probing step. The most efficient ultra highballers can plant 5000 trees a day in even the most difficult terrain, and it is the efficiency of movement that determines who the fastest planters are, not size or strength.
We use our own teams of professional tree planters to ensure high quality planting at our sites. This gives us the flexibility to determine exactly how our sites are planted and the responsiveness to be able to complete projects quickly. Our planters work on a system of four days on, one day off to ensure that they get regular rest, and we provide equipment that is ergonomically designed to make planting as comfortable as possible. Our planters are highly trained to ensure that they can operate safely and that they can help us create forests quickly and with the best survival prospects for our trees. They form a vital part of the Creating Tomorrow’s Forest team and provide an invaluable contribution to our mission to fight climate change and restore British woodland.