Conifers, Corsican and British timber: Grown in Britain CEO on his woodland mission

Conifers, Corsican and British timber: Grown in Britain CEO on his woodland mission

Dougal Driver, CEO of Grown in Britain, is a man on a mission. We found out all about it by joining him for a walk through Hampshire’s Bramshill Forest. 

“IN one forest, you can have this (mixed broadleaf) and open habitats, and you can have that (commercial conifer plantations): it’s all about balance,” concludes Dougal Driver, CEO of Grown in Britain, at the end of 90 minutes walking a two-mile loop through two very different but equally valuable woodland settings in the 1,104-hectare Forestry Commission-leased Bramshill Forest in Hampshire.

During the pandemic, this forest offered Dougal, chartered forester and chartered environmentalist, a much-needed space in nature, accessible from his home office, yet far enough removed from days spent online, in Zoom or Teams meetings, championing homegrown timber and products to government, the civil service, procurement clients and strategic research partners.

These are some of his favourite woods and, having moved two hours away last year, returning here was his choice of setting in which to talk about his working life. Forestry Journal arrives at Eversley Church car park on a searingly sunny, cloud-free morning to find Dougal, cool, calm and amenable, working on his laptop. He suggests we start walking as soon as we are ready.

Along the country lane, passing opposing lych-gates, Eversley churchyard and vicarage, two large logs – a farm gate replacement – towards the shady woodland boundary, where bracken burgeons, as do purple foxgloves.

Once inside the boundary, the beginning of two paths form a triangle filled with logs disassembling on the forest floor. We follow the narrow path alongside what could be an old parish ditch-and-bank boundary, interspersed with wide-stemmed (up to) 400-year-old coppiced oak standards and veteran beech, skirting fields belonging to Church Farm.

A pedestrian gate overlooks a meadow left growing for wildlife, which two years ago was an arable field. 

“Standing here, the troubles of the world would disappear,” says Dougal. “During lockdown, I met the landowner while out walking. We spoke of what farmers are dealing with coming out of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) and of being persuaded to plant trees, which they don’t really understand. And why would they? Lockdown was a chance for me to work on ‘nature-based solutions’ with landowners, highlighting the value of planting trees for water or biodiversity, whereas for most of my career I was managing woodlands for a big estate (MoD), thinking about timber and forest products or advising ministers and shaping government policy.”

Born and raised in Gloucestershire, near Standish Woods (National Trust), aged 17 Dougal left home for Somerset to join a contracting team, digging ditches, weeding plantations and cutting trees. Joining the FC, he gained his tickets. At Newton Rigg, studying the BTEC National Diploma, he learned that “forest products were a fundamental element of forestry and forestry had to be an economic activity”. 

Joining the civil service as a forester planting trees on Salisbury Plain started a 17-year career with the MoD. After being appointed chief forester at age 29, he became a rural surveyor marketing unused MoD land assets as film locations, to the James Bond film franchise among others.

An office-based role in Guildford started an eight-year career on the civil service frontline leading on DEFRA policies, linking national to local, and advising ministers. Qualifying as an APMG change practitioner and studying leadership skills at Reading University helped Dougal, regional director of government office South East, to implement organisational change, reducing and then joining up the regional civil service: 10 government departments, 50,000 employees, 50 organisations: £100 million in assets. 

Becoming a chartered environmentalist helped him to deliver DEFRA and DECC policies across the South East and to direct the delivery of Natural Value Programme Board environmental programmes throughout the UK.

As regional government offices closed in 2011 and “not wanting to be a senior civil servant in London for the rest of my life,” Dougal became a private consultant on environmental issues.

Civil servants are apolitical, working under politicians from all parties. He enjoyed working with Labour’s Hilary Benn, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs (2007–2010). 

“I signed off on activities to get the New Forest over the line, but I was fundamental in setting up the South Downs National Park (2008), a career highlight to this day.”

Maintaining advisory roles for the Timber Growers Association, then Confor (strategy director 2003–2017, revitalising APPG meetings among other things), ensured that timber, forest products and sector contacts were maintained throughout his civil service career and beyond.

We cut inland through some of the 75 ha of broadleaf – oaks, beech, the odd holly and birch. Verdant canopies are punctuated with standing deadwood. Some of Dougal’s lockdown visits were spent up a tree, watching quietly as fallow deer, muntjac or roe, passed below.

At a tangled stand of birch, Dougal admits that he is a woodland manager at heart. 

The narrow path cuts inland through some of the 75 ha of broadleaf oaks, beech the odd holly and bir

“In this valley, you don’t have to manage everything to death in forestry terms. There could be more light to the forest floor, but this corner is low-value birch firewood and good habitat. Rushes underneath indicate wet woodland (25 ha), which is rather nice.”

In response to vociferous public opposition to government proposals to sell off the public forest estate in 2011, the 2012 Independent Panel on Forestry Report recommended the creation of ‘a market demand-led action plan (public and private sector partnership) to create a sustainable economic, social and environmental future for British woods and forests’. Grown in Britain (GiB), a not-for-profit certification body, was the result. Dougal helped to design and set up the organisation, first led by Dr Peter Bonfield OBE. When he stepped down in 2013, Dougal was asked to take forward the work in an executive capacity.

His first year was spent organising trademarks, intellectual property rights and (with Helen Bentley-Fox, still GiB’s technical manager) writing the standards for GiB’s Chain of Custody certification. Now, almost 10 years on, GiB offers half a dozen certification schemes, with Dougal now supported by six team members.

The team is currently preparing for the National Forestry Conference, held during GiB week (October 12, 2022). Additional celebratory activities will involve the Sylva Wood School (Sylva Foundation), which is reviving woodworking skills and the use of GiB timber among the younger generation. “People don’t think about where timber comes from. It drives me nuts and drives me on.”

Sticks have been cut to provide a dry crossing over a ditch. Self-thinning broadleaf canopies provide dappled shade. A damp bank. An old oak. A yew. 

“A place where people have most likely walked for millennia. The light draws you through. This is rewilding, or ‘non-intervention’ as a forester would say, letting the forest do its thing. Unmanaged, it has its own richness for biodiversity.”

We walk slowly in single file, comments punctuating the slight breeze. A birch stem with cankerous mutations, “birch do that when they are under pressure”. A tall, splitting oak.

A wooden bridge. A boundary beech with three stems, or “is it one stem coppiced into three?” Rhododendron petals “scattered like confetti”.

A stand of 30-year-old Corsican. “Good stocking. You could take the odd tree out, but there is plen

For the first years, it was an uphill struggle getting government or the supply chain to engage with GiB. The pandemic saw people looking to buy products grown closer to home, increasing GiB’s turnover by 30 per cent, much coming from issuing certification.

“The difference between FSC, PEFC and GiB Chain of Custody certification is provenance: the first two are global, GiB is local. To use the GiB logo, applicants from across the supply chain are audited to prove they use British timber from sustainable sources (UKFS woodlands). This ‘standard’ is the core of what we do. When you buy timber bearing the GiB logo, it does what is says on the tin.”

For biosecurity, he highlights GiB’s Plant Healthy certification, “which we helped develop.

It covers an organisation and its practices rather than individual plants. DEFRA has made this a mandatory requirement for certain woodland creation grants.” The standard has so far been awarded to 20 UK botanic gardens and nurseries, “with Dutch nurseries expressing their interest.” And for carbon, timber, communities, biodiversity, water, air pollution, landscape and soils, GiB added ‘Canopy+’ certification (woodland design and creation) last year.

The ground becomes drier, more sandy and heath-like. Scots pine grows in ever-increasing clumps. The forester in Dougal emerges. 

“Every second pine should come out. They are not particularly big, but if it goes as stakes for fencing, or even for firewood, it offsets imports into this country.” Importing firewood is a notion he finds ridiculous and he admits to occasional rants about transporting wood halfway around the world to UK shores.

From the mixed woodland (50 ha), Scots pine and overgrown birch, we are disgorged onto a wide, gravel-topped forest ride. The plantation of 35-year-old Corsican and Scots pine trees opposite is a truer reflection of the majority of Bramshill Forest, “a highly productive timber asset”. Diggers working the local cement quarry are barely audible.

The shade burgeons with bracken and purple foxgloves. Between two paths, logs disassemble on the for

These days, an R&D programme accounts for 30–40 per cent of GiB’s business. These projects look to create high-value products from British hardwood timbers to offset imports. “Nearly half the UK’s woodlands remain under-managed. The way to incentivise woodland owners is to let them know there is money in woodland management, in products and nature-based assets. By investing in research and development, GiB is ‘pulling’ the market. Whenever we hear a reason as to why homegrown timber is not used, (often ‘we cannot get it’, ‘we don’t have the manufacturing capacity’, or ‘it’s too expensive’), we try to solve it.”

GiB funded the initial research programme that led to Vastern Timber’s thermally-modified commercial hardwood product, ‘Brimstone’. Research included a GiB trial of thermally-modified sycamore and ash cladding on the Sylva Foundation’s buildings, and with London Metropolitan University, they have just completed Phase 2 of the ‘Homegrown House’ programme, utilising new techniques to create sweet chestnut SIP panels (structural insulated panels) for construction. For Axminster Tools, GiB is breaking down supply chain barriers for GiB-certified ash timber (and other species) to make tool handles. Aren’t tool handles fairly small? “That is a good point, but it connects a user to the material literally. They sell thousands of tools globally and the timber volumes add up.”

GiB funding is split evenly, coming from grants (the FC or departments looking for new ways to get British timber into construction, furniture and more), from GiB’s strategic partners and from certification fees. Future projects include replacing imported timber and aluminium curtain wall frames with GiB-certified hardwoods, and helping furniture makers Ercol to source the same for furniture. “One issue is machining and processing.

"This country has lost a lot of processing skills, now imported. We are developing programmes to look at that and fix these broken supply chains.”

Machine ruts created during thinning operations (over 550 ha) provide a path through the plantation. Pine cones crunch underfoot. Gorse, moss and natural regeneration grow in the light. The shade smells of pine resin. A stand of 30-year-old Corsican prompts the comment: “Good stocking density. You could take the odd tree out, but there is plenty of canopy and plenty of light.”

Dougal still spends half his week in video conferences. 

“Collaborations happen because we get to speak to people in this way and then meet partners, sawmills and others on-site.”

On-site might mean visiting a sawmill strategic partner or auditing canopy woodlands, a role he performs as a forester to further his personal understanding of the business of auditing. A total of 20 canopy woodlands projects are in the design phase, 12 are in the ground. “The FC is moving towards using ‘earned recognition’ (proven measures) as a fast track for woodland creation. We think our woodland-establishment metrics will get more woods planted quicker without the delays. The key concept is verification for 30 years or more to ensure the best possible establishment. It is not about just planting. We recently demonstrated the GiB canopy metrics to Lord Benyon, current Conservative parliamentary under-secretary of state at DEFRA, which he likes.” Dougal enjoys working with him. “He understands forestry and we can have an informed conversation about the environment.”

Young conifers give way to bracken, purple foxgloves and vigorous Scots pine regen. Lime green foreground spruce fares less well in these sandy soils.

Young plantation conifers give way to bracken, purple foxgloves and vigorous Scots pine regeneration. Forest-edge lime-green spruce fares less well in these sandy soils. At the T-junction of the wide forest ride we return towards Eversley Church, along paths Dougal rode on his mountain bike during the pandemic.

Re-entering mixed woodland, Dougal takes photographs for his Instagram. He says that he is the face of GiB reluctantly, only realising that he was the face after GiB’s head of marketing told him this was so. 

“Studying others’ leadership styles, you realise the impact it has on the whole business and that it is something to be wary of. Two years ago, I would not have agreed to this.

While there are videos out there of me interviewing others, I rarely give interviews about myself. A business must have its own life, not be about me.”

Dougal enjoys leading interviews, and a Q&A with Zac Goldsmith was a recent conference highlight. Last week, for the Society of the Environment ‘Environmentalist of the Year’ awards (he has been vice-chairman for 10 years), he interviewed ‘New Age traveller turned green energy industrialist’ Dale Vince, the founder, owner and (now) seller of Ecotricity (the website states this is ‘to somehow facilitate involvement in the next general election’). Vince has outline planning permission to build an all-wooden 5,000-seater football stadium for his football team Forest Green Rovers at Eco Park in Stroud. GiB hopes to work with Vince on sourcing timber for the project.

Ride edge and plantation opposite. 35-year-old Corsican and Scots pine trees are a truer reflection of the majority of Bramshill Forest.​

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