RNAA- Ian McNab, head forester at the Holkham Estate

PUBLISHED: 17:32 08 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:19 20 February 2013

RNAA- Ian McNab, head forester at the Holkham Estate

RNAA- Ian McNab, head forester at the Holkham Estate

What do giraffes in London Zoo, the Battle of Trafalgar and a herd of fallow deer have in common? They are all linked in some way to Ian McNab.

Wonderful work

What do giraffes in London Zoo, the Battle of Trafalgar and a herd of fallow deer have in common? They are all linked in some way to Ian McNab,head forester on the Holkham Estate.

Ian McNab has been nurturing trees all his working life. He looks after 2,000 acres of mixed forest in north Norfolk, with a team of three others. Its a job he wouldnt change for the world.

Variety has been the key to Ians enjoyment of a working life which has spanned 52 years at Holkham, the last 14 as head forester. Cutting down vast bundles of evergreen oak, or Ilex branches for the giraffes at London Zoo, happens four times a year, for example; co-ordinating the planting of a community woodland at nearby Burnham Thorpe was part of the estates Trafalgar celebrations in 2005 and protecting young trees from the ravages of the estates resident deer population is an on-going part of Ians work.

We rarely have two days the same, says Ian. We have lots of small jobs to do across the whole estate, and we are always doing something different and talking to different people. Thats what I really like about the job.

Ian began his working life at Holkham as an apprentice in the estates tree nursery. He spent months collecting and planting seeds and nurturing saplings in what he freely admits was a rather boring job to begin with. Then, with the retirement of another fellow forester, he got the chance to learn a bit more about his chosen profession.

In his youth, employment opportunities were provided mainly by the Holkham Estate which offered work on the farm or in the forestry or building departments. I was never any good at building things and I didnt fancy the farm, so I went into forestry. The fact that Im still here more than 50 years later means I must have enjoyed myself!

The Holkham Estate belongs to the 7th Earl of Leicester and is run these days by his son, Viscount Coke. When Ian first began working there in 1957 there were 15 men and boys in the forestry department. Now there are four. Mechanisation has taken out some of the hard, physical work and cut down the number of workers required to do the job. Its the same in farming, really, says Ian. Its a good thing that some of the hard work has gone it really was quite a slog in those days. Ian recalls having to be at his place of work at whichever corner of the vast estate for 7am each day, whatever the weather.

In those days I had no transport so I had to cycle everywhere, he says. That meant getting on my bike with all my equipment an axe, a cross-cut saw, hammer and wedge and carrying it all to work. It was not so bad in the summer, but in the winter, it was really hard. Sometimes, when you get a north-easterly wind, theres nothing between us here in Holkham and the North Pole!

In his early days, Ian and his fellow foresters would fell trees by hand hence the need for the cross-cut saw to cut through the main trunk, the axe to chop off the branches and the hammer and wedge to bring the tree down safely. It was hard, physical work, but enjoyable, Ian remembers.

These days, the job is done by a mechanical tree-felling processor, hired in from contractors for all but the smallest felling jobs on the estate. The processors take out the trees, remove the branches and leaves and produce the finished and usable wood at the end. Today, the job is a mixture of looking after the existing trees and nurturing newly planted ones. Much of the estate is open to visitors and maintaining the safety of the woodland is an important job. Ian and his team regularly inspect the trees for potential problems, felling all or part of a tree if there is a safety question mark over it.

We dont take chances, says Ian. If were not sure about a branch or a tree we have it down. Two or three of the specimens on the estate, principally oaks, are around 600-700 years old, Ian thinks. Quite a lot of trees have stood at Holkham for more than 200 years, especially those inside the grounds of the hall itself. Ians favourite time of year is spring, when his beloved trees first come into green and the thorn hedges start to blossom on the side of the roads. It also holds the promise of summer to come. Autumn is lovely too, but
you always know that winter is never far away! As for retirement, at the age of 67 its something that Ian knows is probably around the corner. But right now, hes enjoying his job as much as ever. I feel just as good as I did 20 years ago its a wonderful job.

Tree planting at Holkham

For the last 300 years, the Earls of Leicester have planted thousands of trees on the Holkham Estate. The parkland surrounding Holkham Hall was landscaped by Capability Brown in the 18th century with planting to include thousands of Ilex, or evergreen oaks. The 1st Earl of Leicester, who inherited the estate in 1775, was a great champion of innovation in agriculture. He pioneered the four-course rotation system which encouraged farmers to rotate crops on their land, increasing their yield and quality. He is said to have planted more than one million trees on his estate. The 2nd Earl of Leicester was another dedicated countryman whose passions included forestry. He reclaimed a lot of marshland and planted a belt of Corsican pines on the beach at Holkham to protect the land from coastal erosion.

Tonnant Wood, Burnham Thorpe

Ian was closely involved in the planting of the Tonnant community woodland at Burnham Thorpe, near Holkham. The village is the birthplace of Lord Nelson and the wood was planted as part of the Trafalgar celebrations in November 2005. The 11-acre plot, which is owned by the Holkham Estate, was planted with 10,000 native, broadleaved trees, including many oaks, in recognition of the importance of the tree to ship building in Nelsons time. It is part of Ians job to look after the plantation with his team, replacing any trees that have died off and thinning out when the time comes. Children from local schools and other community groups all helped in the planting project.

The Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association is best known for the annual, two-day Royal Norfolk Show, which will take place on June 30 and July 1, 2010, but the organisation does much more than this. It arranges and hosts events throughout the year, supports education in the field of food and farming, backs many local groups with charitable grants, and funds student scholarships. If you would like to find out more about the association and being a member, please contact Sarah de Chair on 01603 731961 or visit the website at www.royalnorfolkshow.co.uk

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