Looking After The City’s Trees – An Interview With Rob Riekie

21 November 2018

Rob Riekie is The Parks Trust’s Landscape and Operations Director. He has worked for The Trust since July 1992.

What role did you start with at The Parks Trust, and how have you progressed during your time here?

Prior to working for the Trust, I worked for Milton Keynes Development Corporation as a Contracts Officer. I was fortunate enough to get a job with the Trust when it came into being and became a Landscape Officer. A couple of promotions led me to the role of Senior Landscape Officer, where I was in charge of the other Landscape Officers, then Assistant Operations Manager, then in 2011 I became Operations Manager. This is effectively the remit of the role I am in now but it has developed as we have taken on more land and more responsibility. For the last three or four years I’ve been the Landscape and Operations Director.

I’ve been quite fortunate that my career has developed alongside Milton Keynes. Though I have worked in Milton Keynes for a long time (40 years this year) I’ve always had different jobs and the landscape has continued to change; nothing stays the same so there are always fresh challenges. This has helped keep me motivated and fresh in thought.

What have been some of your most memorable tree-related tasks?

Prior to working at the Trust, my first tree-related memory was working with very large dead Elm trees suffering from Dutch Elm disease when I was doing my training. These were big trees that we were felling because they were dying or dead and that was something that will stay with me. As a youngster, being involved in that work was quite exciting because of the size of the trees and the challenges this posed, but it was also quite sad; these trees were abruptly and quickly coming to an end before their time.

As time moved on we were onto planting and I was involved with the planting of some big sites, such as the back slope of the labyrinth bowl at Willen North and the mounding between Tongwell Lake and the motorway. The scale of the planting that went on in the late 1970s and early 1980s and being involved with that was very memorable.

Then by the late 1980s we began tree thinning – the trees were planted so tightly together to get an immediate green effect, in some places it was five to a metre, and this was just not sustainable into the long term. You’d go to a plantation and it was so thick you couldn’t walk it and wouldn’t know where to begin! You’d focus on removing the trees that were badly formed or responding to a weak species selection. That’s still going on now; it’s a big challenge for managers of the city’s trees to deal with. It will likely continue for the next 20 years. Alongside that, as we develop these plantations there are individual trees that need to be cherished and managed carefully e.g. the mature trees, so it’s about making sure these have the opportunity to flourish.

I’ve got lots of memories from the different stages of the city’s development.

What are the challenges of managing the trees in Milton Keynes?

There are so many of them – we’ve got approaching 400 hectares of plantations, all of the same age. Many of those are along the grid roads, with traffic on one side and people or industry on the other. So, the challenge is to make sure those trees and plantations are appropriate to where they are. This unfortunately does mean removing some of them and trying to make sure that the ones that remain are the best ones, the ones that are fit for purpose. It is also important they let light in so the understoreys develop. Light is king for tree and forestry management – we have to ensure there is enough light going in so there is a strong, diverse shrub and herb layer underneath. We’ve all walked through pine forests and they’re beautiful in their own way but where they are thickly planted there’s very little growing underneath because there’s no light there. This might serve commercial forests but ours aren’t grown for commercial purposes, they are for amenity and biodiversity purposes.

What are the most important tree management tasks throughout the year?

Planning – We need to know that we understand where we are going and what our objectives are. Checking that our tree stock is as safe as it can be – ensuring continued inspections are in place for the more sizeable trees. Conforming to legislation – making sure our tree work doesn’t fall foul of legislation, particularly around bird nesting; we have to be certain that our tree felling and thinning work takes place in the safe period between August to March. Getting our priorities right; over the last five years we have targeted trees near rear boundaries because as the trees have grown, especially near to houses and fences, those that were planted up to 40 years ago are no longer appropriate and are either causing shade issues or, worst case scenario, subsidence. We can’t be everywhere at once and that’s the challenge – all the trees and plantations are generally of an equal age and everything needs doing at the same time.

Is there any tree work you are particularly proud of?

There’s lots, but there’s one area that I particularly like. It’s an area we call ‘sub-compartment 8’ at Howe Park Wood, also known as the ‘Ash and Norway Spruce’ block. It isn’t actually ancient woodland but was planted in the 1940s on ridge and furrow, which is very fertile soil. About 25 years ago, I remember trying to walk through it, but waist-high bramble prevented me from doing so. As a piece of amenity woodland I thought the space was wasted and we could really do something with it. In response I instigated clearing most of the bramble (which was also smothering the herbaceous ground layer), thinned out some of the weak trees and then underplanted with Douglas Fir, Hornbeam and the relatively rare Wild Service Tree. We then cut some tracks in the long grass/herbaceous layer. As a result the public can access it, and it’s become a lovely, open piece of woodland that is different to anything else we have in Milton Keynes, with a great feel about it and lots of interesting features. I have had a working involvement with Linford Wood for 40 years’ and in that time I am immensely proud of how the wood has developed.