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A passion for growing trees

Nick Cooke has combined the roles of Head Forester and Nursery Manager at the Castle Howard Estate in North Yorkshire for the past 19 years. As he retires, he is keen to encourage others to take up similar forestry careers. Growing trees, he says should be a passion.

By Nick Cooke · August 4, 2022

Nick began his working life in 1977 and, as he explains here, has enjoyed every minute of it!

“I took a degree in Environmental Science at Bradford University from 1973-1977. The first year was a sandwich year and on the job list was a place at Castle Howard Estate helping to establish a woodland garden in Ray Wood.

I vividly remember going to Castle Howard (which I had never heard of before) for my interview with the agent of the day. He peered at me across his desk. Though obviously not impressed with what he saw, he offered me the placement. My love affair with this wonderful place had begun.

That year was a magical time for me, planting many rare trees as well as working with the great characters in the ten strong forestry team.

Returning to University to finish my degree, I soon realized that Castle Howard had taken a firm hold of me and would not let me go.

Sowing and planting

I applied for a job and was taken on as an assistant labourer in the Tree Nursery in June 1977. My first job was pulling thistles out of the transplant beds (at least four years of education hadn’t been wasted!). The Tree Nursery was a small, traditional business growing and selling predominantly coniferous forestry transplants. The site, close to the heart of the Estate, was on a wonderful acidic, sandy loam, ideal for growing trees.

In 1978 the nursery foreman had to retire due to ill health and I was plunged in at the deep end.

The nursery was, and in many ways still is, a very traditional operation. All sowing and planting was done by hand. In early years we used the York lining out plough and with the help of ten woodsmen and a horde of local village boys we planted thousands and thousands of lodgepole pine, western hemlock, Sitka spruce and Japanese larch.

Today we still sow and plant by hand with the help of slightly more modern equipment. The soil has never been sterilized and is the perfect medium for growing fibrous transplants and seedlings.


Over the years we have changed what we grow and now produce far more native hedging and hardwoods than conifers. We sell to both wholesale and retail customers and many locals cherish the opportunity to come along and choose their tree or trees and then take them home to plant.

Many of the trees are grown from seed gathered on the Estate. Cultivation from seed has always been the most satisfying part of my job.  I get the same buzz today watching them germinate as I did right at the start. I love going out on the Estate to pick seeds. Many years ago we designated a number of Heritage Hedgerows on the Estate. These have never been cut back and are reliable sources of truly wild, local provenance seed.

We have many wonderful mature oak woods on the Estate and trees grown from their acorns have gone all over Yorkshire and beyond. This year, we gathered from trees I had sold in the early eighties – very satisfying.

In 2003 I was offered the position of Head Forester overseeing the management of over 2,000 acres of woodland. This was a real change in direction for me as instead of growing trees I was involved in both the planting and felling of many of the trees that I had grown.

Future for nurseries

This is a great time for nurseries and the future looks exciting with lots of new developments and challenges and I wish I was 25 again. My successor will no doubt modernize the nursery and take it on to greater things.

Growing trees should be a passion, knowing that the plants we produce will be planted far and wide and help us address some of the problems that the world faces. I am fortunate that I still live on the Estate and I can walk through woods full of trees that I have grown and it is deeply satisfying to see these well managed plantations. My only regret is the damage caused by grey squirrels and if I was granted one wish it would be to see reds return to their home.

I am a Cumbrian by birth and proud of it but after nearly half a century I have just about been accepted as an Honorary Yorkshireman – no greater honour can be bestowed.”

Above: Brick Kilns on the magnificent Castle Howard Estate where Nick Cooke combines the roles of Head Forester and Nursery Manager.

Nick Cooke

If you are considering a career in forestry, Nick Cooke says he has enjoyed every minute of his 50 years. For more on forestry careers follow the links on our Learning pages.