To celebrate International Women's Day, we take a look at the history of women in forestry and speak to members of staff who are forging new and exciting career paths in the industry.
Although traditionally considered to be ‘man’s work’, women have played an important part in British forestry for many years.
In 1942 the Woman’s Timber Corps (part of the Women’s Land Army) was formed in response to a shortage of forestry workers during the Second World War. Known as the Lumber Jills, nearly 5,000 women carried out a wide range of forestry tasks including felling, loading, driving tractors and operating sawmills, often pushing through long 12-hour days of hard labour.
During this time, the number of women working in British forestry rose by roughly a third, however by 1951, we were back down to our pre-war level.
Cut to 2022 and things are looking a little different at Forestry England. 39.4% of our workforce is now female and the launch of our Women in Forestry Program Board in 2019 has already started to make positive changes for women in our workplaces.
I first joined Forestry England as a seasonal recreation ranger at Wendover Woods. I loved the job but wanted to put my forestry skills to more use, so after spending a few years at Wendover I went to Thetford to work as an operations works supervisor. This was the complete opposite of being in recreation! I was working on harvesting sites, tariffing and looking after the underplanting sites.
Whilst helping out on the North Norfolk and Sandlings beats during my time at Thetford, I saw how the role brought both worlds together. There is no separation between operations and recreation on the beat, you have to do it all!
The core part of my job is the day to day running of the beat, making sure operations run smoothly and safely and looking after all of our beautiful trees. Working together with the forester and craftsperson teams. I also take on recreation responsibilities such as inspecting and maintaining trails and play equipment.
We get a few spanners in the works every now and then, this can be due to anti-social behaviour or extreme weather. But there is always support from the beat and district team.
When I was younger I knew I wanted to work outside, I wasn’t great at school as I’m rather useless at sitting at a desk, (I am getting better at it these days). But there are so many varied roles for everyone within Forestry England and in my position, you can bring your dog to work, a big bonus for me!
Saskia Pilbeam, Cleveland Beat Works Supervisor
As a cycle ranger in the Forest of Dean, my day usually starts with a site check, making sure the facilities are all ok for the day ahead. Carrying out trail inspections and building a plan of maintenance forms a large part of my time. The inspections are carried out by bike and on foot, and with around 50 kilometres of trail to check each month this is no small task. Trail maintenance is done mostly by hand by myself and one other Forestry England member of staff. Thankfully we also have a large, dedicated team of volunteers called the Dean Trail Volunteers who are always keen (rain or shine) to be out maintaining and improving the trails.
I also work with specialist contractors when large scale re-designs on the trails are needed. These take a long time to plan but are worth the effort when you get to see how much fun people have riding the finished product. It’s always exciting to ride a new section of trail and even more so when you have been part of the process.
As a site ranger, I am also on hand for when things don’t quite go to plan, for example finding lost children, helping injured riders and assisting the emergency services when needed. It’s a busy job but its great getting to spend so much time out in the forest and riding on trails I love.
For anyone thinking about a job like mine, I'd tell them to follow what makes you happy, find the things you are good at and don’t be afraid to try things. If you are looking to gain experience, there are all sorts of volunteering opportunities that can give you a great sense of the different kinds of jobs out there. I certainly never realised when I was at school that this kind of job existed!
Kate Thoday, Recreation and Cycle Ranger Forest of Dean
I first joined Forestry England in 2015 and over since then, I’ve worked in three different roles across the organisation.
In 2019, I was involved with organising a year-long celebration of Forestry England’s centenary in 2019. Throughout the year, we worked on an exciting and varied range of projects – from unveiling Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen hut sculpture in Dalby Forest and our Writers in the Forest residency programme, to taking an award-winning forested garden to RHS Chelsea Flower Show and holding tree planting ceremonies in every corner of England. I can say with some certainty that no two days during that year felt the same!
In my current job, I work with partners to share our knowledge, passion and expertise about forests; help more people understand the wonderful work Forestry England does; and bring in additional income that means we can do more for the nature and the communities we support. One of the things I love most about this, is working with experts who are endlessly inspiring – whether that’s foresters, ecologists or wellbeing specialists. I’ve learned so much about our wild places, the creatures that live in them and the magical, restorative powers of being outside in nature.
I know I’m not alone in saying that my best work days are spent outdoors in the beautiful landscapes we care for. I’ve recently been lucky enough to enjoy some tree planting days with our partners around the country – we simply couldn’t do this work without their support.
Living in such an uncertain world, with unsettling news stories coming from every angle, planting a tree feels like a simple act of hope and generosity – a promise for the future, and better times to come.
Meera Hindocha, Head of Partnerships
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I started as an Apprentice Forest Craftsperson at Cannock Chase in 2013, the first time there had been a woman in the forestry team there. I remember they had to have a female toilet installed because I was starting. I later progressed to Forest Works Supervisor on the community woodlands in the North West (based from Delamere) where I stayed for 1 year before returning to Cannock as Forest Work Supervisor for three years.
Since then I have progressed to Forester and am now back on the community woodlands again. My role at Cannock was filled with another woman which I was very happy about!
I’ve also been lucky enough to receive financial support from FE to study for a master’s in forestry management which I will complete this September.
I am passionate about encouraging more women into the industry and I think it’s important that we approach women of all ages and backgrounds to encourage them into all levels of the business.
Kay Clark, Community Forester
I’ve always had a real love for the outdoors, I grew up in the countryside and spent a lot of my weekends camping in the mountains. However, I never set out to have a career in forestry, I did a Maths degree and spent the first 10 years of my working life on various projects in the IT industry. The work was interesting but the locations were invariably rather uninspiring. I took a career break when I had my children and once my son reached school age I snapped up the opportunity of managing the plant records at Westonbirt.
There is no average day; today I am sorting through 300 new plant labels that are waiting to be placed on our trees. We have 15,000 specimen trees here and I have a team of 8 volunteers who check which labels are missing and then fix them once the new labels arrive. Yesterday I was focussed on the 150 new trees that the team are currently planting and was making sure we had accurate records of exactly what had been planted where. It always feels like a privilege to go and look at a new specimen and spend time in our beautiful collection.
One of my biggest achievements here was moving us to a new plant records system. Our tree team are now able to record all their work on tablets, and the general public can locate our trees using a mobile phone. Why not take a look at www.westonbirt.arboretumexplorer.org
Alison Vry, Database & Records Officer