While forestry stubbornly remains a male-dominated industry, multi-skilled Laura Jermy of TG Norman and DS Norman believes no woman should allow that to dissuade them from making it their career.

THE common impression that forestry is a ‘man’s world’ still holds true for the vast majority of the sector in the UK, with figures showing less than 25 per cent of the workforce is female. In certain areas, that percentage is much lower, with well over 90 per cent of contracting roles held by men.

As such, it remains fairly unusual to encounter a woman working in a sawmill, buying timber, managing harvester sites, operating machines or hauling timber. So when you meet a woman who does all five, such as Laura Jermy, she’s bound to be worth talking to.

Carlisle-based timber and sawmilling business TG Norman was established by Laura’s grandparents, Thomas and Hilary Norman, in 1962. Today it supplies timber and solid fuels to the trade and public nationwide, sourcing quality softwood and hardwood that can be cut to any size in its sawmill.

It is now run by Thomas and Hilary’s youngest son Andrew, while eldest son David runs timber merchant and haulage company DS Norman, established in 2005. DS Norman Timber runs four of its own wagons, transporting thousands of loads of timber every year up and down the UK.

The timber buyer and harvesting manager for both companies is 31-year-old Laura, whose fascination with the industry began at a young age.

Forestry Journal: As a timber buyer, Laura got her start with oak and, in the process, developed a real passion for hardwood.As a timber buyer, Laura got her start with oak and, in the process, developed a real passion for hardwood.

“My father is a haulier with his own wagon, working for Euroforest for the last 28 years,” she said. “And from the age of about four I used to go out with him into the woods. I would ask my dad all kinds of questions about the trees and could tell the difference between species from the age of about six.

“Then, when was about 10, I wanted to make a bit of pocket money so I started working in the sawmill, doing whatever bits and pieces I could.”

Despite her early involvement with forestry, Laura’s entry into the sector and the family business was never viewed as a done deal. In fact, it wasn’t until she was 27 that she realised forestry was for her.

“Growing up, I never really knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue. After I left school, I was in the motor industry for seven years. I wanted to follow my own path and not rely on my family. But then I had my little boy and the motor industry couldn’t offer me a part-time job, so I started doing work in the sawmill, wherever they needed me.

“I learned all about how the sawmill worked and got my forklift licence and my JCB licence. I would go out on deliveries, move logs, bag coal. Whatever was required, I would do it.

“Eventually, an administrative position came up in the office, so I took that, but I didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to be outdoors and learning new things.”

Around this time, Laura’s grandfather, then the company’s timber buyer, began looking for someone to take on his responsibilities, allowing him to step into semi-retirement. And Laura thought: why not?

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“I wanted to know how the timber gets to the sawmill,” she said. “I’m still really interested in understanding every aspect of it. I started off buying oak and developed a real passion for hardwood from that. If anybody rings me to say they’ve got 100 tonne of ash at the roadside, I’m more likely to jump at that than a load of 3.7 spruce.

“I thought that was how the job would go, with me doing a bit in the office and a bit in the yard, and every now and again I’d go out to buy oak. But it’s completely spiralled.”

Four years on, as well as handling timber buying and various administrative tasks, Laura is managing harvesting operations, operating machines and even hauling timber.

She explained: “That happened because my father took ill at the same time that we lost a delivery guy from the yard who was the only one who could drive our 7.5 tonner. So I thought I’d give it a go. Initially, I just wanted to pass my Class 2, to drive the 7.5 tonner. But then my father was struggling a little bit, so I thought as there was only one more test to sit to pass my Class 1, I might as well try. I passed first time and now I’m out driving the wagons when I can. It works in my favour, because if the two companies need a little extra hand or someone runs out of time I can jump in. This also helps me as a buyer. When buying a standing plantation I can work out what stipulations need put in place to get the HGVs to a suitable place to uplift without it having a massive financial burden on the client.”

Forestry Journal: Laura’s picture appeared in the local paper during the harsh winter of 2018, when she lent her support to a military aid mission taking vital fuel supplies to isolated communities across east Cumbria. She braved the snow to open up the depot and donate a dozen bags of coal and logs to an RAF Chinook helicopter.Laura’s picture appeared in the local paper during the harsh winter of 2018, when she lent her support to a military aid mission taking vital fuel supplies to isolated communities across east Cumbria. She braved the snow to open up the depot and donate a dozen bags of coal and logs to an RAF Chinook helicopter.

With her willingness to turn her hand to anything, Laura has ended up with a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, but at least it keeps the job interesting.

“Every day’s different, which is what I enjoy about it,” she said. “We cover the UK and Ireland, so one day I can be up in the north of Scotland looking at a stand to buy. The next I can be inspecting a harvesting site in the south of England or looking at roadside timber.

“I do all the paperwork too, weight tickets for the invoices to be generated. But I’ll also jump on the machines sometimes, to help make sure a job runs smoothly.”

Sometimes it’s to help out, sometimes she’ll do it for fun, but Laura believes operating machines and HGVs also makes her a better manager as it gives her a better understanding of the whole job.

She said: “It helps me to have a feel for the machines. When I go and look at a job, I want to see it from every aspect. I don’t always have the contractors or the hauliers with me, but I want to be able to see the job from their point of view, recognise the issues that they’re going to face. And I know which contractors to put on the jobs and who’s got the right machines for which jobs.”

For Laura, it’s important to have a firm grasp of all these different sides of forestry, not only so she can do her job well, but also so she can defend herself when challenged. As a young woman in a position of authority in an industry dominated by men, discrimination (or at the very least, scepticism) comes with the territory.

She said: “Because I’m young as well as female, I do encounter those who think I don’t know what I’m talking about. And although I do have a lot to learn, I sometimes can go out to woodlands where I’ll be asked to do things a certain way, knowing it is not compliant with current regulations.

“If I know we can’t do something, I have to ensure it isn’t done. They can insist, but you have to learn to stand your ground. You’ve got to be confident in what you’re saying, although I’m also keen that, if I don’t understand something, instead of letting my pride get in the way and trying to wing it, I will say so, or I’ll go and research it.

“I’m extremely lucky to have some fantastic squads who helps me understand things that I’m struggling with.”

Forestry Journal: Willie Laing’s Tigercat 615E grapple skidder is a favourite of Laura’s. She’ll take any opportunity to jump on the machine and put it to work.Willie Laing’s Tigercat 615E grapple skidder is a favourite of Laura’s. She’ll take any opportunity to jump on the machine and put it to work.

Laura believes no woman who’s interested in forestry needs to worry about the fact it’s full of men – as long as they’re prepared for what to expect.

“I’m extremely keen to advocate more females within the industry,” she said. “But you’ve got to have broad shoulders and be prepared to take constructive criticism. There isn’t any special treatment. Everybody gets treated the same.

“It is a great industry to be in, but also a really tough one, so you’ve got to have the passion for it and you’ll find it very rewarding. If you’re fair and you’ve got an open mind, you’ll go far. But it’s important to have the right attitude.

“As someone who comes from a forestry family, I knew what I was getting into. If I’d gone in with the mindset that I was a female and, as such, I expected to be treat differently, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

In her role as harvesting manager, Laura is currently responsible for four squads and upwards of 15 men. There’s no shortage of opportunity for conflict, but her own approach to the job is rooted in respect and collaborative problem-solving.

“If someone’s made a mistake, then instead of walking away you have to be able to work together as a team,” she said.

“Sometimes I’ll go on sites – especially if I’ve taken on a new squad – and can see things not quite up to UKFS. My question then is: what can we do to fix it? How can we work together to make the job easier for everyone involved?

“There’s no need to pick fault as, without the people in the woods (i.e. the harvesters and forwarder operators or hand cutters, etc) I wouldn’t be in a job. So I need to show them respect and do whatever I can to ensure they’re successful in every aspect of the operation.”

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While Laura admits her job has its bad days, the blame can rarely be laid at the feet of the men in the woods. The biggest obstacles she faces usually come from health and safety regulators and the general public.

“I’m responsible for covering all the health and safety aspects of the harvesting sites,” she said. “I make sure all the contractors, myself and the hauliers are covered. I do all the risk assessments, looking at the different factors involved in the jobs. I’ve also got relationships with the different councils to make sure the roads are safe for our wagons, power lines are isolated and so on.

Forestry Journal: With a Class 1 licence, Laura was able to take over for her father hauling timber while he was unwell – along with the occasional weekend shift hauling fridges or trailers.With a Class 1 licence, Laura was able to take over for her father hauling timber while he was unwell – along with the occasional weekend shift hauling fridges or trailers.

“Probably the most challenging aspect of this industry is the red tape. I understand the purpose of it, but it does make the job extremely difficult. In my opinion, the people deciding on and enforcing the rules and regulations don’t engage with us as much as they could. If there is an issue pick up the phone, talk about it, come out onto site and discuss a plan moving forward, work together as part as one industry, we are all in it for the same purpose.

“This industry’s health and safety regulations change so much that I don’t think any one person, with the greatest willpower, could keep on top of what’s going on. One of the reasons my grandfather had to take a step back, in his words, is that the days are long behind us where you could just pick up a chainsaw and work or run wagons to make good money. The red tape is making the industry extremely difficult to work in and I believe pushing good, hardworking, experienced people out.

“We are all in this together. I’m no different from the hauliers, the hauliers are no different from the harvesting boys and sometimes the people behind the red tape appear blind to the fact we need to work together.”

Encounters with the general public can be similarly frustrating. Whether answering complaints about timber trucks on public roads (despite hours of planning prior to the timber trucks being on the road) or appealing to protesters attempting to halt the felling of diseased trees, the experience isn’t often a positive one.

Laura recalled: “I wish the public could be educated in why we do what we do. We are not there to destroy healthy woodlands. We are there to carry out an operation to make the woodlands more sustainable and healthier for the next generation and also to give back to the general public.

“We provide biomass to supply power stations or wood-fuelled boilers to keep hospitals warm, firewood to keep those wood burners and open fires going, green logs so they can pick up that fence panel from their local hardware store, fencing to keep livestock in, oak so they have something comfortable to sit on while eating their dinner or beams to build their house, plus so much more. Everything we do is to give back to the general public one way or another, with hours of careful planning, labour and minimal sleep.”

For the mother of a young son, the persistence of myths and misinformation about the forestry industry is especially frustrating.

“My little boy is eight years old and people have told him that his mum works in a very dangerous job, that I damage the environment and destroy the habitats of wild animals,” she explained. “From that perspective, I couldn’t have had a better job during lockdown, because when the schools were closed, I was able to take him into the woods with me and educate him

“There were a couple of tenders we won with badger setts in them, so I was able to educate him on what we look for and what we do to establish boundaries to protect their habitats. He was out marking badger setts with red tape and looking out for birds’ nests. It was nice to be able to do that with him, to give him a better understanding.”

As for her own education, Laura already has plenty of skills under her belt, but is keen to learn some more.

“My goal for 2021 is to pass my chainsaw ticket,” she said. “One thing I’ve never picked up is a chainsaw. I do watch the guys doing the cutting and have been offered the chance to give it a go, but I’ve never felt confident enough. So I would love to pass my chainsaw ticket this year.”

It’s clear that, while she already has a lot on her plate, Laura’s enthusiasm for forestry won’t be waning any time soon.

“It’s a lot of responsibility, but I do enjoy it,” she said. “I’m out at 5 in the morning and still often out at 11 at night. I don’t have much of a personal life, because any little time I do get, I spend with my son.

“I do have days where it’s really hard and I feel like I want to give up. It will have been such a bad day, nothing’s gone right and I think I can’t do it anymore. But I know I don’t want to be anywhere else, because I am extremely passionate about what I do.

“I am fortunate to have great teams behind me and a great family, who make it possible for me to pursue a passion – especially my mum, who is also the company’s sectary. If there is one women you don’t want to cross, it’s Mum. She is the glue that keeps us all together.”



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