She once spent her days managing TV stars, but now Joanne MacLean oversees many of Scotland’s finest woodlands – something that’s not as different as you might think. 

AS anyone in forestry can attest to, big personalities come a dime a dozen when dealing with trees and timber. Whether it’s contractors, foresters, or (God forbid) the general public, it takes a cool head and plenty of good fortune to meet the needs of every man and his dog. 

And while some people thrive in the sector because their parents did, and others just have that natural knack of churning out freshly cut timber with more regularity than a German cheesemaker does Gouda, Joanne MacLean, an area visitor services manager with Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), can count on a very different life experience entirely. 

READ MORE: Women in Forestry: Forestry and Land Scotland's Victoria Potts

A former runner and later researcher on TV, she spent much of her 20s working on programmes such as Wheel of Fortune, which, at the time, was essential viewing for many UK households. That might sound a world away from forestry (some may think a much more glamorous one), but it’s something Joanne now credits as the perfect breeding ground when it comes to dealing with Scotland’s west-coast woodlands – and the big personalities that come with them. 

“Forestry is the first job I’ve had that has really fit my personality,” she said, speaking from her family croft. “There is plenty of variety and always an interesting project going on. All that TV work has put me in good stead when it comes to working with people in forestry.

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“I worked in the city for a year, wore a suit and all that, and decided it wasn’t for me. A friend and I from Arran went travelling around the world. We ended up working for a surf school in Australia.

“One day they decided they wanted to do a promo video and I was to organise everything; the filmmaker, the people for the shoot, the location etc. I really, really enjoyed it and got the TV bug.

“I got myself into a media training programme at a job centre, that led to me becoming a runner on Wheel of Fortune, which is almost like an apprenticeship. My job was to meet the contestants, bring them to the studio, look after them while they were there.

“I did that for a couple of years then got up to researcher. Then I worked on Take the High Road for a bit, and some other shows.

“TV was good for me, but I was 25 and suddenly felt burned out. I was on the go all the time. I had spent a lot of my childhood on Arran and wanted to get back outdoors.

“I was doing 11-hour days on TV, and the next thing I know I am taking kids out into the forest and showing them the woodlands. It was a real change.” 

A few nature-based jobs followed – including with the Scottish Wildlife Trust – before a position opened in forestry in 2007 and Joanne “hasn’t looked back since”, serving in a variety of positions, including visitor services ranger. Now responsible for woodlands in the likes of Fort William and on the Isle of Mull, her current role involves visits to forests, paperwork (and lots of it) and being something of a go-between for felling operations and recreational use, which is where her past life comes in handy. 

“We make sure the public’s needs are met, but we are also here to educate them. We can’t say yes to everyone.

“Sometimes they can’t get access because it’s not safe, or we have to adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. There is a fair bit of paperwork involved.

“We do public access management plans; it’s something we pioneered in this region.

"Traditionally, the harvester or civil engineer came in to do whatever they needed to do; they’d put signs up and close the forest. Nowadays, people need to get into the forest for health benefits, so the harvesting teams work with us to put in diversions, temporary closures and that sort of thing.

“The plans set out who is responsible for keeping the public safe.

“It can be challenging to put something into place or make changes when you are with a massive organisation. We can’t just go in and start changing things, we need to do it properly.” 

Other issues faced by Joanne concern the installation of parking meters at some woodland car parks – done due to financial pressures faced by FLS – and, timely enough, signage. Even although the conversation took place at the start of this year, it has been a hot topic in Scotland in recent weeks, with the agency revealing last month it had experienced a “significant increase” in members of the public ignoring warning signs and wandering onto live forestry sites. 

On this, Joanne makes an interesting point. 

“You can’t just go and put signs up everywhere because people will ignore them, people will burn them. A lot of thought goes into it. People get sick of too much signage and that’s where it is really difficult.

“If you don’t have people on the ground all the time and don’t want to put up too many signs, how do you get your message across?

“We want to have really good quality sites that people can go and use.” 

Throughout this series, forestry’s women have spoken of how the sector has become a far more welcoming place for them than it was in yesteryear, the odd comment or prejudice aside. Joanne agrees, and it’s something close to her heart. 

She recently changed down to part-time hours, born out of the need to look after her elderly Alzheimer’s-diagnosed mother, and her daughter, who has ADHD, which Joanne also has. And while she had some reservations about how this would be received, she says FLS couldn’t have been more welcoming or accommodating. 

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“Historically, it is quite a male-dominated industry, going all the way back to the war effort, although you had the Lumberjills,” she said. “There are still a lot more men than women, but it is getting better.

“Up in the west coast here, there is a certain demographic of women who work in forestry. We are all into the outdoors. That’s what attracts us to the industry; the opportunity to be outdoors all year. That’s what attracted me. You just have to get your waterproofs on and get on with it.

“There are guys right now who are beginning to retire after 40 years in the industry – there aren’t many women who have been in it for that long. Some of the stories you hear are fascinating.

“It’s a very relaxed environment to work in. You are not a piece of meat, just needing to produce the goods. You are looked after.

“Flexible working has been my lifeline through the last couple of years. Being a mother and working in forestry, with a mum who has Alzheimer’s, a daughter with ADHD, and my own ADHD diagnosis, throws up its challenges.

“The organisation was brilliant. It really supported me through my challenges. That flexible work approach is so key. If I need to nip and get the kids from school a bit early, for example, I can do, so long as it balances out. That is gold dust to a working mum. My boss couldn’t have been more amazing.” 

As for the future, Joanne believes woodlands will only see more visitors flock to them as the health benefits of forests become increasingly touted. But, she says, it will be crucial to get the balance right between ‘babying’ the public and trusting them to explore on their own.  

“We are only going to get busier and busier. But we can’t just put everything on a plate for our visitors. We need to encourage people to go out on their own.”