South-west-based Annabelle Ozanne’s career in arboriculture started during 2022. Having had an office job for a large part of her working life, she decided, like many people, that outdoor work was a better option for her and, by chance, found tree work – she hasn’t looked back since.

Although you are quite new to the arboriculture industry, have you always been involved in outdoor-based work?
Not at all. I’d always worked indoors and from home. I was a web designer for nine years after I left university. I then wanted to do something more creative, more hands-on, so ran an online craft business for a few years, making textile pictures. This business lost some momentum and I lost enthusiasm to do all the marketing and social media side of it when some close family members became seriously ill. I closed the business, and as a break from what I had been doing, went to work on an organic farm as a stopgap. This was just as the first lockdown started and my partner lost his job. Ironically, I stopped working from home the minute everyone was told to work from home! Working on the farm was where I realised I liked working outdoors, doing physical work and working in a team.

From working on the farm, what brought you in the tree work direction? how did you end up deciding to do your chainsaw qualifications and then your climbing qualifications?
I fell into it by chance. My partner, Adrian, got asked to help out with a weekend job by a tree surgeon friend of ours. At the time, the two of us had just reduced my mum’s big leylandii hedge and had enjoyed doing it, even though it was a bit of a mission. Adrian got his first chainsaw tickets, followed by a few days’ work here and there, and really enjoyed it. We’re quite similar people, so I thought “I could do that!”.

READ MORE: Women in arb: Amelia Wilkinson, tree surgeon with Multevo

I have no background in tree work, but have enjoyed the outdoors and climbing rocks all my life, so I was used to ropework, heights and lowering. Climbing is a big part of my life, I never thought I could climb trees for a living though, let alone with a chainsaw. My initial concern was I’d never used a chainsaw, but soon got used to it. Time on the saw really builds your skills and confidence. I also come from a family of doers. My dad was a tradesman and made fireplaces. He also loved working with wood in his spare time – furniture making. Both my parents came from smallholding families in rural Brittany, where the whole family would work together, very hands-on. My dad died before I started tree work, but I know he’d have liked that I’ve started doing this. He taught me to have healthy respect for machinery – there were no safety features on any of his!

You have fitted in doing your qualifications around working – how have you found that?
It has been tricky, but okay. The hardest bit for me was staying in a job I didn’t want to do any more (I’d moved from the outdoor-based field work to farm office work, which didn’t suit me). I gave seven months’ notice. That was a long time. I liked my employers at the farm very much though, and didn’t want to drop them at the height of the busy season. Obviously you sacrifice time off to fit courses in, but if you go down the ‘learn on the job’ route like I am doing, it’s really a small commitment compared with most other industries. I’ve loved all the courses I’ve done so far, most of them with Hi-Line Training.

I have got woodchipper training coming up and I’m not looking forward to that quite as much as the climbing courses, but I try to get as much from each course as I can, beyond what’s needed to pass the assessments. Paying for them myself means I want to get value for money!

Has your rock-climbing experience helped you with moving into tree work as a career?

Forestry Journal:

They are quite different in terms of kit, technique – your anchors are usually below you on rock while you climb, but there are a few useful crossovers. Some of the knots, being used to rope work and managing ropes, heights, but maybe the most useful is knowing how to catch a fall. Just like with lowering when blocking down, you need to give a falling climber a soft catch i.e. let it run.

Having gained your qualifications are you now working full-time doing tree work? Are you self-employed or working for a company?
I’m working part-time spring/summer and pretty much full-time autumn/winter. I am self-employed – I’ve been self-employed for many years. I like it, it really suits me. I like to be able to go back to France at fairly short notice, to see my mum who’s been battling cancer for the last 10 years, so the flexibility of self-employed works well for me. I work doing domestic jobs mostly. I like the fast pace and working with like-minded people, some who have become good friends. Since starting last November I spent a big chunk of the winter on a job clearing a steep bank alonsideg a couple of big warehouses, clearing trees off an asbestos roof; not the most ideal job for a novice climber but great to learn quickly!

There are still lots of firsts for me at the moment – first blocking down with a big saw, first reduction etc. Most of the time I am on groundie duties – dragging brash, chipping, lowering. I have also been involved in some woodland management work, which has been really interesting, as well as the best setting to spend your days out. There has been lots of variety, building dams in wetlands, lots of windrowing and other habitat creation, doing coronet cuts etc. I climb as much as I get the opportunity to. I never turn down climbing unless it’s obvious time is an issue. I still have lots to learn but working with people happy to share their knowledge has been so helpful. It is not easy when there is time pressure, but the last course I did, aerial tree rigging, was great for that, being able to practise without worrying about slowing the job down.

Being self-employed how have you found getting work? Have you got your work through word of mouth, friends, looking on social media? Any tips for those deciding on being self-employed/freelance?
I’ve been pretty lucky so far with finding enough work. I am working for a handful of tree surgeons. All but one I met through a friend, who got us into tree work. The other company I approached while out walking my dog. I think it’s good for both sides to meet in person when no one can vouch for you. It worked on this occasion – unlike my previous attempt, some you win, some you lose. This summer is quiet. Summers normally are, so you need to factor that in. It suits me since I’d planned on working part-time prior to starting.

You mentioned your partner deciding to get his chainsaw qualifications just before you. Do you work with him much on jobs? If so, how do you find working together?
We have worked together a few times, not that many, but I’m sure more opportunities will come along. He’s now gone back to flying, so is not doing so much tree work at the moment. We’re good working together. It’s definitely different dynamics when we do, there’s the odd disagreement(!), but we do work well together, probably because we have complete trust in each other through rock climbing, mountaineering and various other outdoor activities.

Any highlights since you started doing this work? What gives you job satisfaction?

Forestry Journal:

Any first is a highlight for me! I love it all, and can’t wait to get more experience in all areas. To get slick, get faster, and just do more of everything – there’s only so much you can learn from watching others on site or watching videos, nothing replaces practice.

What I enjoy most is when a job goes super smooth and is all done efficiently. When everyone’s doing their task and all in sync with one another. It’s that job well done satisfaction and good team work. Working with people I like and good banter is also a major part of it.

And any particular challenges?
Making sure I stay injury free – back, elbows, shoulders, and not get so physically tired that I can’t do the stuff I love to do in my spare time, like rock climbing. Also, I suffer from Raynaud’s [which causes decreased blood flow to the fingers], so keeping wet hands warm in the winter is tricky, but I am quite excited about getting a new saw with heated handles.

You said about trying to remain injury free – anything specific you do to try to help prevent injuries?
What I should be doing is a start of the day warmup, keep up with stretching/yoga, not lift anything too heavy etc, but I do remind myself to use a good lifting technique and deal with any niggles as they come up.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry have you had to overcome any particular obstacles since starting in this line of work – whether that be regarding the work itself, attitudes or things like PPE?
So far, so good! Not that I would take much notice as far as attitudes are concerned. It’s all been really positive and welcoming – within the industry and customers alike. I like to be left to get on with things and I’ll ask if I need help. So far that’s pretty much how things have worked out. There is no doubt in my mind women and men are different in the way we learn and approach things. I find that women don’t generally really blag their way through when something’s new. At least I don’t. I like to fully understand the how, and especially, what the dangers are before getting stuck in and feeling confident. I’m fairly tall so PPE’s not been a problem for me. Although probably not talked about much, my main obstacle is if I get a painful period. I worry I won’t be on it physically, or that my lower back pain will be an issue. Ibuprofen is my friend then! I probably worry more than I should, as I want to make sure I am working as hard as my team mates. The only time it’s been an issue was a three-day big beech removal, so heavy work, but apparently no one noticed! 

There continues to be a lack of people joining the arb industry – any suggestions on how to attract people, particularly women, to the industry? And tips once they have decided it is the career for them?

Forestry Journal:

Reaching women with an interest in the outdoors on social media would most likely help, getting the seed of an idea in. It had never crossed my mind as a possible career before, so letting people know this is possible. Since starting, two of my friends have considered going into tree work. One of which has just started as a trainee with a local company. So maybe word of mouth will help too as more women join the industry.

It helps to have a good level of fitness before starting. If not, it will definitely come with the job!

Any future plans at the moment?
To keep on learning, I’ve more NPTC courses yet to do, and to learn more about trees, ecosystems, woodlands etc.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Wish I’d thought of tree work sooner!