Despite growing up in a farming household, Hannah Munro always wanted to go down a different path to that of her dad. Then she discovered forestry and hasn’t looked back since. Here she tells us more about working on Fife’s Balcaskie Estate.

THE thing about woodland management is that often it needs a forester’s eye to really appreciate a day of blood, sweat, and, sometimes, tears. When you finally step away from the chainsaw and take it all in, those who love trees and timber will have no problem pointing out the progress made, even if Joe Bloggs might be none the wiser.

For Hannah Munro, that’s a feeling that won’t grow old any time soon. While she might be a relative novice in the industry – having started on Fife’s Balcaskie Estate just at the turn of the year – she’s already come to appreciate that fine attention to detail that separates foresters from just about any other rural role.

“When you walk into the woodland and you first see it, then see the difference after you’ve done the work is amazing,” the rural estates student said. “We’ve done a few of the shelter belts and it can be night and day.

“We were in one of the shelter belts this morning and I did a patch of trees and even after just a few hours I stood back and thought to myself: ‘This is really quite a big difference’. That’s what I enjoy.

“Not many people on the estate see the difference, but when I look at it I can be like: ‘Wow’. It’s all neat and tidy. I enjoy seeing the changes we can make.”

Forestry Journal: Hannah’s dog Finn.Hannah’s dog Finn. (Image: Supplied)

And over time there are sure to be many changes on Balcaskie. Situated on the outskirts of St Monans (one of the many picturesque fishing villages dotted along Fife’s East Neuk), the 2,000-hectare site is currently undergoing something of a forestry revival, with a relatively new dedicated department responsible for managing its woodlands.

Hannah is one of two in the team – forest manager Reuben Ellicot the other – and they’re tasked with overseeing the planting of new woodlands, the extraction of timber from both soft and hardwood settings, and the churning out of enough firewood to keep the 500-year-old house toasty and warm. To some, that might sound like a daunting challenge when still wet behind the ears, but Hannah is taking it in her stride.

“I started in the middle of January, and it’s the best decision I have ever made,” Hannah, who turns 20 this month, said. “Just to get out and go and work. I am a much more practical and hands-on, learning-while-I-work type of person.

“The forestry department is quite a new thing. Even the estate manager is still getting to grips with how it works. It is a work in progress. For the amount of work we do, two people is quite a nice number. You don’t have to worry about too many other people. Some of the woodlands we work in aren’t that big, and if we had more people we wouldn’t be able to fell because we’d be felling on top of each other.

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

“We’re both quite young, so we bounce off each other and are very motivated to help each other and have the same drive.”

The estate contains pockets of conifers (mainly larch and Scots pine) and broadleaves. While sycamores are found frequently throughout, there’s a push to replace them with oaks, willows and cherries. This is something Hannah will play a key part in when she takes on a fresh challenge of designing her first woodland.

“One of the projects I have to do is make my own woodland,” she said. “I have to do the site descriptions, soil tests, and this is going to be all me. I am excited to do that.

“That’s when everything I have learned will be put into practice. I’ll be ordering all the trees and planting them. Any aftercare that has to be done will be done by me. If it fails, it’s all on my shoulders. But positively, if it goes well, then that’s on me.”

She added: “I’ve learned how a forester works. I’ve come into this from three and a half years of college, not knowing how a proper workplace works. This is my first full-time job. I am always picking up bits from other people, like how you manage a department or all the work that goes into it.

“I have been working on the farm on the estate as well. 

“There were a couple of months where we didn’t have a forestry manager, and I was in the gardens for a wee bit. 

“I don’t mind that, but forestry is what I want to do. Farming is my second passion, and they let me do that for a couple of days a week just to get a break from the garden!”

Even now, Hannah has discovered some of the challenges that exist in managing a woodland.

Getting from A to B is no problem for the team (they have a Can-Am ATV), but given the complexities of the site, there are locations where it just isn’t possible to extract timber because doing so would mean cutting down a whole fence; something, Hannah says, other members of the estate team would not be best pleased about.

When it is possible, a winch is used to move the wood to where a timber trailer can collect it, but, when it isn’t, the only option is to stack the logs “as neatly as possible”. 

As for the wood that can be extracted? “When it is possible, it goes to firewood for the house.

“During the winter months, all the wood gets put into a shed and, on a rainy day, we will go up and just split for the whole day. It then goes into tie boxes and will dry in the shed for a year, a year and a half. Doing it in house, the wood is all the right size and just how the house needs it.”
As for the daily grind, Hannah uses a Stihl MS 231, which, she admits, saw her make the change from Husqvarna.

Forestry Journal: Trusty Stihl MS 231 in hand.Trusty Stihl MS 231 in hand. (Image: Supplied)

“At college I was always using Husqvarna and I was dead set that I was always going to,” she said.

“Then I came to this estate and it was all Stihl, and now I have switched. The saw I use is the saw I always use. I am making sure it’s all clean and maintained properly.

“I love after a day’s work coming back and sharpening it to get it ready for the next day.”

Hannah came to the estate after a three-year stint at the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Scottish School of Forestry (although she continues to work on her studies alongside her job). From just north of Inverness, she had no background in forestry, instead growing up in a farming household. But she knew from quite early on that she wanted to go down a different path to that of her dad.

Unsurprisingly, school and theoretical learning was never for her, and it was only when she attended a UHI open day and met Neil Cleland that forestry became a viable option. She hasn’t looked back since.

But that’s not to say it hasn’t been without its challenges. COVID was a tough one, forcing someone who wants to always be hands-on to days spent on Zoom, and so was entering a male-dominated industry.

“When I first started college, I was the only girl in my class,” she said. “So, I was kind of intimidated at first, but knew I was 100-per-cent capable of doing the work.

“There were circumstances where I was lifting a log and a guy would come and offer to help me lift it.

“On the estate, there are just two girls, including me. Another is up on the farm.

“There are simple things people maybe don’t think about. Like getting chainsaw trousers or gloves that fitted me. I couldn’t. 

“That can be slightly infuriating because you want clothes to fit so you can work to a good standard.

“But overall it has been welcoming.”

Such has been Hannah’s progress in a short space of time that in March she was named Trees and Timber Learner of the Year at Lantra Scotland’s ALBAS (Awards for Land-based and Aquaculture Skills), which has only made her feel “more empowered” to continue to carry the baton for women in forestry.

What of the future, then, for one of forestry’s brightest young sparks? Hannah knows several challenges will take some overcoming.

“Ash dieback is quite a big issue, especially on the estate,” she said. “We are cutting down all the ash. They get so weak and brittle.”

Forestry Journal: The then teenager was named 2023’s Trees and Timber Learner of the Year at the ALBAS.The then teenager was named 2023’s Trees and Timber Learner of the Year at the ALBAS. (Image: Supplied)

Then there’s talk of battery chainsaws.

“For us, when we move to it, it’s going to be a big issue. Our shed is on the estate but all the woodlands are dotted around. How is that going to work when we need to charge up the batteries?

"How much run-time are we going to get?

“I am looking forward to seeing how it evolves and changes.”

READ MORE: Women in Forestry: Forestry and Land Scotland's Joanne MacLean

But sitting here (here being over a  Zoom call), less than a year into her forestry career, and she knows she picked the path that was right for her. Still unconvinced? Then let’s end on how her friends (who all went down the university path) react to Hannah’s days in the woods.

“All my friends are very different. They all went to uni and are now doing degrees. And I’ll be like: ‘I’ve been outside all day, cutting trees’. 

“They are more happy that I have found something I like. They know how hard I found high school and know this is right for me.”