When an illegal logging protest made Kath McNulty realise that forestry was actually for her, little did she know she would one day be overseeing one of the biggest transformations ever seen at Snowdonia’s Gwydir Forest. 

AS far as origin stories go, Kath McNulty’s is a good one.

It was the early 1990s, and the world was changing. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Bill Clinton had entered the Oval Office.

There Kath was, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and having not long moved to the UK from her native Switzerland, when she began to campaign against illegal logging from tropical countries. Little did she know this would be the start of a journey from forestry novice to being responsible for some of the biggest shifts in woodland management the country has seen for generations. 

“One day at one of the offices we had occupied, the CEO of the importer said to us that he didn’t want to be breaking the law and importing illegal mahogany but had no idea,” she recalls. “He asked if we could come and look at the information and tell us what they could do. He showed me the management plan and I realised I couldn’t tell him and didn’t know. 

“That’s when I decided to do a degree in forestry at Bangor University. I hadn’t really considered it before.” 

“I went sailing for six years”

Forestry Journal: Kath McNulty took us on a tour of Gwydir Forest Park Kath McNulty took us on a tour of Gwydir Forest Park (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

The rest, as they say, is history. After completing her studies, Kath – now a team leader of forest operations with Natural Resource Wales (NRW) – spent much of the next decade at the Forestry Commission, with work including community engagement and dealing with PAWS restoration. 

But she is arguably best known for a five-year stint as national manager for Wales at Confor, the industry body. While much of her focus was on trying to get better arrangements for timber transportation – “Scotland was way ahead of the game” – other passion projects saw her bidding to stop forestry from being swallowed up by NRW when it was formed to replace the Forestry Commission Wales and the Environment Agency in Wales in 2013. With a smile, she admits: “I lost.” 

She adds: “I still think the forestry estate should be separate. Everything else in NRW is regulation, so we end up with NRW regulating NRW.” 

A career break later followed when Kath sailed around the world – down the west coast of Europe and Africa, and eventually on to South America, the Falkland Islands, and finally New Zealand. For a forester, it was heaven. 

“I spent a lot of time looking at some stunning trees,” she remembers. Any favourites? “Monkey puzzles in their native habitat. A forest of monkey puzzles on a volcano was amazing. The downside is that every country we went to had disease affecting the tree population. We aren’t the only country that is suffering.” 

Eventually, the call from the woods sounded once again and Kath found herself back in Wales and working for NRW, first as a specialist advisor for forest planning, and now in her current team leader role, which she began in 2022. 

It’s this position that took Forestry Journal down to Snowdonia’s Gwydir Forest and the stunning village of Betws-y-Coed to meet her one late-July afternoon. 

“Squirrel tastes like s***” 

Forestry Journal: Gwydir if a popular spot for tourists Gwydir if a popular spot for tourists (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

The striking blue of the River Llugwy provides the perfect backdrop as Kath leads FJ into Gwydir.

Walking along an elevated platform (made from timber, of course), impressive-looking Douglas fir tower overhead and wouldn’t be out place in their native home. And this is a good place to start. 

In her role, Kath is leading NRW’s efforts to remove and replace conifers from its estate with native broadleaves. For a country that has consistently planted more of the latter than the former (at least in recent times), it’s telling that very little of its broadleaf estate is managed or owned by the Welsh Government, which oversees around two thirds of Wales’ conifer woodlands. But change is afoot, with the country having a commitment to restoring ancient woodlands (such as Gwydir) – albeit the realities of making it so are far more difficult than on paper. 

“The issue here is the massive Douglas fir we have are starting to go over,” says Kath. “That’s one of the discussions we are having with the team. How do we sell one? How many people are left who can actually fell that? Not that many, certainly in Wales. 

“If you go to an arborist, they’ll charge you £600 per tree for it. Douglas fir is potentially very valuable if you can find the right sawmill to deal with it. 

“As the Douglas go, we are looking at broadleaves coming in. 

“At the moment we do very little broadleaf management in Wales on the public estate. What I would like us to get to, and I think I have enough years left, is for us to start managing broadleaves. It will probably be a mix.

Forestry Journal: If things go according to plan, Gwydir will eventually be made up of predominantly broadleaved species If things go according to plan, Gwydir will eventually be made up of predominantly broadleaved species (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

“For us, restored means 51 per cent broadleaves, which we will be happy with. But that can still be a productive site.” 

So far, that all sounds fairly reasonable. But when much of Wales’ forestry business has been geared towards softwoods – not to mention the fact the UK continues to import around 80 per cent of its timber – Kath knows how important it will be to ensure the future Gwydir is properly managed. This, of course, leads us on to grey squirrel control (which, as any forester will attest to, is one of the biggest challenges in growing principally broadleaf woodlands). 

“We need to think about the future,” she says. “If we don’t manage our broadleaves, where is the timber going to come from? Demand for timber is, rightly, increasing. 

“When you look at the stats, the demand for timber is going to go up and up and up. We import 80 per cent of it, and we need to grow more of it ourselves. We do need to start managing broadleaves.”

This raises the question: who needs to be convinced about broadleaves? “Lots of people. That’s the problem in forestry. The problem is rarely just one thing. If it were, we’d have solved it. 

Forestry Journal: Gwydir features stunning fir trees Gwydir features stunning fir trees (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

“Number one, we need to have the squirrel contraceptive working. We need to manage squirrels if we are going to grow quality broadleaves. Ash is gone, pretty much. So that’s what we need. 

“To get that, we need to continue the funding that all the governments have been putting in. The contraceptive on its own won’t work, we need people trained up and doing it. Every day I am seeing squirrel damage, so we need to manage it. And squirrel tastes like s***.” 

“Our big challenge is getting steep sites felled”

Forestry Journal:

One of the ironies of Gwydir is that its stunning Doug firs were planted by the Forestry Commission 70 years ago to replace oak woodland that had been felled for timber. 

Now, other challenges persist. Kath and her team of nine have a remit covering around 1,000 hectares of woodland, much of which is widely used for recreational purposes. As well as removing softwoods, many of its species have suffered the ill effects of disease. Phytophthora ramorum is a consistent problem, and Kath was on the cusp of finalising plans to fell larch that had been infected (with the work confirmed shortly after FJ’s visit). 

Other species that will be removed include Sitka spruce and Lawson cypress. 

“What we are doing gradually is thinning out, and higher up you’ll see we are doing strip felling.

Because we want broadleaves to come back, we are finding it easier to do these strip fellings. That can take around 30 years.” 

Forestry Journal: The steepness of Gwydir's terrain is providing a challenge The steepness of Gwydir's terrain is providing a challenge (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

The steepness of Gwydir’s terrain is also providing a challenge. Taking FJ higher into the woods, Kath shows us two parallel parts of the forest. One has been felled, another is next in line. The earlier job required hand cutting and clearance via skyline, but finding contractors to do the job isn’t as easy as you’d think. 

“For some reason, you have a choice of harvesters and forwarders. No problem. But skylines and skidders are not so common. There are t-winches as well, but all they are doing is holding the harvester. 

“Our big challenges really are getting some of our steeper sites worked. We are looking at putting together a progressive contract [better known as a long-term contract] to deal with those, particularly when it comes to our thinnings, and second thinning,; with a view of managing the whole of this forest under continuous-cover forestry.” 

For anyone managing woodland, there is one obvious problem to overcome – namely, the general public, and forest visitors’ liberal approach to following signage and advice. 

“I actually enjoy that aspect of things,” Kath says. “I spend most of my weekend doing something in the forest, like mountain biking. 

“Signage doesn’t work. People get sign blindness.” 

Forestry Journal: Signs of recent felling can be found all around Gwydir Signs of recent felling can be found all around Gwydir (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

The next stop on our tour is the last – and it feels pretty well chosen. As the tree cover breaks, Kath gestures down towards the A5 and a pocket of erstwhile larch, which had been infected by P. ramorum. Around a decade on from the work, the beginnings of a broadleaf woodland can just about be spotted from our vantage point. 

“We have a good seed source there and I am confident that site will become a nice broadleaf woodland in not too long at all. That’s what I am happy with. 

“We are encouraging broadleaves to come in. So far, we haven’t done any planting, they are just self seeding, and I am really encouraged by that.”