Ellen Humphrey may be the daughter of two chainsaw operators, but it wasn’t until later in life that she realised forestry might be a career for her. To mark International Women’s Day (March 8) here we tell her story.

LOOKING back, it was obvious that forestry was the career for Ellen Humphrey – even if it took her some time to realise it. The daughter of two chainsaw operators, key figures in a “gang” of cutters, she describes her move into the industry as a “happy accident” but one she never set out to make. 

Now a beat forester with Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Ellen initially studied countryside and environmental management at Harper Adams, only to grow dissatisfied with life behind a desk while on a graduate scheme. When a job with her current employer came up, she tossed her hat into the ring, fully expecting it to be thrown back, but was shocked to find it was the beginning of her journey back to where it all began. 

“It was kind of a happy accident, but in hindsight it was an obvious move,” she said.

“My parents both worked on chainsaws, but I never thought about going into forestry. I was interested in conservation and land management, but wasn’t thinking about trees.” 

When you consider her family history, this – by her own admission – is surprising (and more on that later). Her dad Martin and mum Louise were central figures in a group of cutters that covered the Brecon Beacons during the 1980s, meaning that chainsaws, freshly cut timber, and the woods have always been in Ellen’s blood. 

Forestry Journal: Martin and Louise Humphrey (now Louise Mees), Ellen’s parents.Martin and Louise Humphrey (now Louise Mees), Ellen’s parents. (Image: Supplied)

“My dad was running a chainsaw gang back in the day before there were harvesters and forwarders,” she said. “It was all done with Counties and winches. He managed a gang doing that until he started farming. My mum was in the gang before she got pregnant with my brother – when it became quite difficult!”

Beat forester is how Ellen describes her role, but officially it has the much catchier title of senior officer forest operations. A position she has held since the turn of the year (she was a forest operations manager at the time of her chat with Forestry Journal), her day-to-day job involves managing the harvesting side of things on NRW’s estate on the east of the Brecon Beacons. Which involves a lot of talk about standing timber, restocking, and species selection, and, of course, frequent contact with contractors. Outside of work, Ellen is the Wales regional secretary for the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF). 

“It’s very fulfilling doing something where you can see what you have done, and know you are achieving while working towards something worthwhile,” she said. “I studied countryside and environmental management at university – not a forestry degree – and I like the fact we are doing so many good things for nature, even if the reputation isn’t always great. A lot of people within that sector think ‘big, bad forestry’, but that’s just not the case.

“Who wouldn’t want to work in the Brecon Beacons, getting to walk about forestry sites? It’s the best job in the world – there are no two ways about it.

“Every coupe is so different, and that’s one of the things that makes my job so interesting. You are constantly learning, and I feel very lucky for that.” 

By the nature of her role, Ellen finds herself at the coalface at a time of renewal in forestry. What, then, does she see as the major issues ahead? 

“Climate change is a big one we need to keep looking at, and the survivability of trees,” she said. “That’s becoming increasingly challenging. It’s not something the industry is blind to by any stretch of the imagination. 

“That also goes hand-in-hand with the increased demand for timber. It’ll become more challenging to produce the timber in the first place. You just need a crystal ball, because all the pests and diseases that come with it are also a challenge.

“Foresters on the ground know what we need to do, but we can’t always get the species we want to diversify. Putting it into practice is so challenging.

“Another challenge is the skills shortage, and getting contractors to do these jobs. 

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“That’s everything from establishment to management, or even through to harvesting. They are all ageing. There are so many different challenges – the next 30 years will be interesting.” 

Interesting is one word for it, and foresters know they often spend their lives swimming against the tide of public opinion. It’s unlikely Sitka spruce is going to one day be hailed in the Welsh Senedd, but Ellen believes this doesn’t mean we should give up trying to sell the benefits of productive forestry to Joe Bloggs.   

“People may realise we import most of our timber, but they won’t know how much of it is grown here as well,” she said. “There are still negative connotations to productive conifer plantations. It’s trying to change that. We need to sell it and make it sexier, make it more appealing. Foresters are also not very good at engaging because there’s a fear that if we invite them in it will become harder, not easier.” 


One of the key takeaways from FJ’s chat with Ellen is just how different things are for her than they were for her mum. If women in forestry is still a bit of an eyebrow-raising prospect for some, then consider what it must have been like 33 years ago. 

“She was one of the few women on the chainsaws at the time,” Ellen said. “She’s now an archaeologist. Back in the day, the men just laughed. My mum is quite short. But she got fitter and better at it and was matching up with them in the end. She does think it has changed a lot.

“They were all cowboys back in the day. My mum and dad included. She does have some stories, but most of them are not printable.

“They are definitely both proud of what I do, but because I’m in the public sector side, my dad always saw them as the ones who set the rules, so there’s a bit of conflict there!” 

At a time when forestry is wrestling with its skills shortages and an ageing workforce, it’s telling that even Ellen – raised by two people with oil-stained fingernails – didn’t initially consider the sector as a career for her because it is “too niche”. If the industry is to thrive, she believes this barrier has to be broken down. 

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“Look at me, I grew up in a household with two forestry contractors, but I never thought about it as being a career because it is so niche, and I discounted myself,” she said. “I was just not aware of the different career opportunities in forestry. 

“But it is so varied and so many different people doing so many amazing things. There is something for everyone in the sector.” 

While her mum faced her own challenges in a male-dominated industry – and by all accounts overcame them with some gusto – Ellen’s experiences are best described as “varied”. Yes, awkward conversations still exist, and prejudices remain, but the sight of a female forester on site is unlikely to pop up on a BBC news alert. 

“Being a woman can be an advantage,” she said. “It changes the dynamic of conversations on site sometimes. Things can get tense, when there’s a woman on site, that can lower the temperature. That’s my impression of it.

“But I have had other contractors who just can’t look me in the eye, and will always talk to my site supervisor. I think that’s fine if that’s what makes them comfortable. 

“I don’t often think about it. I may suddenly realise I am the only woman on site, but it doesn’t always feel like a thing – and that’s a positive. 

“There are so many fantastic women in forestry.”