In the latest in an ongoing series shining a light on women in the arb sector, their experiences, and careers, sub-contractor Isobel ‘Izzy’ Watson shares her story. 

WHAT is your background?
I grew up in rural Lincolnshire on a self-sufficient small holding, owned and run by my parents. Looking after the animals and growing fruit and vegetables was a part of everyday life. As a result of this upbringing, I’d developed a love for the outdoors at a very young age.

While growing up, I managed to divide my time between school and acquiring new skills, which are now my present–day hobbies. Most of those hobbies derived from volunteering at a heavy horse charity known for rehabilitating and rehoming horses in need. Events were held to help fund money to cover the expenses, in which I took part in performing jousting, equestrian vaulting and fire breathing. 

Forestry Journal:

I was intent on studying music at university after my A–levels but instead decided I wanted to take some time to work, save and travel. Around 18 months into a retail job, I came across arboriculture through a close friend within the horse charity, who got me recreationally climbing trees. I decided to study Level 3 Forestry and Arboriculture for two years at Riseholme College, keeping my retail job throughout to fund the course.

Once I attained my tickets and qualifications, I went fully self-employed as a sub-contractor ground crew/secondary climber. 

Where are you based?

As I am a sub-contractor with very itchy feet, I don’t tend to stay in one place for too long. Although my main base will always be Lincolnshire, I am currently living and working in Dorset. 

What made you pursue a career in arboriculture?

I quite simply just fell into it. I knew I loved being active in the outdoors but as I had no prior knowledge of the industry, I wasn’t even aware such a job existed.

READ MORE: Women in arb: Margrethe Wheeler

Once I started learning about the skills and science behind arboriculture, it became a passion and I found the type of work matched my personality perfectly.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

This is what I find most interesting about my job: aside from the routine of preparing the vehicles and gear in the mornings, every single day is different (even more so being a sub-contractor working for multiple companies). My work covers all aspects of arboriculture, from dismantles to planting, crane work, pruning, forestry and even seed collecting thrown in.

Forestry Journal:

I believe it’s really important to practise each of these aspects to become a well–rounded arborist. Being a sub-contractor also provides me the freedom and flexibility to work abroad. Working in different countries with different trees, machines and people allows me to build up my skill set. 

What was your first experience in arboriculture?

I wouldn’t say my first couple of years were full of pleasant experiences. I found the attitude towards women in the industry was less than desirable, almost as if I lacked capabilities. Trying to get work with companies was tough due to needing two years’ experience for them to take you on. After lots of chasing, I found work as ground crew. It took me a long time to progress with climbing as I was kept on the ground for most of these two years – although in hindsight, that wasn’t a bad thing as it taught me early on how to be efficient on the ground and how to respect the ground crew as a climber.

What was the last job you worked on?

Dismantling ash trees that were infected with different stages of ash dieback, as part of a big National Trust project. Most of these trees were leaning towards roads or houses so were high priority for removal. Any trees that were well set back in the woodlands were staying as habitat poles. 

What is your proudest achievement in the industry?

This would have to be the work I undertook in Australia, where I worked for nearly a year. I had my first crane job which turned into an 11–week contract, where most of my days were spent climbing and removing 60 m eucalyptus trees in the mountains on one of the most iconic roads in Victoria, the Black Spur.

Forestry Journal:

This was a huge step for me as I’d never before climbed trees above 25 m and I had a lack of confidence when it came to spiking up trees. To go from very average climbing in the UK to craning out mountain ash using a Husqvarna 395 with a 36–inch bar was definitely a leap in my career. All of this work was carried out during Covid which ruined my plans for travelling across Australia but instead gave me amazing opportunities on this contract. Since this experience, I now have the confidence and aspirations to go to different countries and take any work in my stride.

What is the most important thing you have learned during your time in the industry?

Take every opportunity that is given to you and if they’re not offered, chase them. As a woman in the industry, I always felt I had to work twice as hard to try and prove I was as capable as my co-workers.

Forestry Journal:

However, following the initial years of working as ground crew, I avoided most climbs I was offered due to fear of being belittled for climbing too slowly, which had happened a few times. Over the years, with the help of patient people, I was taught that efficiency and speed comes with time. As long as the job was executed safely with everyone going home unscathed, it was a successful day.

What has your experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry been?

Other than the odd comment here and there, mostly by customers, overall it’s been a very positive experience. I find a lot of arborist retail companies go out of their way to include women in their range of gear, whether it be through sizes or colours. Also, everyone I’ve worked with since I’ve become a more competent climber has shown nothing but respect and always involved me as part of the team.

What can be done to encourage more women into the sector?

I do believe you need to be a certain type of person to do this job, whether you’re male or female. Attitudes are always changing, mostly for the better. I think it would be a good idea to teach about the different industries in schools, so that the next generations see it as normal for any gender to be part of any industry. Using social media as a platform for sharing experiences within the industry from a female point of view could also help to normalise the female presence in a male–dominated industry and hopefully inspire other women.  

How important is a good work-life balance when working in the industry?

So important. If you love your job, you never work a day in your life. As true as this is, tree work can be mentally tiring as well as physically. I find spending time doing things I enjoy outside of work allows me to switch off and have a chance at feeling refreshed for the next day of work. I like to swim and go bouldering.

Forestry Journal:

Although this is physically demanding, it works my mind in different ways, keeps otherwise unused muscles engaged and supports my work life by using similar skills.

What are the biggest challenges facing the sector at the moment in your view?

As much as I and everyone loves them, machines are slowly replacing people in the industry. As time goes on, the need for climbers and ground crew on the job decreases and could potentially put people out of work. 

Arboriculture is very popular on social media platforms such as Instagram. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because it’s such an unusual job. As mentioned before, I along with many other people didn’t even know it existed. It’s a job most people couldn’t comprehend doing and so they’re able to live vicariously through pictures and videos posted online.

What gives you job satisfaction about carrying out your role?

Forestry Journal:

I love being able to carry out any job from start to finish. Six years ago when I first started, I never would have thought I’d have been able to work on some of the trees I have. Looking back, I get so much satisfaction from seeing how far I’ve come with my skills and capabilities and what I’m able to achieve now.