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Spotlight: Helen McKay, Chief Forester for Scotland

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I’m quite old now but my brain thinks it is still about 20 – there are so many interesting things about forestry and so much that needs to be done to limit climate change, help people, and help nature.

Tell us about your career journey so far

My choice of studying Ecological Sciences happened during a talk at a university Open Day. Even though I had applied to do Chemistry, the description of Ecological Sciences made such immediate sense to me that at the end of the talk I asked what qualifications I would need to study it at university. It felt exciting and very interesting.

I worked for a summer at the Northern Research Station where I helped to assess the impact of flooding on the growth of trees. The senior scientist was very kind – he explained about the experiment and from time to time he came to ask about the results I was collecting. This made me think about a career in scientific research and growing trees in particular.

My career has not been all mapped out – I’ve generally taken opportunities as they’ve arisen but I’ve managed to combine a career with having a home life too which at times has had to take priority. I’ve applied for jobs that are interesting and worthwhile.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

I was not very confident at school but maths, chemistry and geography seemed quite easy – the facts stuck – and I loved doing experiments which seemed just like following baking recipes or Lego instructions. I liked sports and music too. It is strange now looking back but I didn’t do biology, probably because I didn’t like the idea of cutting up animals, even worms. To be honest I don’t remember skills such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork being ‘things’ then!

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

English is still important. I have to explain quite complicated things in clear easy language (but without dumbing it down) so the non-specialists can understand about forestry. Sometimes I have to write briefings for ministers in the Scottish Government. It is also important to be able to speak to students like yourselves about the important role forestry can play.

Biology, in particular ecology, been useful even though I only began studying ecological sciences at university. It has helped me to understand that almost everything is linked in big networks so I am used to thinking about all the effects that a change in policy or management practice might have.

I’ve found that maths and statistics have been useful throughout my career but in this job they are important skills so that I can check information about the all the benefits woodland can provide not just facts like the area of woodland in Scotland and how much timber is produced but also how much carbon is taken up and stored and how many endangered species make their homes in woodland.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

One of the things I really like is that it allows me to be very nosy and find out interesting things about forests, sawmills, and different useful products made out of Scottish wood. That’s quite selfish I know but I can also make changes that benefit lots of people, for example, I’m pushing hard just now to make a graduate forestry apprenticeship available in Scotland and I’m just starting work to find out how much water it takes to make different wood products; we know about carbon footprint but soon we’ll need to know about water footprint too.

What is a normal day in your role like?

At the moment because of Covid restrictions, I spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer screen, sending or answering emails, writing short documents or preparing talks I’ve been asked to give. We have had to hold all our meetings through platforms like Zoom. I manage to join a couple of webinars a week. These allow people working in forestry to keep up to date with new developments and findings, for example, I learned recently about the way red squirrels move around in forests and how they shift to neighbouring areas when trees are harvested. BUT in the next week or two, I hope to be able to meet people face to face in the office and I’m especially excited to be able to visit sites again, either woodlands, or sawmills, or examples of innovative timber houses that are very efficient to build and run.

And what does your job title mean?

Forestry is the science and art of growing trees for a purpose and the Chief Forester for Scotland does three main things: I make sure that all the foresters in Scotland are well trained and do their jobs properly; I give sound unbiased advice to Scottish Government ministers; and I explain how important the forestry sector is in terms of all the benefits that forests, woods and trees - including trees in town – can provide.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Something you can do INSIDE.

One way of limiting the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is to keep the carbon that is stored in the cell walls of trees for as long as possible. Can you find 5 things made of wood in your home (for example as I type this I can see cork table mats, a cardboard box, a wooden door, a wooden pencil, and a post-it note). Can you make a guess at how long the carbon that is stored in these products is likely to be locked up (e.g. 1 month, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years or maybe 100 years).

Recycling is a way of continuing to lock up carbon. Which of your 5 things might be recycled?

Using wood that is grown locally helps to cut down on the CO2 emitted during transport – this is another way to limit climate change. Which of your 5 things might be produced from forests in the UK and which might come from further away?

Something you can do OUTSIDE.

Here are ways of measuring a tree: TreeMeasuring2019.6_December.pdf (

If you want to find out more: Scottish Forestry - Starting out in forestry


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