Here at Green Aspirations, we're all really committed to making sure that people - whoever they are - have access to nature. In the second of our Women of the Woods posts - a blog series to inspire and encourage women to explore wood-based activities - we meet Jill Swan, a carver of spoons and a manager of woodland. Here's what she had to say.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Jill Swan and I live in Canterbury, Kent, in the south east of England. I teach wooden spoon carving although I haven’t been able to do much whilst Covid is present. I’ve been teaching since 2010. Having studied sculpture and worked in the salvage industry I’m well versed in making things, and making use of things as well. I also manage my own small woodland which is a venue for my teaching as well as a great place to go and relax. It has its drawbacks from time to time, but mostly it’s an idyllic place and something I would be very hard pressed to relinquish should I ever have to.
How did you get into green woodworking and what motivated you to start?
There is a story as to how it all came about. About 15 years ago, I had a pigeon problem on the roof of a house I bought in Kent. There were 30 or 40 pigeons living up there, blocking up the drains and generally scratching on the roof keeping me awake in my attic bedroom. One even dropped an egg into my friend's hoodie whilst we were chatting on the doorstep! So, I spoke to a pest control man who said the only option was to shoot them and that it would cost £200. I thought I could probably do a better job than him, so I bought myself a gun for £60 and practised shooting for maybe six weeks in the garden and in the attic – which had a very long area to shoot in – and eventually I decided I was a good enough shot. I went outside and shot six of these pigeons on the first evening. The others swiftly decided to move on. I was so pleased with myself that I decided to continue target shooting in the form of field target, and joined a club of old men who spent their Sunday mornings shooting metal targets in a small wood.
After attending every Sunday for about a year, I realised that I was enjoying standing in the wood much more than I was enjoying the shooting and, after chatting to a friend, I decided to try and buy a small woodland. It became an obsession! I searched high and low, on auction sites, commercial sites, agricultural holdings, in small ads and even on postcards in farm shop windows. I looked at woods in Kent, Sussex and Scotland, and eventually I found a piece of woodland really quite close to my house. I mortgaged my house and bought it.
I had never owned any agricultural property before, so there was a long and very enjoyable voyage of discovery to learn about deciduous woods, ancient natural woodland, and how they are managed. I was advised by the forestry commission that it was all ‘just firewood’ – which incensed me somewhat! – and I was determined to look for some other value in this 27-acre wood￼ full of mature oak, beech and chestnut, hornbeam, holly and birch. To give me ideas, I went on a sustainable management course, a charcoal-making course, and a deer management course. I looked at glamping sites and even read management books. Then I found a book about whittling, a tiny book with projects for children. And it occurred to me that I could make something. So I flicked through the book and there was a simple wooden spoon, which I thought was very appealing. I’ve got a background in sculpture, so have tools for woodcarving and I made one that day from some birch. And that's where the obsession started.
What challenges have you faced as a woman working in the woods?
I have to say, I’ve not faced any challenges as a woman particularly, apart from the physical disadvantage of not being strong enough to move timber. I’ve been patronised, but I think it’s because I was new to the game, and some people try and take advantage of anyone. I’ve found my trusted lieutenants now, and it’s a joy to work with my team of friends on projects.
The biggest challenge I've faced in the woodland is the supply and security of equipment. My wood is not big enough to warrant spending thousands on a barn to store a small tractor, and leaving one out in the open is an invitation for it to be stolen. Strimming hundreds of meters of pathways takes a long time, and needs to be done at least twice a year, and I find it a real chore, and noisy. If you leave it too long, it becomes impossible, so it’s a constant battle. I prefer to scythe the brambles, and employ someone with a flail mower to reestablish the paths and flatten the tyre tracks when the tractor and forwarder have been in and taken that years wood out. I’m also very poor at form filling, so employ a management agent who is a great help and very reasonable.
Do you think being a woman gives you a different perspective at work?
My wood has been owned exclusively by women for over 70 years, and it’s been largely unmanaged during that time. I have bought it into management as advised by the forestry commission and have yet to see if that’s a good or bad thing. There are an awful lot of opinions on how best to manage a wood; each one is different, and all need a tailored approach. If I had my time again, I’d not touch any part of the wood at all. I regret all the management and tree removal we've done and I’ll not see the advantages in my lifetime. I don’t know if the diversity has changed, but I often can’t see anything but bramble and birch! I know trees last longer when they have been coppiced, and the motto, 'a wood that pays is a wood that stays', but a wood under 30 acres isn’t big enough to run a timber business. So, for my purposes, my management plan is about preserving the essence of the wood, cultivating a diverse wildlife habitat, and making a place for me to teach spoon carving that’s in keeping with the environment.
Many people comment on how my wood should be tidied up, but dead trees are the lifeblood of insect habitats. If it looks a mess, then I’m doing my job properly! My mother is probably my worst critic. At 94 she’s still a townie, and thinks I’m quite mad for spending all my time down there and not taking her to the theatre! Although when I had her with me and I found a dead badger in the gateway, she embraced the event and sang hymns as I buried it...
What’s the best thing about your job?
I guess my job is more spoon carving teacher than woodland manager, and the best thing is meeting people. I did travel up and down the country teaching before COVID-19, largely in the summer months, and enjoyed that very much. The whole thing about being outside and with a load of likeminded people is heaven to me. I demonstrate and sell at shows and love the camaraderie of the stallholders and the banter with the public. I've made some very good friends and have travelled as far as Israel to teach. Is doesn’t feel like work to be honest, more of an adventure. I’ve met a lot of woody people through the wood fairs and country shows, and attending them is a great recreational and networking resource. My hands are beginning to show signs of arthritis now at 60 this year, so my spoons are getting fewer and further between, but my thirst for knowledge is still there, and I’ve no intention of stopping teaching yet!
What advice would you give to other women who might be thinking about green woodworking as a career?
I with I’d started years earlier! Learn to sharpen and maintain your tools. Get a big van. Keep on making. Go on as many courses as you can, and ask questions. Don’t let anyone put you off. My 21 year old niece has a job with National Trust as a ranger and is learning forestry, chainsaw and tree climbing. She gave up fashion to pursue this way of life, and hasn’t looked back. I get a lot of women coming to my classes, and I’ve noticed women are more organic learners, the men want to know all the science. I’ve been blessed in my life to get my wood and have an occupation that doesn't feel like work.
If you're interested in honing your skills, check out our Axe Maidens volunteer group. We'll (hopefully) be starting a new project soon. You can find out more about Jill online at https://jillswan.com/, on Facebook at Jill Swan's Spoon Academy and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jillswan10/.