Égalité, Fraternité, Liberté – for Scotland’s trees

When she’s not helping to clear 100 hectares of Wester Ross from the invasive species rhododendron ponticum, Isabelle Kerjose is a community councillor in Applecross and a teacher of yoga.

How did you learn to be a chainsaw cutter?

I am originally from France and came to live in Applecross with my partner. I was a chef for many years, then, when my daughter went to boarding school, I wanted to try something different and challenge myself a bit. I have always been an outdoors person. In fact, sometimes it was hard working under the fake lights in a kitchen when it was a beautiful day outside. Why come and live in a place like the Highlands unless you can enjoy the view? The opportunity came up to help build new footpaths. It was hard, physical work. I worried what they would think of me – a woman and almost 50, but I was good at it and enjoyed it. I learned to use a chainsaw so I could cut logs across the path. Then the job came up to clear rhododendrons over on Ben Damph Estate. It has been overgrown by the invasive species for the last 100 years, drowning out all the other wildlife, and they needed help to clear 100 hectares.

What is it like working outside all day in all weathers?

We set off at 6.15am and don’t return home until 5.30pm. We work in all weathers – snow, rain, wind. It is bloody hard work but I do so enjoy being outside in the forest and it has given me a lot more confi dence with my chainsaw. You do think, when you are eating your sandwich in the rain, ‘what am I doing here?’ But it’s better than only moving between the cooker and the sink all day. The views that open up as you clear the rhododendrons are spectacular. You can see out to the Torridon Hills, Ben Alligin and Liatach. I spent a whole winter winkle-picking in Applecross once and that was the same – the views out to sea were wonderful.

Do you ever get exhausted?

Working outside all day has made me fit. I use dto smoke but gave up eight years ago. I think I am fitter now than I’ve ever been. Also I lived in an ashram in India for six months and learned yoga. It was life-changing. I still teach every week. It makes you strong and the breathing certainly helps.

What do other people think of you clearing rhododendrons?

I think that they understand that it needs to be done. If you live in a place like Applecross you have to be adaptable about the kind of jobs you do and take opportunities where they come up. Everyone does lots of different jobs so they are not really bothered. My partner is a musician in a band, the Coast Road Truckers, as well as helping set up broadband in the area. I am a community councillor. We have a strong community in Applecross and we’ve achieved a lot. We have our own petrol pump and we’re also hoping to set up a hydro.

How hard is clearing rhododendrons?

When you hit a wall of difficult rhododendrons it can be incredibly frustrating. It is like a puzzle. I used to work with stained glass and it is a bit like that. You have to approach it like a jigsaw puzzle. It can be a dangerous job. You have to think hard and be careful. It is very much about team work. We help each other.

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

Rhododendrons drown out other trees and the mammals and birds that come with them. Once they are cleared, the native wildlife can return. Often you find trees – rowan, birch, willow – struggling to survive inside the rhododendron infestation. There is something lovely about freeing a tree. Even though it is annoying to have to chainsaw around it, you know that now a tree has a chance to thrive.

(This feature was originally published in 2015)