THE cutting of the first tree in the commercial part of the community-owned Rhubodach forest earlier this month was the final act in a decidedly hectic week for Emma Cooper.
Nine days previously she had laid down her pen for the last time as director of Adventure Unlimited, a charity based in Brighton which provides adventure activities for young people and training schemes for adults. Then, over the weekend, she and her partner Tim moved five hundred miles north to Bute, and Emma began work as the new Bute Forest manager on the Monday morning.
“I was with Adventure Unlimited for nearly four years,” she told us.
“We offered climbing, kayaking, bushcraft and other primarily outdoor activities, using public activity areas and our own woodland activity site called Brook Farm.
“Our own site was all naturally built and in keeping with the environment, using wood from the woodland around us.
“But my background is in charity management – I have a degree in applied psychology and a Masters in public administration, in particular in public and voluntary sector management, while I also have an NVQ in youth work.
“My work was more about facilitating other people to lead those kinds of outdoor activities – I actually don’t like climbing myself!”
Emma had never actually been to Bute before she was offered the forest manager’s position – her interview was conducted via Skype, in view of the considerable distance between Brighton and Bute. So what was it that appealed about the prospect of moving to the island?
“I spent last New Year on Arran,” she revealed, “and I was looking for a move to a place like this.
“But it was the community involvement side of things which really appealed to me. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve initiated the involvement of other beneficiaries in community projects like this, but here you started off with the involvement of lots of people.
“I’m aware of the difficulties the project has been through since the start, but the challenge for me is to keep the community interested without exhausting them.
“The people who have put the most time into the forest, Jim Mitchell and Richard Matts [Bute Forest Ltd directors] in particular, have put in so much effort, but you can’t expect everybody to get involved to that level.
“And while I do have some big plans, an important part of my role will be to get the small things going, like persuading a family just to go up to the forest a couple of times a week to walk or cycle.
“Longer term I’ll be starting training schemes in woodland management and working with local schools, while we’ve just started working on volunteer involvement in the forest, because we really need people to help us get things started up there.”
Emma is also keen to stress that while Adventure Unlimited was a charity, and received most of its income from grants, when she started working for the organisation, by the time she left it was generating 60 per cent of its income through the sale of services to those who could afford to pay for them.
“The strategy I have left them with should continue to increase this significantly over the next couple of years,” she said.
“I think this was important to Jim [Mitchell] and the others when I was being interviewed, because they do not want to see the forest being reliant upon grants.”
And what of her first impressions of Bute? “Everybody has been really friendly and supportive,” she added.
“It’s been really good - I’m really excited about the amount of good things that I hear are happening on the island, and the amount of activities and groups that are going on here - I hear about new ones every hour.”
Emma plans to keep the community updated with what’s going on in the forest with a monthly column in The Buteman, beginning in January – so keep an eye out for all the latest news.