Imagine a job where you get to spend your days out in the forest helping visitors to enjoy and engage with nature, where your co-worker is a barn owl, and every day is an adventure as you discover the best kept secrets of the forest. That’s a day in the life of a Forest Ranger…
Welcome to the world of Gerry O’Brien, Forest Ranger for the Forest Holiday’s Forest of Dean site in Gloucestershire.
Daily tasks include looking after The Professor, a captive-bred barn owl, escorting visitors on twilight and night vision wildlife walks, blogging about his work, teaching bush skills and inspiring a new generation of explorers, young and old.
Gerry grew up enjoying the countryside in rural Ireland, before a career in the military, which equipped him with many of the essential skills of a forest ranger.
“I believe passionately that increased access to our surroundings, as well as awareness and understanding of our environment, enriches us all.
“I enjoy igniting a spark in the enquiring mind of a Young Explorer, equipping people with genuinely useful bush skills and increasing awareness of the forest wildlife and ecology around us, during our ranger-led sessions.
“I especially enjoy leading Night Vision walks around the forest and hearing our customers say that it’s a completely new and exhilarating experience for them.”
Anyone else got job envy? This is not to suggest for a minute that being a Forest Ranger isn’t hard work. Gerry works long days, with the evening nature walks finishing around 23:00, and anyone who has ever worked with the general public knows that it requires patience and diplomacy.
Meet the Guests
But Gerry is clearly passionate about his work and so I asked him what he loves most about the role.
“It’s hard to give just one answer as there are many aspects of the job that I enjoy. I’ve had some amazing wildlife encounters and experiences and I feel like I’m making a positive difference when I engage with an audience.
“Perhaps the aspect of my role that I enjoy most is the interaction with guests. Since, I’ve started working with Forest Holidays, I’ve met so many nice people.
“I really have met some interesting people with some great stories to tell. I’ve chatted with guests from a range of professional backgrounds such as fire-fighters, soldiers, authors, television producers & pilots. I love getting an insight into their professions but more so, I just like getting to know people.
“For a long time, I thought it was all about the experiences that you have in life, it took me a while to realise that the experiences we have are enhanced by the people we meet along the way.”
One of the things that makes the Forest of Dean a bit special is the chance to see wild boar in the forest. Wild Boar are native to the UK, but were hunted to extinction around 300 years ago.
In some areas of the UK escaped domesticated wild boar have re-established small communities, and the largest breeding population is in the Forest of Dean. But as Gerry explained, wild boar are not always popular with local communities.
At low densities, feral boar are likely to have a positive impact on the ecology of the forest. Small amounts of rooting break up stable eco-systems and habitats allowing a greater diversity of plants to thrive, and support a greater range of insects.
But where populations become too large, repeated rooting of the same areas can slow re-colonisation leaving bare mud behind. The boar can also cause damage to amenity grassland, such as sports pitches and lawns, and can be threatening if cornered by a dog or human, particularly when they have young.
But like me, Gerry admits to being a bit of a fan of the wild boar, and enjoys teaching visitors about their role in the forest.
“Seeing wild boar for the first time here in the Forest of Dean was quite special for me. It was certainly a unique experience for some of our recent guests who had unexpected extra lodgers, when a female boar gave birth to six little piglets underneath their cabin!
“After a couple of days of staff monitoring the situation and safeguarding the welfare of all, our mummy boar has now happily relocated her family into the wider forest.“
Meet The Prof
Then there is the partnership with The Professor (known affectionately as The Prof), he lives and works with Gerry on the Forest Holidays site and is unusually tame and friendly.
As a captive-bred barn owl it’s not possible for The Prof to be released into the wild, but together they work hard to raise awareness about these wonderful creatures and how we can protect them for generations to come.
“First off, I feel very privileged to have such a wonderful companion. It’s been a great experience for me looking after him and we’ve shared quite a few adventures together!
“He’s got a great temperament and I have learned so much about owls during my time with him. I’ve brought him with me to schools, care homes, Women’s Institute talks, country fairs and home education groups. We’ve walked endless miles together, normally with him perched snugly on my shoulder.
“Everywhere, that we’ve been, I have seen people light up when they see him. He draws people out, they open up, start chatting and within moments are smitten with him, as he snuggles into them and poses for photographs. He brings out the best in everyone and in turn gives them a memorable experience and a cute owl selfie to savour!
“Additionally, what better way is there to educate & enthuse about owls than to see one close up and to have the chance to hold one too. You cannot replicate that and it’s a memory that can stick with someone for a long time.”
A Love of the Natural World
When he’s not working with The Prof, Gerry is pursuing his love of the natural environment through an Open University degree in environmental sciences. I asked him what achievement he would most like to make during his time as Forest Ranger?
“Hmmm there’s a few (he ponders)… If I had to pick one it would be to fan the flames of enthusiasm for our natural world.
“I have had some amazing wildlife experiences that have inspired me and if in turn I can enthuse, educate and inspire, even one individual, then that can have a positive ripple effect in one form or another.
“If through, positive enthusiasm, I can help someone to become more informed, make conscious environmental choices and enjoy and appreciate wildlife then I will have achieved something special.”
I was lucky enough to meet Gerry on a Forest Foraging Day in autumn, which also happens to be this forest ranger’s favourite season.
“Autumn is perhaps my favourite season. I love the changing hues of the forest and the vibrant colours on display. I love the fresh crisp mornings and the sharp clear nights and I love the sights and sounds of the forest at this time of year.
“Woodland animals increase their activity levels, so magical wildlife encounters become more commonplace and we also see an abundance of nature’s harvest with fruits, nuts and berries on display.
“In autumn, we can admire the complexity and beauty of the natural world perhaps more so than at any other time of the year and this certainly makes the approaching winter a whole lot easier to take.”
Each of the Forest Holidays sites around the UK has a Forest Ranger on site to act as experts of the forest, working with guests and the local community, so I asked Gerry how the role of Forest Ranger adds value to the experience of families and other holiday-makers.
“I think having a ‘go to’ person such as an onsite ranger is invaluable. A ranger can bring the woods alive for guests by describing the range of wildlife that resides in the forest and where to spot it.
“A ranger can help guests engage with their surroundings around them by suggesting places to go and activities to do. A ranger is the point of contact for most wildlife or activity enquiries during a guests stay.
“Additionally, a ranger can create memorable experiences for guests by providing opportunities to see wildlife or by creating fun interactive experiences for the whole family.”
If you’d like to find out more about Gerry’s work as a Forest Ranger you can find him on Facebook, twitter and the Forest Holidays Blog.
I met Gerry at the Forest Holidays Forest of Dean site. Forest Holidays offer luxury woodland cabin escapes at nine locations around the UK, including the Forest of Dean.