Sue Holden

By Edward, Olivia | Geographical, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Sue Holden


Edward, Olivia, Geographical


Sue Holden,

43, is chief executive of the Woodland Trust, a charity that campaigns for the protection of ancient woodlands and restores and expands the area of native woodland in the UK. She talks to Olivia Edward about why she went off travel, why she's happy to work with the UK's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and why it's easier to cut down a 500-year-old tree than change the colour of a window on a 500-year-old house

Geography was my favourite subject at school. I had a very good teacher who offered to work with me outside of school hours so I could get into the University of Cambridge.

I think geography is a great subject because it's very general and can lead you down a whole load of different avenues. Geography gives you a good grounding as you go through life--not just to find the right career but to find those things that interest you and connect you to the world around you.

I started travelling while I was at university. Then, after four or five years working for Shell, I took voluntary redundancy and spent six months volunteering on an environmental project in Africa and then spent 18 months travelling around the world.

It got backpacking out of my system. I wasn't trying to overdo it, but I sort of did. I eventually began to question travel for travel's sake. I began to miss the sense of productivity you get from work, or having a home, a garden. Travel can be a very superficial thing, just being on a conveyor belt looking at things, not taking part in life, not really getting beneath the surface experience.

Even in my mid-30s, I was still thinking, 'I wonder what I'm going to do when I grow up.' But while I was working at the National Trust, a mentor asked me, 'What's your ideal job?' and I said chief executive of the Woodland Trust. So then I had one of those moments where I thought, 'Oh my god, I've got to go and get this now because I've said it's what I want.'

I'm a very practical sort of conservationist. We've had a lot of success building relationships with companies on the corporate social responsibility track: Ikea, Sainsbury's, BT, Disney Stores, E.ON. Yes, of course E.ON are the biggest polluter in the UK in terms of carbon emissions, but we're the ones using their product. So if we can work with them to incentivise people to think about energy efficiency, that's great. We find ways of working with businesses to mutual benefit, and because we're doing that, we're also able to influence them.

Before we can tell other countries not to cut down their forests, we need to get our own house in order. Ancient woodland now covers just two per cent of the UK. These are woodlands that are more than 400 years old and have never been ploughed. …

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