Olive Leavy has returned to her farming roots and forestry in the midlands after spending a decade working for one of the medical and science world’s most respected journals.
WESTMEATH woman Olive Leavy, who grew up on a dairy farm just outside Kinnegad, has worked with the some of the foremost scientific and medical thinkers of modern times.
The list includes Dr Anthony Fauci, the doctor and immunologist who is chief medical advisor to US President Joe Biden, and director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
She’s also collaborated with the acclaimed Trinity College Dublin immunology professors Kingston Mills and Luke O’Neill, who have become frontline communicators during Ireland’s battle against Covid-19.
Having spent much of her professional career figuring out exactly how the immune system works in order to identify ways of treating disease, Olive is now channelling her problem-solving acumen into an entirely different field — the Irish forestry sector.
After 11 years based in London where she led the team on the most prestigious global journals for immunology –Nature Reviews Immunology – she says she wanted “a change of pace”.
Her father Dermot, a well-known figure in IFA circles, had retired from dairying and had started to plant some woodlands over the years. On a trip home in 2016, Olive says she “rediscovered” her love of the land.
“Dad had been leasing the land for quite a while and I’d been over and back, but one day I went up to the forest and I got the biggest shock.
“I had no idea what we had there, the out-farm is a little away from the house so I’d never gone up to there all the time I’d been away.
“I didn’t expect this beautiful forest to be there. I was completely lost, I couldn’t figure out what way I was going, even though I would have known those fields like the back of my hand as a child.
“It was the sheer simplicity of woodlands, the slower pace, it was a huge draw.”
Olive moved home that year and, within a matter of months, took over the management of the family’s 20ha plantation which is a mix of Norway Spruce, sycamore, ash, beech and some birch.
She also trained as a chainsaw operator to thin and fell the woodlands. This led her to setting up a firewood business.
The rest of the Leavys’ extensive holding is leased out.
“Part of the reason I fell in love with forestry is because it’s the just the best place for clearing your head. You can go up there anytime you’re feeling a little anxious about something and the trees have this incredible way making you slow down, slow your breathing.
“There is a stability in forestry compared to other agricultural sectors because the trees are working away at their own pace.
“And there’s a whole circle of life in there. In spring, under the sycamores it is covered in dandelions, it’s like a yellow carpet. The primroses and bluebells bloom during springtime too and a canopy closes over with the colours of autumn.
“I did a chainsaw course, it took about a year to become proficient and the following summer I set up my firewood business. I thin my hardwoods and I’ve got a firewood processor which was a big investment. I dry the timber through the processor and finish drying in the shed.
“It’s a small business for now, but I’ve built up a really nice set of customers in Westmeath, Dublin and Longford. They are happy with the product.
“Before I started I had never held a chainsaw so it was very entertaining because I was with a group of guys and I really didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t realise you needed to put chain oil in and I put the chain on backwards once too,” she laughed.
While there aren’t many female chainsaw operators in traditional forestry, Olive has been “pleasantly surprised” at how people have responded, particularly her colleagues in the Westmeath Farm Forestry Group.
“The forestry group are the most non-judgemental, progressive people. It wasn’t an issue at all.”
She says forestry has brought “flexibility” back into her working life.
“I choose the days I need to go up, it’s not like with animals that have to be fed and managed everyday. The trees are working away themselves. That gave huge flexibility to get the business up and running.”
As she prepares to start thinning her conifers, Olives says she intends to continue managing her woodlands under continuous cover forestry rather than working towards clearfell.
“It will be a small and regular income, but that income will grow as the trees get bigger and every couple of years we will do thinnings out of it.
“I love the idea of there always being woodlands here and trying to create a really beautiful woodland for the next generation.”
Olive believes such farm diversification is “the perfect companion to part-time farming”.
“With forestry, people think you plant your trees, close the gate, come back in 30/40 years, clear your crop and get money in your pocket — but you are not going to get the most out of your crop if you’re not managing it and thinning.
“That’s what I would really like to see, farmers getting involved more in their forest and understanding what is going on because every forest is different.”
And while Olive stays attuned to her former colleagues as they advise global leaders on the Covid-19 pandemic, she doesn’t miss the cut and thrust of science and medical journalism.
“I’ve never once looked back, regretted or questioned my decision because it has been such a positive experience despite the crisis that has engulfed the forestry sector.
“I love the work, it’s very rewarding and it’s home to a really fantastic network and community.
“Forestry has its own rhythm and I’ve really plugged into to that. It moves at its own stride irrespective of what’s happening in the world.”
And in addition to getting her own business off the ground, Olive is also getting involved in wider forestry issues through her involvement with the Irish Forest Owners (IFO) organisation.
She’s the IFO secretary and says “farmers have been “overlooked” in decisions on the development of Irish forestry.
The national umbrella body, comprising nine forest owner producer groups, has been established “to ensure the voice of forest owners is heard” in planning a way forward for the sector which remains rocked by a deepening licensing crisis.
In addition to resolving the crisis, IFO also aims to “action a clear plan” for the implementation of “a more meaningful Ash dieback support plan”. The organisation will also shortly start a programme of engagement with key stakeholders.
On the formation of the group the Westmeath forest farmer says: “There has been huge frustration in recent months that sparked forward momentum to establish IFO.
“We’ve great people on board with huge experience.
“We intend to harness that and help with education, training, the mobilisation of timber, economies of scale, plus to be that voice for forest owners.
“Farmers are often overlooked in decisions being made, but Government must remember that, without forest owners, there won’t be a industry. We are the people whose land is going to be planted.
Olive believes peer-to-peer learning is vital.
“Most of Europe’s forest industry is run through producer groups. As a model it works really well, we need to adopt that here.
“IFO will support anyone that wants to get into forestry and we absolutely won’t stand by and let the sector fall apart.”
Despite the Department of Agriculture efforts to clear the backlog, the latest figures indicate 4,500 licences still need to be processed.
Of these, 1,090 are afforestation applications, 730 are roads applications and 2,700 are for felling. In 2020, just 2,433 new hectares of forestry were planted, far short of the annual 8,000ha target.
In addition to growing timber imports, there are fears millions of nursery trees will be dumped too without planting licences.
“This crisis has been going on since I joined forestry. It has been slowly building which is most frustrating. Everyone saw it coming — it’s crazy at a time of climate emergency.
“We must resolve the backlog and Ash dieback scheme, but we need to understand how we got here too. A broader conversation on the design of forestry, the types of forests we’re planting and how we manage them must happen.
“We must engage the research and see how we can implement it, so the owner is getting money in their pocket, not the middle man. That will keep our industry alive.”
Olive Leavy always “loved farming growing up. We were milking about 80 cows back then which was a fairly extensive herd.
“My parents were very focused on education too, so we all went to university. At that time, young girls weren’t really encouraged down the agriculture route.
“I did a science degree at NUI Maynooth and I went to Trinity to do my PhD with professor Kingston Mills in the Department of Biochemistry and Immunology.
“I just loved immunology, it fascinated me trying to figure out how the basic mechanisms of our immune system works.
“Once you know how things work, you can figure out what happens with a disease and how to treat and prevent it.”
After completing her doctorate, Olive moved to London to work for the prestigious academic journal Nature Reviews Immunology.
“I got offered a six-month contract, then I became permanent, then I was made associate editor, senior editor and eventually chief editor and team leader within the reviews department.
“It wasn’t just immunology we focused on, there was genetics, biochemistry and virology and how it all linked with the immune system.
“All the content was commissioned, so we travelled around the world to top scientific conferences to see what research was happening, who is doing what, and to chat to the top scientists on the planet.
“We would invite them to write a review which we would then edit. It was all peer-reviewed to ensure it was scientifically accurate and of merit.”
Nobel Prize laureates
Olive’s work involved collaborating with some of the leading global experts in immunology, including Nobel Prize laureates Dr Bruce Beutler and Dr Jules Hoffman.
One particularly high-profile name that comes to mind for Olive — given that he has become a global figure during the pandemic — is Dr Anthony Fauci.
“I vividly remember at a conference Tony running towards me in the yard calling ‘Olive, Olive, Olive! A lot of scientists wanted to know the editors of journals to get a broader picture of the research field and what was happening.
“With Tony we talked a lot about where funding in the US was going, as that would help predict where new research would be coming from. And vice versa, he’d ask me where I thought future research should be going and that could potentially influence funding down the line.
“Because of his position in the NIAID, and his world-class research on influenza and HIV vaccines, he was the key person for us to know.
“He is also a really good guy. I was really disappointed that, under the Trump administration, people weren’t listening to him or appreciating his insight after years and years of studying viruses. You couldn’t have a better person in the US advising on Covid-19.
“Likewise, we are very lucky here too. Kingston is truly exceptional and Luke is a fantastic communicator of science. We are very fortunate to have people like that speaking in Ireland.”