Craig Ketley of Surrey Forestry has developed an interesting niche business helping heathland golf courses to realise revenue from the softwood conifers which thrive on their sandy, acid-reaction soils. Dr Terry Mabbett met the team at work on Puttenham golf course to learn more.

WHILE hand-felling 50-year-old softwoods for milling, you might expect to hear warning shouts of ‘timber’, but contractors working in the foothills of the Hog’s Back stretch of the North Downs recently were required to heed warning shouts of ‘fore’ as well. For those who don’t know, ‘fore’ is a word used to warn anyone at risk of being hit by a golf ball.

What, you might ask, are foresters doing on an upmarket, south-of-England golf course, felling trees and extracting the timber for processing by a commercial sawmill in Wiltshire? This is Surrey, England’s most heavily wooded county, and the place is Puttenham golf course – a classic heathland and woodland course. 

In a parallel role as a sports turf journalist, I have visited many well-wooded golf courses, including one carved out of the Ashdown Forest in the neighbouring county of Sussex. But Puttenham, seven miles west of Guildford, is the most well-wooded I have seen, and is unrivalled for its superb stands of mature, timber-quality conifers. 

I was on site with Craig Ketley, owner of Surrey Forestry Limited, a well-known local forestry contractor based at Effingham, eight miles north-east of Guildford. Surrey Forestry is contracted to carry out woodland management on Puttenham golf course, financed almost entirely on a timber and wood sales basis.

Craig explained he was originally asked to quote for the work on a fee basis, but the amount of tree and woodland management required was beyond the club’s current financial budget. Instead of walking away, Craig suggested an alternative arrangement whereby he would take payment for woodland management in sawmill timber and lower-grade material for firewood and biomass. He would only take cash payments for tree work in areas of the course which are not self-supporting with revenue from timber and firewood/biomass sales. 

This was an innovative solution and entirely appropriate for Craig, who mills his own timber back in Effingham, together with firewood and biomass sales, as part of the overall business. However, on a quick glance around the site where Craig and his team had been hand felling over several days, there were clearly more than enough sawlogs for Craig’s milling facility. 

“Most of these sawlogs are going to East Brothers Ltd West Dean Sawmills at Salisbury in Hampshire,” said Craig, adding how any revenue from timber sales over and above his payment would go back into the pot at Puttenham Golf Club, to finance tree work in other sectors. Where there was sufficient revenue from timber, firewood and biomass sales to support the work, he said, no cash payment was required from the client.

Puttenham golf course is a classic example of a mature heathland course, established in the last decade of the 19th century by a group of army officers, Charterhouse School masters and local businessmen. Whether it was a strategic military decision or just luck, they chose well when deciding to build the course on land that was naturally well drained, as the sandy substrates of southern England’s heathlands inherently are. 

English lowland heath is thought to have been created some 5,000 years ago when the land was cleared of forests, peaking as early as the 15th century. Heathland golf courses are invariably rich in conifers, which thrive on these intrinsically free-draining, sandy and acid-reaction soils. However, looking around, I realised that Puttenham golf course had a much wider range of conifer species than is usual for heathland in this neck of the woods. Scots pine, Corsican pine and larch are most frequently found, all good regenerator species, returning time and again to re-colonise and exploit these sandy-soil environments for which they are ideally suited. 

Sure enough, the usual conifer suspects were present, but here at Puttenham, Douglas, fir was predominant with some western hemlock and western red cedar in attendance. “Given the amount and quality of timber on this site it is hard to believe there were any big trees on this land when the golf course was built in 1894,” said Craig. Now, some 120 years on, I asked Craig how old he thought these conifers were. “I would estimate some 50 years old,” he said, which was subsequently confirmed by ring counts on felled western red cedars. 
Some of the younger Scots and Corsican pines would almost certainly have originated by regeneration.

Though 120 years is enough for Douglas fir to have been planted in the early 20th century, complete one full rotation and produce seed regen trees now half a century old, that particular scenario doesn’t appear at all likely. Douglas fir regeneration is relatively poor, especially without rigid weed control. Moreover, if this was regenerated conifer woodland, you might expect a lot more western hemlock, one of the world’s ‘arch’ regenerators.

So what about the actual felling, cutting to spec and extraction of sawlogs from a working golf course to roadside for collection and delivery? A large area had already been felled, so Craig set about explaining the specs required by East Brothers at Salisbury, before resuming the loading and transporting of sawlogs roadside for collection.

“The Douglas fir is being felled and cut to three length specifications,” said Craig. “7.5 m, 6.2 m, 5.1 m and down to 30 cm DBH (diameter at breast height).

Anything less than DBH 30 cm is added to the Scots pine and larch length specifications, which are 4.9 m, 3.7 m, 3.1 m and of DBH 55 cm maximum down to 18 cm minimum. Given this range of strict specifications, you can imagine how much is going on when you are hand-cutting these trees.”

Anything below these specifications for pine and larch goes for chipped biomass. Craig pointed to the large piles of brash and non-harvested stem wood from the tops of trees. “Nothing goes to waste in our operation. We will chip all that into biomass to feed our biomass boiler at Effingham which we use to dry the premium timber milled on site.”

Pointing to the high proportion of green leaf in the pile, Craig said: “Some biomass boilers do not respond well to such a high proportion of leaf in the feed, but our Heisermatt just loves it.” 

He said he would be bringing his Heizohack HM 10-500 KTL chipper on site in the next few days. He called the twin-axle unit, complete with a Binderberger 1200 cone splitter, a remarkable piece of kit which can chip any size of timber. He added: “The Binderberger 1200 cone splitter is on dummy pins so it can be removed in minutes and attached to our Engcon EC214 tiltrotator for cracking large wood elsewhere.” 

Like most modern forestry contractors, Surrey Forestry had more gear than guys on site. Prominent was the company’s Valtra 214 tractor, equipped with a Palfinger Epsilon crane mounted on a Jake 804 frame, which Craig said greatly increases versatility and copes with “anything and everything”, from sawlogs to hooklift biomass bins. 

The Valtra was hauling a bespoke trailer with Forester 700 crane, which Craig said could be used for loading the larger timbers. However, that day Craig was making short work of loading sawlogs onto the trailer using the company’s Case CX 130 digger equipped with a rotating multi-head. 

“Despite the number of trees coming down, this is not a clear-fell job but a five-year thinning exercise in the course of woodland management, alongside the opportunity to realise sales of standing timber assets with reinvestment of the revenue,” he said.

I saw the company’s Unimog parked up under some trees on the edge of the site, equipped with a front-mounted Krpan skidding winch, its red livery glowing in the early spring sunshine. I had seen Surrey Forestry use this piece of kit several years ago to winch birch logs up an extremely steep slope on the Surrey/Hampshire border – there were slopes as steep as that on this site at Puttenham. Craig pointed down through the woodland to a tree-covered, steep gradient. 

“Later in the week we will be felling and extracting some full-grown Japanese larch and will need the Unimog and Krpan winch to extract the sawlogs,” he said.

Normally on such visits I watch the felling first and then the extraction but this time it was the other way round. A hundred yards away two of Craig’s guys, Robert Polachowski and John East, were about to fell a couple of large western red cedars. Both have been working with Craig at Surrey Forestry for several months, having previously worked in arboriculture as tree surgeons. I was interested to learn if they preferred working in forestry and why. Both said yes, explaining the work was more varied and involved a wider range of heavy kit and that they preferred a natural woodland working environment to parkland, streets and gardens.

Robert Polachowski carried out the hand cutting using a Stihl MS 661C chainsaw. The western red cedars came down cleanly and just where they wanted the trees to fall. After all, we were on a working golf course and, while there was nobody too close at hand, there were a number of players resting up mid-way round the 18-hole course and enjoying a break at the snack bar on the ninth tee. 

I was fortunate to see the entire cutting and felling operation and savour that characteristically rich aroma as soon as I approached the felled trees. Robert counted the rings on the heavily fluted butts, which turned out to be almost exactly 50 years old. Indeed, a half century of good growth and high-quality timber with absolutely no indication of heart rot, a condition which this otherwise excellent timber species is prone to, precisely because of the degree and pattern of fluting at the butt end. 

With the felling job well done, all that was left was for John East to trim the butt end, carry out snedding and cut the logs to length specification using his Stihl MS 461 chainsaw.

You don’t often see classical forestry carried out on a golf course, so I asked Craig if this was a one-off. 
“Actually, no,” said Craig, “Because scores of golf courses right across southern England from Kent through Sussex, Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and into Dorset are heathland courses, and wherever you have heathland the conifers will come back. 

“I am a keen golfer and when playing a course I observe the landscape and assess the prospects for woodland management and future forestry work. Indeed, woodland management on well-wooded courses like this one at Puttenham has become a bit of a niche market for me. And, being a golfer, I am particularly well-positioned to carry out the work discretely with minimum disturbance to the golf course environment and with minimum disruption to play. I know how golf courses work and I am sensitive to the etiquettes of the game.” 

On the train back to London I recalled the unusual sight of mature Douglas fir being felled and extracted from a golf course to quench the country’s current thirst for premium timber. Douglas fir, which is said to be the strongest of UK-grown softwoods, is used in a wide variety of applications for its strength and durability, including heavy-duty framing, groundworks, cladding and landscaping. The only downside is the timber being difficult to treat due to its high density and rich resin content. 

Douglas fir is currently in the planting spotlight. There has been a huge upsurge in demand for seedling trees, to the extent that there is essentially no material of a suitable size and age for planting currently available in the UK.

This demand is clearly good news, but far too late in the day because these trees will not reach harvest maturity for another half-century. And all this against a backdrop of home-grown softwood production about to take a nosedive in just 15 years’ time, precisely because precious little conifer planting has taken place since the early 1990s. 

The longer this goes on, the worse it seems to get. According to Forestry Commission (FC) statistics, English forestry (government and private) managed an average of 67 ha per year of new conifer planting between 2013 and 2018, and that was for the whole of England. Figures for southern England will clearly be less and the region is almost certainly in retreat. 

Despite all this, Surrey Forestry is a shining example of the sheer innovation of foresters faced with retracting resources, still finding new areas, avenues and opportunities to help feed the construction industry with timber and keep the home fires burning.