Having forged a successful career working for various contractors in and around the Scottish Borders, Douglas Mathison ventured out on his own to start up forest management firm Agriforest in 2016. Here, he shares his story with James Hendrie.

IT was perhaps not surprising that, having grown up surrounded by chainsaws, Douglas Mathison himself would cut out a career in the forestry sector. Douglas, a native of Peeblesshire, has through further education and working for others arrived at a situation where he has set up his own company, Agriforest.

Set up in 2016, Agriforest offers a complete forestry management service to owners of small and medium-sized woodlands.

I met up with Douglas in a café at Walkerburn to learn more about his business and how he started in forestry. “There were always saws in our house that belonged to my father and I remember becoming fascinated with how they worked. As I grew up, I soon learned to use them and this then led me to develop an interest in trees and outdoor work. I started doing small-scale tree work for friends and family during the school holidays and weekends,” he explained.

Forestry Journal: Douglas Mathison.Douglas Mathison.

There was enough of an interest in tree work for Douglas on leaving school to enrol at Barony College at Dumfries to do National Proficiency Test Council (NPTC) chainsaw tickets. Douglas admits that he was less interested in doing full-time study into forestry and arboriculture at this stage and more interested in earning money.

“I got a job with Wilson G. Jamieson, fencing and forestry contractors from Galashiels in the Borders after doing several chainsaw tickets, which got me off to a good start.”

So, from learning at college, Douglas was thrust out into the woods and he found himself learning the skills of forestry work from a team of experienced foresters, as well as earning 50 quid a day.

“This company did a lot of work in and around power lines, so I gained valuable experience. They also paid for further training and climbing tickets. What I learned with them was work ethic; the guys worked and pushed hard to get jobs done but in a safe manner as well. I got a real variety and experience of trees and forestry working with them.”

Forestry Journal: Vehicles on an 800-tonne poplar clearfell on Mertoun Estate in the Scottish Borders.Vehicles on an 800-tonne poplar clearfell on Mertoun Estate in the Scottish Borders.

After two years of doing this, Douglas decided that maybe he should go back to studying to further develop his skills and knowledge. He opted to complete a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Rural Business Management at the Scottish Rural College (SRUC) at Edinburgh. Having achieved this, he then went on to do the Rural Business Management BA degree and once more left further education to go back into forestry work, but this time with an “all-round business degree”.

To sustain himself financially through his studies, Douglas was able to keep working at weekends for Wilson G. Jamieson, but he also gained work on estates and farms through the contacts with the college itself. This work involved forestry in terms of tree felling but also on the agricultural side with crop harvesting and even lambing work in the spring. During his three years at the college, he became more exposed to agriculture but in the end still found that he was drawn back to forestry work.

Forestry Journal: Valtra T183 tractor with Botex Forester timber trailer unloading timber on the 800-tonne poplar clearfell.Valtra T183 tractor with Botex Forester timber trailer unloading timber on the 800-tonne poplar clearfell.

“I enjoyed my time at the college and while the education and getting a degree was good and invaluable to me, it was also the contacts that I made with the estate and farm owners as well that was really helpful. I was able to stay in the Borders, commute to college and in the holidays and weekends keep my hand in with forestry work and develop more experience at the same time. When I left, I continued to do tree work and that led me to my next career development after doing some tree work for Simon Coleman at Euroforest.”

Doing this work for Simon, finding out more about Euroforest led Douglas to successfully applying for a trainee contracts manager role. This work was about looking after contracts and jobs that Euroforest had mainly around the south of Scotland and in Northumberland. This gave Douglas exposure to the full range of forestry management techniques from tendering and purchase of the timber, to the planning of the harvesting and sale of it.

Forestry Journal: Panoramic view of nearly completed harvesting site near Hawick in the Scottish Borders.Panoramic view of nearly completed harvesting site near Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

“I particularly enjoyed working in Eskdalemuir in Dumfries and Galloway and managing the projects that Euroforest had there. I really enjoyed the smaller sites I was involved with as I found I got greater job satisfaction from them. Tommy and Mark who trained me up were great. I learned a lot from them and others in the company who were good to work with. I was also, while working full-time, still doing tree work for clients that I had built up over the years. I then started to think seriously about whether I could make a go of doing this for myself with my own business.”

Douglas decided then after three years of working for Euroforest to take the plunge and go it alone with his own business, and in June 2016 Agriforest was born. The business name was quite deliberately chosen to evoke in future clients’ minds the image of a company that could do forestry and woodland management on farm and estate land.

Douglas had realised from his experience to date that there were a lot of small woodlands and shelterbelts on farms and estates that had been perhaps neglected in the past but could, with proper planning and management, yield an income source for their owners. With the setting up of his own business came the need to scale up his own equipment portfolio to be able to offer the full range of services that he felt there was a market for.

“I had bits and pieces of equipment and in the past had hired in if I needed to, but going it alone meant that I needed to invest in some more kit. One of my first purchases was a Valtra T130 tractor and a Botex Forester trailer. The Valtra was a great machine with good ground clearance. The trailer, which is specifically designed for forestry work, and after some initial issues, proved to be ideal for what I needed it to do.”

Forestry Journal:  Hawick Common Good main stacking area. Hawick Common Good main stacking area.

Douglas now has various bits of kit to assist with the harvesting of smaller-scale sites.

“Quite often we find ourselves working alongside the contractors we regularly use, whether this is winching trees away from roads or power lines, or felling outsiders. We also use the timber trailer we have to secondary forward small areas of harvested timber where required, which is a big help when there are sometimes no other alternatives available. We’ve a site coming up that has around 300 tonnes to take across a main road, which we can’t do with a purpose-built forwarder, or lorry for that matter.”

For larger jobs, Douglas uses other contractors to supply machinery and capability to get the works done.

“We’ve been working closely with FMC Harvesting from Stirlingshire for the last two years, who have excellent drivers prepared to tackle all kinds of sites. The smallest site they have harvested was a road opening next to the A7, which was only 60 tonnes, all the way up to sites totalling 7–8,000 tonnes.

“It is very important to me that we can take on more or less anything regardless of difficulty. We don’t want to be seen as a company that turns down work that is too awkward or time consuming.”

Douglas has also been working with Michael and Jonny Herdman of IH Forestry lately, who have done some excellent work on some particularly challenging sites in South Lanarkshire and the Borders.

Forestry Journal: John Deere 1470E harvester working on Hawick Common Good ground.John Deere 1470E harvester working on Hawick Common Good ground.

Douglas has a variety of kit, which is ever-expanding to complement the existing range of services on offer to current and potential clients. He said: “I bought a Forst TR6 tracked wood chipper secondhand not long after starting up the business, and then changed this earlier on in 2019 to a brand-new machine. I also bought a Bandit ZT1844 tracked stump grinder, which was also new. These two machines are great for adding value to smaller sites where we get asked to do everything.”

Douglas also has some larger kit, originally starting off with a Valtra T-130, which was upgraded recently to a Valtra T183, which tows the Botex Forester timber trailer. The upgraded tractor is faster on the road, at 50 kilometres per hour, and has substantially more power.

“Another purchase of late was an Oehler 8.5-tonne winch, which has been excellent on estate work and pulling over edge trees on harvesting sites.”

Forestry Journal: Komatsu 875 forwarder working on Hawick Common Good ground.Komatsu 875 forwarder working on Hawick Common Good ground.

Interestingly, all this machinery, including the two company pickups, is branded in the same colour – black. In Douglas’s words: “It helps to keep everything looking fairly smart, so long as it can all be kept clean!”

Currently 10 per cent of the work carried out is arboriculture or small-scale hand-felling work, and 90 per cent is fully mechanised work in shelterbelts or forests. Douglas is supported full-time by his operations manager, Dominik Ratan. Graeme Louden is also a regular member of the team, frequently driving the tractor and timber trailer, along with the digger. Jobs that Agriforest carry out can range from working on hand felling a small number of trees in a large garden, which can include climbing, winching, and chipping to achieve an end result of 25 tonnes of timber, right up to estate jobs of up to 8,000 tonnes.

“We’ve a fairly regular workload of niche sites as I call them, where the owner will require more or less everything we’ve got. For example, one of the first jobs of the year involved felling around 40 trees, chipping all the branches, and removing the timber off site. Most of the trees needed climbing or winching over as there were neighbouring houses, phone lines, and steep banking to contend with. The timber had to be taken via the tractor and trailer to a neighbouring farm steading, where it was uplifted via timber wagon. The return from the timber then came off the total cost of the work, so the owner got a financial benefit.”

Forestry Journal: Valtra T183 tractor with Botex Forester timber trailer, with Oehler 8.5-tonne winch on front.Valtra T183 tractor with Botex Forester timber trailer, with Oehler 8.5-tonne winch on front.

Douglas is clear that this ability to provide a full range of services to all different kinds of clients big and small has helped him to build his business rapidly since its inception.

“I can offer a bespoke service to clients dealing with all types of size and location – from individual house sites, to farms and small woodlands, right up to estates and commercial forests. I can arrange for management plans, felling permissions, the harvesting, extraction and sale of timber to extract the best monetary return for the client. We work closely with CK Forestry and Mike Ramage Forestry to restock and maintain recently planted sites, who are both extremely professional and do an excellent job.”

Agriforest’s area of operation ranges across Northumberland, the Borders, Fife, and the Central Belt. Douglas can count the Duke of Sutherland as a client with the work he has carried out and continues to carry out on Mertoun Estate, near St Boswells in the Scottish Borders. This work has included dealing with storm damage to management work involving felling 800 tonnes of oversize poplar this summer. Douglas also has several managed properties, whereby he deals with everything from maintenance through to deer control, drainage work, and thinning operations.

Recently, Agriforest has carried out work for Scottish Borders Council who manage the portfolio of Hawick Common Good Fund. This has involved working on shelterbelts surrounding the golf course totalling 14 hectares. “This was a really interesting job but not without its challenges. We had to be aware of the Common Riding Festival and work around that, never mind the issue of not causing damage or interference to the golf course itself. Some of the trees were pretty big and they were great to fell but it was difficult to plan their extraction without causing damage. We managed it with minimal disruption and mainly thanks to good weather after it we were able to get on with the mounding and drainage works to prepare it for restocking.”

Forestry Journal: Doosan DX160 High Track Excavator working on a restock site in the Scottish Borders.Doosan DX160 High Track Excavator working on a restock site in the Scottish Borders.

While Douglas and his team enjoy a challenge and like nothing better than coming up with solutions for clients, he finds the businesses he works with have the same outlook too. This includes the timber hauliers he uses, W. D. A. Haley from Beattock in Dumfries and Galloway, and J. A. Dayson from Carlisle.

“Both companies are very professional and they access some pretty awkward sites and have drivers that enjoy the variety and challenges that come with some of the sites we take on. It’s important to me that they don’t mind tackling some of the smaller sites we get involved with too, which can sometimes be time-consuming.”

Looking to the future and with a mind to enhance the services he can offer to his clients, Douglas has recently invested in a Doosan DX 160 High Track excavator.

“The reason for buying the machine was to improve reliability and to be able to do the full service for clients. Again, the problem comes with smaller sites that are time-consuming and involve a lot of input, and this addition will help to get sites ready in time for planting before the season ends. In the future, I would see a harvesting head attachment being added to allow us to add smaller-scale mechanical harvesting to the portfolio of services that we offer.”

Douglas has given some thought to adding a small forwarder to his machinery fleet but currently feels the timber trailer and tractor offers more flexibility for Agriforest. Investment in the business will continue and so will the development of the client base.

Forestry Journal: Forwarder crossing Hawick Golf Course, as part of Hawick Common Good work.Forwarder crossing Hawick Golf Course, as part of Hawick Common Good work.

“We are steadily picking up more clients who want the full management package, i.e. management plans through to felling, restocking, drainage, and subsequent maintenance. A lot of our sites involve felling the only shelterbelts that exist on some properties, so as you can imagine this limits repeat business a little.”

While Douglas has a website and Facebook page for his business, he sees these more as a reference point for people to check in to see what Agriforest can do for them. Word-of-mouth and reputation are the company’s main sources of work. “It is not unusual for us to be doing work on one farm, then have the farm next door ask us to do work and then the neighbouring one and so on.”

It is clear from meeting up with Douglas that he has no regrets about setting up in business for himself, and with growth rates of 15–20 per cent that is not surprising.

“I love meeting clients, visiting new places and working out plans to help them with their woodlands. Paperwork is part and parcel of being in business. It is not something I enjoy because of the time involved, but it is necessary and time needs to be spent on it to help build the business.”

I wondered before I left if Douglas had any regrets about choosing forestry over a potential career in agriculture. The simple answer is that he does not.

“Forestry has always been my preference. We have had an excellent start, although I fully appreciate there will be years that won’t be so good, particularly if demand for timber falls. For the time being my ambition is to continue investment and to grow the business further.”