Just when Simon Bowes thought he was out, he was pulled back in, and is now on the hunt for the perfect combo of head and harvester.

Retirement? Really.

That’s sort of ruined my plans. I had hoped to be well on the way to wrapping the harvesting side of my working life up by now. I’ve shifted some machinery, advertised some more, downsized, ready for an easier life. I have got my first novel in the bag with the second one well over half-written. I’ve had a slot in Forestry Journal for the last 20 years which will continue, at least for as long as they’ll have me, and I had secured other work if I wanted it. Then it happened; the estates I’ve relied on for work over the last few years have both suddenly lost their fear of doing clearfells and this is all down to ash dieback.

We’ve been ahead of the game on one estate but now the safety felling we’ve been doing on roadsides and footpaths will be replaced by a wholesale clearance of hundreds of acres of ash from several sites on the estate. The other estate has less ash but more footpaths, and though I’m not looking to do too much of the ash there are a number of softwood clearfells to do. If I’m honest I should have bit the bullet when the chance presented itself and just walked away, but the old saying is true: You don’t leave forestry, forestry leaves you.

It just hasn’t left me yet. It nearly happened but having the opportunity to go over ground we have worked over the last ten years, including putting extraction roads in, making bridges and bringing woods back into management that haven’t been touched since they were cleared off in the last war, is just too much of a challenge to walk away from.

The problem I’m having is that up until now I’ve been geared up to do a large proportion of the hardwood felling by hand. This next year I will lose my hand-cutter who I’ve relied on for more than 20 years as he’s hit retirement age, and despite my thinking he wouldn’t retire he’s categorically stated he’s had enough. I’m waiting for a new knee, a consequence of a motorbike accident 40 years ago coupled with years of felling and cross-cutting by hand, which has meant I’ve been able to do less and less felling.

Forestry Journal:  It’s an old head but it hasn’t done a lot of work by the look of it. The serial number would prove significant. It’s an old head but it hasn’t done a lot of work by the look of it. The serial number would prove significant.

If I do have a knee replacement next summer the specialists all tell me it will mean no more felling in the future. I can carry on until I get the plastic joint fitted but that’s not practical as a decent walk has my knee swelling up like a football and I need to buy ibuprofen in bulk. I have just recently been put on a course of corticosteroid injections which involves sticking a needle deep into the space in the knee joint and filling it with a long-lasting concoction of drugs. This provides a great deal of relief but if I push it too hard and the effect wears off too soon they won’t continue with the treatment and the operation to replace my knee will be brought forward. I have to make each injection last a minimum of 12 weeks so I can stay on them. The preferred outcome is that I can maintain this injection therapy for at least two years. I’d be happy for it to be a permanent solution but having seen the scans of my knee joint, it’s obvious this won’t happen.

The answer is to have a harvester with a head that’s more suited to big, rough pine and larch that dominate the clearfells and final thinnings on one estate and the big larch and ash on the other. I’ve been running a couple of old Timberjack 1270s with Viking heads; one has a 625 fitted and the other runs a 520. These are basically the same capacity heads but the 625 is more modern and a bit more refined. I moved the 520 on a while ago and replaced it with a Timberjack 743 that’s been knocking about for years. Timberjack’s early 1270s and indeed FMG’s 250 Eva harvesters were generally fitted with the 746 head. The 743 was more suited to, and mainly fitted to, the four-wheeler 870 but I didn’t have a 746 and sometimes you just have to go with what you’ve got. The 743 is a really fast little head anyway and with the bigger machine that’s got more than enough power, it should be a great piece of kit, and as a bonus it’ll be dirt cheap. All I really needed was a small thinning head. The 1270 has its wheels set in as close as they’ll go and it has the long-extension crane so it will make an ideal small thinnings harvester. When I sell it I’ll be pitching it to someone who needs a narrow machine that has lots of speed and power and who’s not in the market for a £100,000 harvester.

The other machine is marked to go and be replaced with a newer 1270 that’ll carry a bigger head. The ones I have are limited to a head of under about 1,000 kg that has fairly moderate hydraulic demands. I’ve found a newer 1270 fitted with a Timberjack 762 which might be a great head in softwood but I need something that’ll cope with a very specific and demanding series of tasks. It would be fine in the softwood fells, but it’s an old head with lots of hours under its belt and it is showing its age; there are a lot of worn pins and bushes that would need replacing, and parts for heads from any of the big names are expensive. I’ve been used to maintaining Viking heads which are essentially made up of a collection of easily available components. The parts that are bespoke are robust, reliable and easily repairable. The 762 also has chain on rubber feed wheels which aren’t my favourite things in hardwood.

The 625 Viking we use currently has Moipu feed rollers, which are ideal. We do too much hand-felling as it is and we’ve developed a method of dealing with the ash where we do as little dressing out as possible.

It has become obvious to me that when working in ash with dieback the safest place to be is in a cab and so we avoid being out on the floor as much as possible. Richard, on the harvester, is an artist at removing branches without using a saw. He can break a tree down using the saw on the Viking head in double-quick time but he hankers after something that only has two moving delimbing knives. Something like the three-knife Keto we used to run.

One of the main problems in the ash is that much of what goes through the head has to be picked up off the floor. This would immediately rule out something like the 743 as it has knives that are short and well tucked in; great for small softwood, but picking poles up with it is like picking up pins wearing boxing gloves. Then there’s a need for something with exceptional feed-wheel traction that can ram trees through even when they’re sappy and slippery, like ash in full leaf. This would perhaps make me consider something along the lines of a Keto 150, but finding a good three-knife 150 is a pretty tall order unless I were to look at a fairly new or reconditioned one, but the problem with that is that I’m from Yorkshire and spending money is against every principle instilled in me since I was at my mother’s knee. Buying something with four feed wheels is also ruled out for the same reason. The final criterion is that anything suitable will have to be short and boxy to get around the many bends in hardwood.

Forestry Journal: The Keto 150. It’s a five-knife one but it’s got a few too many issues to be a serious candidate.The Keto 150. It’s a five-knife one but it’s got a few too many issues to be a serious candidate.

So, after much head scratching, searching my memory banks and talking to people in the know, I came up with a candidate.

I recall watching a contractor I knew many years ago operating his JS digger fitted with a Lako 60 head. He was picking up larch poles that had been winched up a steep bank, and rather than abusing the slew on the 360 he grabbed the trees straight out in front of the machine and used the power of the Lako to fire them up onto the landing. These were trees of a tonne plus and the Lako played with them. This, he explained was down to the fact that the feed wheels came up under the stem and pushed the pole into the head against a third drive motor that powered a short track drive in the same way a Keto does with its two opposed track drives. He was also very happy to explain that the long delimbing knives were almost as good as a grapple for picking poles up off the ground. I watched him for a half-hour and the power and the usability of the Lako impressed me. I wasn’t so impressed with the obvious lack of speed, even allowing for the extreme circumstances of hauling the great big poles up onto the landing.

I searched YouTube and found lots of videos of the Lako working. I decided that a Lako 60 fitted to a 1270B or later would be ideal.

I’ve run Vikings for many years now and in that time I’ve almost exclusively dealt with Phil Cooper. What he doesn’t know about Viking heads isn’t worth knowing, and he’s got an encyclopaedic knowledge of harvesters and  forwarders and how to fit things together. So, I turned to Phil to find out just what it would take to fit a Lako to a Timberjack 1270.

I quickly got a history lesson on Lako and how the Lako 60 was phased out when it became the AFM 60. The AFM 60 has better hydraulics with a more modern valve block, it has longer delimbing knives and an AFM will be younger and as it was designed to be fitted on any suitably sized base it wouldn’t be too difficult to run it on the TM 3000 system fitted to a 1270. In fact, there is a custom fitting kit available to do just that. It’s also handy that Phil was an AFM dealer at one time in the distant past.

I recalled seeing an AFM 60 in a yard on my travels but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where it was – then it suddenly came to me. I restored an old 250 Osa a while back. It wasn’t really a restoration, more of a rustoration; it was missing a grab, a rotator and it only had half a headboard. I found all the parts I needed from a guy across in Cumbria; it was in his yard that I had seen the AFM head and lying next to it was a Lako 60 of a similar vintage. I’d not really noticed them despite having walked past them on a number of occasions in the past. I’ve bought winches, cranes, gearboxes and even a couple of complete machines out of that yard but I’d guess a couple of outdated heads had never really piqued my interest – not until now.

All this means that the ideal piece of kit for me would be a tidy 1270 B or C, in a certain price bracket, with all the original computer equipment, fitted with an AFM 60.

I’ve found a 1270B that needs a bit of work, but that’s not a problem, and as I’ve found a very tidy, low-hours AFM 60 with a Lako 60 for spares, we could have a solution. The heads have been sitting for a long time and I’m torn; the AFM has a third feed wheel in the chassis rather than a track, but it’s in much better fettle than the Lako. The Lako is missing its head module and the AFM didn’t have one as they were usually paired with a Motomit that didn’t need a module, but I know it’s possible to fit the AFM using the Timberjack module from the Timberjack head, or at least I thought it was.

I’ve found all the parts I need and I know a man who can make it happen, so rather than the way we usually do it –  sticking it all together while up to the ankles in mud and hoping for the best, using trial and error and sheer bloody mindedness – it’ll be put together in a workshop by people who know what they’re doing, if I can prise my wallet open long enough to pay for it.

Retirement can wait, as my friend and mentor the late Steve Dresser used to say when he showed me a job that had all sorts of drawbacks and complications. We all need a challenge to keep us interested. I’m interested again and I’ll hopefully be reporting progress as it happens, if it happens.

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