It may be a skill that’s seen less and less these days, but hand cutting is still central to the business of low-impact contractor Hi-Line Forestry in Haddington, East Lothian. James Hendrie met with Hi-Line’s Jonny Younger to learn more about his operation.

AT an early age, Jonny Younger spent many an hour working in the woods on his father’s farm, using an old, grey Massey Ferguson tractor to pull up elder. He also helped drag branches to bonfires. After this, and with his father’s guidance, he was allowed to carry out light duties with a chainsaw, cutting self-seeding saplings. This gave him his first experience of using an old Stihl 038 chainsaw which, back in the day, was a popular and reliable saw for forestry work.

From there, and while still on the farm, Jonny would cut tree guards from young trees before pruning them. This was Jonny’s entry, in his teenage years, to tree work. Initially, he thought of perhaps following his father into farming, so agricultural college beckoned.

It was at Harper Adams College in Shropshire that Jonny studied land and farm management, branching off to do a forestry module. When he left college, he decided he saw his future working with trees. He then got the National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) qualifications to allow him to start up a tree business. Initially, this saw him carrying out domestic tree work in and around East Lothian.

Forestry Journal: Buttress work on a spruce.Buttress work on a spruce.

It was the purchase of an old Ford TW15 tractor, timber trailer and Igland 8.5-tonne single-drum winch that allowed him to carry out forestry work on estates. From this, he then purchased a timber trailer from Jas P Wilson. Sadly, despite liking his Ford tractor, he found it was not quite suited for working in the woods. This led him to buying a Valtra 8150.

“This is the ultimate forestry tractor because of its high ground clearance, tight turning circle and reliability,” he said. “As a result of their Swedish design and build, these tractors are popular as they are able to be used for farming work in the summer and forestry in the winter.”

Jonny soon found increasing demand for work. This was the point that Hi-Line Forestry took root as a forestry contractor specialising in farm and estate forestry, offering low-impact harvesting operations, with a team of hand cutters. The firm operates from its home base of Haddington, with a yard further away at East Linton.

With only the Valtra 8150, Jonny found production was slowed by the need to swap between the winch and forwarding trailer. So he invested in a Valtra 6400, which became the forwarding unit, allowing the 8150 to be used solely with the winch.

Hi-Line Forestry is now a well-established specialist in both clearfell and thinning work, on all types of ground, but in particular awkward and sensitive-ground sites.

“We can offer the ability to extract timber on smaller-tonnage jobs, or from areas where harvesters can’t get into or their use would cause ground damage to the site,” Jonny said.

“We run a squad of hand cutters who work for me on a subcontract basis. We offer clients a full range of management services, including the purchase of their standing timber, which leaves no risk to the client. We do all of the work for them, from obtaining the necessary licences to felling, and the extraction of the timber, guaranteeing the landowner an income from his crop.”

Forestry Journal: Bench felling is a technique used by Hi-Line Forestry.Bench felling is a technique used by Hi-Line Forestry.

The Hi-Line Forestry team comprises Sam Young (both the youngest team member and the longest serving), Graeme Louden (who has ticked off four years) and David Goss (both a hand cutter and climber). The newest member of the team is Paul Harris, who joined last year having retrained as a hand cutter after leaving the army.

“Sam and Graeme, along with myself, can run the machinery as well as cut,” explained Jonny. “Now Paul does the cutting, having worked on gaining all his tickets as well as learning the ropes and skills of being a hand cutter. David will also put his hand to any climbing work, should it need to be done.”

Hi-Line Forestry take on a varied assortment of jobs and cut a mixture of softwood and hardwood. A lot of the timber they cut is spruce. While a harvester can produce more than a hand cutter, there will always be sites and trees that need dealt with by a hand cutter. Production rates are very much species-based and can range from five to 30 tonnes per day.

To speed up extraction, Jonny and his team use a technique called ‘benching’ to prepare felled timber.

“This is effectively like a herring bone presentation, where the brash is laid in the middle and the timber is set out on either side,” said Jonny. “The forwarder then runs on the brash, which keeps ground damage to a minimum and the extraction of the timber can take place from either side. This is a well-practised cutting technique used in the woods, but it requires a lot of skill do to it.”

Jonny is passionate about working in and around his home county of East Lothian and with other local businesses. Hi-Line Forestry sends most of its softwood sawlogs to Blainslie sawmill at Lauder and also supplies Tyninghame. Chip biomass goes to Pentland Biomass at Loanhead and a number of local farmers. Hardwood also goes to Pentland Biomass, which is the timber haulier for Hi-Line Forestry.

Hi-Line Forestry cuts a large amount of softwood, mainly spruce, larch, and pine. On the hardwood side it cuts beech, ash, sycamore and oak, some of this being good milling wood. Hi-Line Forestry is always looking to cut more hardwood as there is a strong demand in the market from firewood merchants. Douglas fir is Jonny’s favourite tree to study and cut.

Forestry Journal: “Rounding off for the mills” – buttress work is an important part of hand cutting.“Rounding off for the mills” – buttress work is an important part of hand cutting.

“Our work tends to be very cyclical on the estates that we work for,” he said. “There are some particular estates that we have worked with over the last two years. On the Leuchie Estate at North Berwick we have been doing large-scale hardwood thinning operations, mostly of unmanaged and self-seeded sycamore. At the Hopes Estate, in the Lammermuirs, we have carried out various softwood thinnings and clearfells on steep ground, which has proved challenging but rewarding, while on the Balgone Estate at North Berwick, the work has been a mixture of softwood clearfells and hardwood thinnings.”

2019 started on a 1,500-tonne large softwood clearfell, followed by range of clearfell jobs and thinnings, ending with a hardwood thinning site. For estate owners, the attraction of Hi-Line Forestry is the versatility and low-impact nature of its operation.

“As hand cutters, we are able to keep stumps very low, thus causing less waste and making the site more manageable for future operations,” said Jonny, who really enjoys thinning work. “There is a great feeling walking away from a wood leaving a good crop of timber to thrive for many generations to come.”

Forestry Journal: The woodcutter’s tools of the trade.The woodcutter’s tools of the trade.

Hand cutters employ a wide range of equipment and techniques, include wedges and jacks for felling. Jacks are used for taking down trees against their lean. Felling jacks are employed for what Jonny described as the “real hairy trees”, which in a lot of cases are the big outsiders that have to be felled in a careful and controlled manner.

“They are pretty indispensable and we use them in conjunction with our Igland double-drum 9002 winch to bring these difficult trees down exactly where we want them to go,” said Jonny. “Doing all of this is just not possible with machinery, which is where we, as hand cutters, come into our own.”

Health and safety is critical in the woods, whether cutting by hand or by machines. Jonny said: “There are a lot of dangers in the wood, some obvious and others more hidden. It is important to assess every outcome that is possible when felling. Each tree species presents different challenges and dealing with each comes with experience. It is critical to ensure that the first thing done is to check that you have an escape route away from the tree if things go wrong. It is definitely important to keep an eye on the tree’s crown, watching for any potential hazards.

“A big threat to a hand cutter is deadwood or loose limbs falling from above, making helmets vital. That said, we don’t cut in high winds or wet weather. We also make sure that we keep up to date on health and safety matters. There is no room for complacency in the woods.

“Today, PPE is very effective. Trousers are a lot better; tough, but lightweight and flexible to the needs of working. While they are, in the main, tight fitting, I actually prefer mine to be a bit looser and baggier. Boots are also getting much better.”

Forestry Journal: Valtra N133 tractor and Botex Bigfoot trailer.Valtra N133 tractor and Botex Bigfoot trailer.

While Jonny has no real preference regarding PPE brands, saws are a different matter and his are predominantly Husqvarna, which he considers quicker. His go-to saws are the 572XP and the 562XP, mostly operating with 18-inch bars.

“They are both fast and well-balanced saws,” he said. “For bigger trees, I use the 390XP with a 24-inch bar. No matter what saws I use nowadays though, I find there is less I can do to rectify any issues with them. Thankfully, I get my saws from Borders Chainsaws at Earlston and they are usually able to fix any problems swiftly.”

While Husqvarna is his saw of choice, Jonny does have a Stihl 660 with a 36-inch bar for dealing with the really big trees he comes across. Interestingly, no matter the brand, Jonny makes his own chains.

“I can make an 18-inch chain cheaper than buying it off the shelf,” he explained.

Looking to the future, Jonny is considering investing in a low-impact forwarder. Last year he invested in a new Valtra N113 tractor. He said: “It is a great small tractor, ideal for the type of jobs that we work on. It is great to operate in tight compact areas. We went to Lammer Engineering, at Gifford, to get it forestry guarded as the woods are a hostile place for machinery.”

Forestry Journal: Valtra T130 tractor with Botex 560 roof-mounted crane and Igland double-drum 9002 winch.Valtra T130 tractor with Botex 560 roof-mounted crane and Igland double-drum 9002 winch.

Jonny likes to keep his kit new as that means fewer breakdowns and less downtime. 2018’s new machinery purchase was a Botex Bigfoot trailer, with electric lever controls, which he has found increases the speed of forwarding operations.

“I like to change my trailers every three years,” he said. “I use Jas P Wilson at Dalbeattie and I find them to be very good. They are able to supply parts, in most cases straight away, or, if not, very quickly. This means we can get back up and running as soon as possible and keep the job we are working on going. I have found this to be a good trailer with a heavy lift and good reliability supported by this very good back-up service.”

It operates in tandem with another Valtra, this time a T130 with a roof-mounted crane and an Igland 9002 double-drum PTO forestry winch.

Forestry Journal: Some climbing work is still required on jobs and David Goss does the climbing for Hi-Line Forestry.Some climbing work is still required on jobs and David Goss does the climbing for Hi-Line Forestry.

Like most people who are involved in forestry, Jonny has a few likes and dislikes about the job. “I love the fact that I earn a living everyday doing what I like,” he said. “I have driven the business to be able to offer a bespoke cutting service to clients. We can cut as little as 200 tonnes to as much as 2,000 tonnes on each job, depending on the client’s needs. I do not have many dislikes, but breakdowns would be top of the list, along with tripping over in the woods and getting whipped by branches.”

Jonny wants to keep Hi-Line Forestry focussed on operating as a hand-cutting business, supporting and build relationships with current and new clients.

“We can react to what our clients want,” he said. “For the estate owners, we can fell trees in areas machinery can’t reach and leave sites intact with little ground damage. For our sawmill customers, we can supply what they need at the time that they need it.”

It is clear from meeting to Jonny that he is passionate not only about his business but also about the art of hand cutting. He believes it is an underrated trade that doesn’t receive the recognition it merits, due to the skill involved, the physical nature and the dangers. This, he feels, is contributing to a lack of up-and-coming new hand cutters. He believes there should be some form of government support for companies to take on and train new cutters until they become proficient and productive felling trees.

Doing this, in his mind, would generate new hand cutters and keep the art alive into the future.

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year - or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.