As foresters, contractors and health and safety officials squabble about welfare, FCA England chairman Simon Bowes turns his attention to ash dieback, which he argues is a far more urgent problem for the industry.

IF you follow the various forestry pages on the web, you’ll find the subject currently stirring emotions in the world of contracting is welfare. I can’t help but agree with most people who comment. I’ve been out in the woods much of my working life and I’ve never had a portaloo on site until the last couple of weeks. I talked with my FWM about it and there was no issue. All I did was show the hire company where I wanted it. I’m not paying for it; not directly, not indirectly. My rate hasn’t altered from what it was before the thing turned up... but nobody’s using it. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make a contractor use a stinking plastic toilet, especially when there’s a hundred acres of nice woodland at hand.

There are two things I find frustrating about the welfare issue. The first is that it was straightforward when it came out of FISA as guidance. Contractors would be reimbursed for any costs incurred, not through the mythical rate increase (which we all know is a nonsense), but by the raising of invoices from the contractor to the FWM’s company as a separate cost item.

Even before the guidance had been read by many contractors, they were being told they had to provide welfare units and they had to pay for them. That was the worst of it. Slightly less odious was that they would have to provide welfare and add the cost into their contracting rate. There were a few companies who agreed to follow the guidance and either reimburse contractors or actually pay for the welfare units themselves.

The transgressors ignoring the guidance were the same people who sat at FISA and signed it off. They were ignoring the guidance they had written, agreed and signed up to.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. They don’t react well to agreements they don’t like, even when they are agreements they have made.

The second thing that frustrates me around this argument over why we’ve been ignoring legislation on welfare for 28 years (even though I can’t find a single toilet-related accident) is that it has diverted attention from the issue most likely to cause accidents and fatalities if we don’t get a grip on it quickly. Felling diseased ash is almost certain to see someone hurt or killed in 2020 and we’re still arguing about where we do – or don’t – take a dump in the woods.

Forestry Journal: These pictures, showing the result of a tree-felling incident involving diseased ash, were widely circulated online via FISA.These pictures, showing the result of a tree-felling incident involving diseased ash, were widely circulated online via FISA.


I was travelling to secondary school on the United 128 bus when they felled the elms on the way into town. We had to wait in traffic while the workers felling the trees cleared the road. I can’t remember seeing a single hi-vis jacket or set of traffic lights, but this would have been pre-1974 so no HSAW Act would have been in force then. I still talk to retired woodsmen who hark back to what they called a bonanza, when they made as much money in a day as they had previously been making in a week. It was an uncomplicated business back then, from what I understand. Trees needed felling and they felled them.

I hear the current crisis with ash dieback being likened to Dutch elm disease and there are comparisons: a major landscape tree is under threat but, unlike elm, it doesn’t look as though ash is going to survive in the same way. I still fell the occasional elm on one of the estates where I work, but the firewood processor operator doesn’t thank me for it. Elm has survived as a hedgerow shrub with the occasional specimen growing to a more recognisable stature before the beetle finds it and it dies. These casualties usually regrow from the stump and transition from shrub to tree before the cycle repeats itself. I haven’t seen any evidence of ash reacting in this way, although I did fell a very old, hollow ash in 2017 that displayed new growth from the stump. I’ll keep an eye on it and see how it does this summer.

I talked to some FCA members about ash dieback last autumn and there is a lot of concern out there, in the real world.

Forestry Journal: These pictures, showing the result of a tree-felling incident involving diseased ash, were widely circulated online via FISA.These pictures, showing the result of a tree-felling incident involving diseased ash, were widely circulated online via FISA.


A few weeks ago, a safety alert came across my desk for comment. It was a Toolbox Talk written up by the compliance team of a large forestry company. The subject of the document was a tree-felling incident where a dead tree had fallen across a building while it was being brought down. It had pictures, diagrams and a narrative that explained what had gone wrong.

The text described the problems encountered while felling dead trees. It described the method used, the planning involved (someone had climbed the tree and removed some of the lower branches from one side) and the equipment used. A hydraulic wedge was pictured at the stump, the tree was balanced on the roof of an adjacent structure and the stump looked reasonable from a distance, but close up the picture was entirely different. The document went on to a section explaining what lessons could be learned from this incident.

It had been sent to the FCA for comment by a member who was shocked at what he described as the “wholly incomprehensible mistakes contained in the document”. On review, no one I spoke to had a differing opinion.

The stump was wholly incorrect. The only lesson anyone could take from the pictures was that whoever had done the felling had a very poor skill level.

To explain to anyone who isn’t a chainsaw operator: there are three basic cuts made to form a hinge when felling most trees. Two cuts form the mouth or gob at the front of the tree and the intersection of these two cuts form the front edge of the hinge. The third cut – the ‘felling’ or ‘back’ cut – comes in from the back of the tree, slightly higher than the bottom surface of the gob; the front edge of this cut forms the back edge of the hinge.

In a most basic description of how this works, it is the wood you leave that forms the hinge. The felling direction is at right angles to this hinge. If you lay a book on the table and hold it open at the middle pages and then close it to about 60 degrees, the spine becomes the hinge and the book closes back to a nice oblong shape. That’s how the hinge in a faller’s felling cuts works, if it has been correctly formed. For it to work like our book, all the cuts must be accurate.

The most common fault novices make is they don’t get the two cuts in the gob to meet perfectly. If either one is too far into the stem of the tree, the hinge will be undercut and will break off, leading to the tree following its natural lean or weight bias. The second fault is that when they put the back cut in, they either cut too far into the stem at the start, the end or all the way across the back of the hinge, leading to the same outcome as in the first scenario.

The compliance team in our Toolbox Talk had either ignored the clear evidence in the pictures or they didn’t have the competency required to recognise it. In the pictures of the stump, it is clear that the top cut of the gob had gone way too far into the tree and had undercut the hinge along its entire length, rendering the hinge useless.

This suggests complacency. The fact the entire document was available on the FISA website confirms this complacency.

Around the same time as all this was happening, the FCA received a number of private messages via its Facebook page. One correspondent in particular was very annoyed after attending a FISA seminar on diseased ash, coming away with the distinct impression that it had been aimed at managers who would be running felling sites where they would encounter diseased trees. There was nothing for the operators, who he was already aware would be facing the most challenging work they had encountered, regardless of how experienced they were. He thought the whole approach displayed showed an alarming complacency.


You might be wondering why I haven’t explicitly talked about felling diseased ash in an article about felling diseased ash. Well, the problem (as I see it) is that, while a number of people in the establishment are talking about it, there is still a culture of silence around the real issue that has nothing to do with aesthetics or economics and everything to do with the safety of the guys on the ground with chainsaws.

An eminent and well-regarded member of the health and safety community once told me the eventual outcome they were looking for was to see the end of forestry harvesting that required the use of chainsaws. That just isn’t going to happen in the short term. In the meantime, the advice from the FCA is to use mechanical harvesting methods wherever it is possible to fell diseased ash, but it is readily acknowledged that, as the disease progresses, there are going to be more and more sites where either the trees are inaccessible  to machines (harvesters or other carriers fitted with tree shears) or they are just too big.

Further to this is the advice that pre-planning, risk assessing and a more measured approach to felling trees on an individual basis is required. There was more feedback on this subject too. One message we received explained that a gang of hand cutters (such things do still exist in parts of the country) had been told they weren’t producing enough timber to warrant the money they were being paid. It was explained to the manager that they had been forced to slow down as they had found the ash they were felling was shedding lots of branches, was unpredictable on the hinge and even rounding up was dangerous as large branches under tension were liable to split in a manner they hadn’t seen before.

Unmoved, the manager explained that if they couldn’t make it pay, then maybe somebody else could (remarkably complacent, even by forestry standards).

Forestry Journal: A typical stump of an infected ash. The hinge has broken off cleanly with no pulled fibres.A typical stump of an infected ash. The hinge has broken off cleanly with no pulled fibres.


That just about sums up where we appear to be at the moment. I’ve felled ash every summer for the last 10 years and, even with my experience, I’m torn as to what to do. I’ve lost my longest-serving hand cutter to retirement. I’m not fit enough to fell anymore and I don’t know if I want to put someone I don’t know onto the ground, felling the sort of stuff we worked through last year.

It was towards the end of the summer that we found trees that didn’t hold to even perfectly formed hinges, and that was more worrying than the showers of broken pieces of branchwood that accompanied almost every falling tree. I am reasonably comfortable with the felling method we’ve developed. The big advantage I’ve got is that the estate forester I work with started out using a saw many years ago on the same sites we are working now. He’s been on the ground with a chainsaw in his hands and not just long enough to get a chainsaw ticket – he was a faller, day in, day out. He can look at what we’re going through and he knows why I need to up my rate.

He can also understand why there are some trees I just won’t tackle. He would rather leave them standing than explain why someone got hurt felling a dangerous tree that could have been left to collapse naturally. And if it is in an area where public access is an issue, he will have the estate’s own men take it down by dismantling it, if there’s no safer method. He’s not complacent. He understands we could be one bad decision away from calling the air ambulance.

I really worry about this. With the shooting season over, many estates have been gearing up to start their forestry programmes. I’d like to make an appeal to landowners, managers, foresters and anyone else who’ll listen: felling ash needs to be viewed as a crisis that is upon us.

If we managed to focus all the energy expended on getting portaloos onto harvesting sites when hardly anyone wanted them, surely it can’t be difficult to harness the same drive when it could save someone’s life. That’s what we’re talking about, whether we like it or not, and all we need is an end to this widespread complacency.

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