James Hendrie has a socially distanced conversation with Derek Prosser of Prosser Forestry. The Aberdeenshire-based family firm has kept working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent project being a first thinning in the Highlands, which has presented its own natural challenges – never mind the virus.

PROSSER Timber Contractors from Aboyne in Aberdeenshire have continued operating during the current COVID-19 pandemic. They are not carrying out clearfell harvesting but instead are working on a first thinnings, producing timber destined for chipboard and biomass production. I have been keeping in contact with Derek Prosser, through electronic and phone communications, to gain an insight into how things are different to the norm in these challenging times.

I first met up with Derek and this family of woodcutters in 2016, writing a feature on them for Forestry Journal. Back then, they were working for Cordiners Sawmills at Banchory.

Derek brought me up to date, telling me that this relationship had ended and that they now worked with Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) and Euroforest in the main. They also do the odd site for Munro Harvesting when they have anything spare available. This unexpected change for them came at a time when the Prossers had invested heavily in kit and they had not foreseen anything like this coming.

Derek told me that it was a worrying time for him, his brothers David and Donald, father Henry and mother Carol. “Personally I did consider leaving the industry and becoming a machinery salesman. It made me realise that you can’t assume that times will always be good and that when times are tough you appreciate the support and help from good friends.”

One such friend was Bill Munro, a retired harvesting contractor from Aberdeenshire, who not only offered some wise words but also the practical help of sites to harvest to generate income.

“Harold Taylor was another who gave us some of his own sites to work on and there were offers from other contractors. We also got a site at Lairg for Euroforest and that started a new business relationship, which has continued to grow and flourish since then, including through these difficult times with the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Simon is our harvesting manager and we all get on great with him. He is a nice guy, a straight talker and he soon lets us know if there is anything he is not happy about.”

Forestry Journal: David putting stumps and brash into the main extraction route with the JCB JS160 excavator.David putting stumps and brash into the main extraction route with the JCB JS160 excavator.

From the Lairg site with Euroforest, Derek explained that they then won a long-term contract with FLS. They also got a call from Mathew Thompson of Munro Harvesting, offering a 5,000-tonne windblown site for harvesting. So, the Prosser boys soon found themselves heading off to work on an ongoing basis to the north of Scotland and Morayshire rather than their normal heartland of Aberdeenshire. For Derek, it’s been a move that he has enjoyed. He has learned that “the tales of the deep peat of the north are indeed true so a different method of working a site is required up there”.

The site that Prosser Timber Contractors is working on currently is located at Eskadale, near Beauly, in Inverness-shire. It is on an estate managed by Dietrich Pannwitz for Sylvestrus Ltd. “Euroforest quickly found us this site to keep us going in the current COVID-19 pandemic. We did have a nice clearfell site lined up, but with the sawmills currently closed there was nowhere to put the logs. There is no point in cutting on the site until they open the gates again. This Eskadale site is a 2,000-tonne first thinning job.”

From talking to Derek, it appears this site presents its own natural challenges to the boys – never mind the COVID-19 issues. There is a rocky outcrop at the top of the site with boulders described by Derek as “being as big as the size of Mini cars”, which need to be navigated around to get to the Scots pine and larch there. While at the lower end of the site, the ground is of the famous north of Scotland peat formation, with wind-twisted Sitka spruce and lodgepole. The peat is 15 feet deep in some of the wettest areas of the site, which overall is 50 ha in size.

Onto this site, the Prossers have moved their John Deere 1270E IT4 8WD harvester, Ponsse Wisent forwarder, and JCB JS160 excavator, to allow the work to be carried out. It seems that this was achieved without any bother.

“We have not been stopped and checked yet by the police and none of our low-loader contractors have been stopped either. We have paperwork explaining we are essential workers, supplied by Euroforest, in the pickups and we drive behind the low loader in case there are any issues, which, if there were, we would hope we could resolve quickly.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the recent press and publicity, it was not the equipment move that caused an issue when they did it; rather it was the caravan that they moved to the site that ended up causing some initial local conflict. Derek explained: “As we moved the caravan to the Eskadale site there were a couple of locals in the main square at Beauly that started shouting at us to stay at home as well as some giving us some other colourful language. We quickly explained that we were essential forestry workers and once they heard our accents they were fine about it, realising that we were not tourists moving into the area.”

Forestry Journal: Sometimes the big rocks on the site come in handy.Sometimes the big rocks on the site come in handy.

Queuing to get food in the local shops because of the social distancing rules reminds Derek of his school days. Although he seems to have been able to sort out a local arrangement to arrive just before closing time to get first dibs on the food that is being thrown out that day. There has been mention of a tree needing work done on in return, perhaps in the future, from one of the shop staff, as a kind of quid pro quo arrangement.

“I always look a bit funny walking through the shop with my black rubber gloves after refuelling but this COVID-19 pandemic is no joke. I get annoyed that some people are not taking it seriously. After the gloves are off, it is straight on with the hand sanitiser. It is also strange working on sites currently as well and dealing with visitors. If we are talking to Paul Simon or anyone else that visits the job we now talk keeping a safe distance from one another. This feels quite weird but it needs to be done to stop the spread of this virus.”

Two bits of kit that the Prossers did not take to Eskadale are their John Deere 1470E IT4 harvester and Komatsu 855 forwarder. Both these machines are normally used on the Prossers’ Forestry and Land Scotland contract. They are not needed now due to the close-down of the sawmills who would be the customers for the log materials that they would cut and move. Derek is once again happy for the support of their low-loader haulage contractor Donald MacNicol in offering them a secure location to park up these machines.

Forestry Journal: JCB JS160 excavator being used to move rocks on the site.JCB JS160 excavator being used to move rocks on the site.

“The 1470 and 855 are safe and secure thanks to Donald. We visit them once a fortnight, start them, and run them for a while. It is good that the weather has been nice, as wet and damp weather could cause issues with the machines’ modules and computers. All maintenance and greasing was done on the machines before they were parked up. The machines will be ready for when the market picks up as the government lockdown restrictions ease.”

Derek also explained that with regard to these two machines, given that they are not operating, and having had advice from their accountant, they have taken advantage of the three-month finance repayment holiday the government is pushing.

“I was worried about the effect it might have on our credit rating, and also as we were still in a position to keep paying, so initially I did not see the rationale of applying for this. However, it was explained to me that if this COVID-19 pandemic impact proves to be a long-term issue, it would be better to conserve cash currently. The reason being that with effectively no income coming in later on, cash might be needed to help sustain the business. After listening to this advice and discussing it as a family we decided that it was the right thing to do.”

Forestry Journal:  Looking down the steep rocky area on the west of the site, some of which is inaccessible even to the excavator. Looking down the steep rocky area on the west of the site, some of which is inaccessible even to the excavator.

Returning to the site at Eskadale, the boys started work there in mid April and Derek is full of praise for the condition of the site and the way that it is managed by Dietrich, describing him as a “very professional forester and consultant”. He also told me that his planting schemes are to a very high standard.

“Dietrich likes things done right on the site and I can accept and understand that.  He is a very nice man and I have to say that the maps that his company produce for sites are some of the best and most informative that I have seen. Dietrich often brings us German magazines to read, the odd cake, and it is great talking about forestry with him. I just wish that I had chosen German instead of French at school!”

Forestry Journal: Ponsse Wisent forwarder moving through the wood.Ponsse Wisent forwarder moving through the wood.

The way the team operate on site is that Derek and Donald share the harvesting duties, operating with one of them on an early morning to early afternoon shift and then the other takes over and runs the harvester into the early evening. Henry operates the forwarder, and David the excavator for the creation of access routes and reinstatement of the ground after the machines have finished working on it. David also does some shifts on the forwarder to relieve Henry. This routine carries on during the week until Friday when a sharp finish is normally planned to allow them to embark on the two-hour trip back home to Aberdeenshire.

Initially, the task was to produce pulpwood for Norbord at Dalcross, near Inverness, which they were turning into chipboard for the construction of temporary hospitals. This then moved on to producing chipwood for Balcas at Invergordon, which is ultimately to support the generation of electricity and heating in hospitals. The weather while working on the site has, in the main, been good and that has helped production. There is a restriction on the removal of timber from the Eskadale site. Only three lorryloads per day are allowed as the route from the site goes through the local villages of Eskadale, Haughton and Fanellan. The moving of the timber is carried out by Barclay timber hauliers from Inverness.

Derek explained to me how he likes to tackle sites they work on: “I like to harvest a site in the most fuel-efficient way possible, heading for the furthermost point of the site first and then working back to the nearer areas. This saves tracking the machine back and forth longer distances and helps to prevent ground damage. It also helps to maximise the working life of a pair of harvester tracks. On this site at Eskadale, where the longest extraction point is one mile, I reckon doing this we should save around £800 on harvester fuel, never mind it being good for the environment.”

Another cost-saving measure used on this and other rocky sites by the Prossers is to use resharpened chains. Derek told me that getting a chain resharpened costs around £4 while a new harvester chain is £14, hence the rationale.

“I have 150 spare resharpened chains on site as I like to keep plenty available so that I can cut the whole site without worrying about having to go and sharpen chains in the evening.”

Having the right machines for each site is also important in Derek’s mind: “The John Deere 1270E IT4 8WD harvester is ideal for this job because it is narrower in the racks and it also works well on softer ground and steeper areas. The ploughing is quite deep but it is not giving us problems. David, who is very good on an excavator, built the main extraction route; he pulled out stumps and turned them upside down to help make a good roadway.

“We try to put most of the racks across the ploughing in the bottom, because they tend to be a lot deeper, to keep the nose of the machine up as we always say it is better than going in the direction of the hill on peaty ground. If we go in the direction of plough, rather than doing this, the stumps can cause problems if a machine sinks, so it is easier to cross them and the roots are then helping to hold the machines up.”

Forestry Journal: David working the JCB JS160 excavator on the access road creation.David working the JCB JS160 excavator on the access road creation.

The purchase of the JCB JS160 excavator has proved to be a shrewd investment for the Prosser team, with the cost of hiring in an excavator being high – as they found out when they looked into it for a job on their own land. Interestingly, the rock bucket teeth on the excavator have only been lasting two weeks on this site compared to the norm of up to six months. 

The Ponsse Wisent forwarder, which is better suited to first thinning and wetter sites, because in Derek’s words, it is “light and nimble”, has again proved its worth on the job as far as he is concerned. David has fitted a pair of new band tracks to it to allow it to climb the steeper ground better. As well as moving the harvested timber, the forwarder has also been used to take stumps and rocks to the wetter areas of the site to help with the building of extraction routes.

Forestry Journal: Cab view of harvesting.Cab view of harvesting.

The site at Eskadale is offering Prosser the opportunity to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Derek, when I was discussing the site with him, told me: “It is not the best job in the world but it will keep us busy for a couple of months or so. If we can get 300 tonnes a week cut and extracted it will be fine, we might even get a carry-out meal from the local pub on a Sunday evening out of it. We are grateful to have it and to be working and especially for the help that Paul Simon and his boss, Jamie Henry, the general manager at Euroforest, have given us to get the work.”

As well as still carrying out harvesting work, the Prosser boys have been supplying firewood around the local area of their Aberdeenshire base. Although recently demand has fallen off, they did in fact have to buy in an extra 250 tonnes to keep up with needs of their customers. Firewood is an area they think that they can move into in a larger way in the future. Currently they produce around 1,000 tonnes a year at their Logie Coldstone base. They process their firewood using a Posch SpaltFix S-375 Turbo processor, which can cut, split and load firewood in one go.

On occasion, the Prosser family donates some loads of firewood to local charities to auction off and raise funds. This, they find, also generates a lot of goodwill amongst their customers and the local community.

Returning to the harvesting side, and the future, they currently have plans for the purchase of a new John Deere 1470G harvester for later on in summer. However, with the current pandemic, and issues and uncertainty in the marketplace, that is something they will have to give some thought to. Maybe one idea that will be for the longer term, especially given the current circumstances, is moving into extraction of timber via skylining. Derek reckons there are many sites where the ability to get to the timber by this method would be a real advantage in securing the work.

“We would keep pushing forward with the normal harvester and forwarder sites but I would like to invest in a skyline and a track-based harvester in the future so that our eggs are not all in the one basket. Doing this would allow us to take on the really steep and rocky harvesting sites that many other contractors will not do. I plan at some stage to visit America to see how they do it. Before committing to do this though, we would have to do the sums and make sure it is profitable to do so.”

No job in the woods comes without challenges and hiccups and over the course of working on the Eskadale site the Prosser boys have had a few – the obvious one being rain causing the extraction of timber to be held up due to the peaty ground on the site. Also, on one occasion, they were left trying to cook microwave meals in a gas oven after their generator blew up.

The Prossers also own nine equal-size-wheeled County tractors and spend a lot of time working on and restoring them, some for resale. So this and other hobbies and interests outwith forestry, as well as the general routines of maintaining a fleet of forestry machinery, keeps them busy when they are not in the woods. Again, as in all that they do, each member of the family has a skill set that helps them to do things in-house rather than adding to the expense line by having to outsource. Donald in this case is the family mechanic and welder, saving them a lot of money by doing most of the large services and repairs on their machines himself.

Forestry Journal: Working on County tractors like this 1124 is a big part of the Prosser team’s leisure activity.Working on County tractors like this 1124 is a big part of the Prosser team’s leisure activity.

Derek, on the other hand, is also probably best known for, as he describes it himself, doing “the odd bit of wheeling and dealing”. His Facebook page is certainly always an interesting one to check out to see what he has on offer.  The deals are normally wide and varied any time I have done so and recently included an ‘exclusive’ deal on the purchase of cases of Cadbury Creme Eggs alongside the sale of forestry machinery and parts.

As I was completing this feature for the magazine, Derek told me that they were well over halfway through the harvesting of the first thinnings on the site. There were signs of a move towards an easing of the various governments’ lockdown measures that were in force across the United Kingdom. I wondered how he saw both this job panning out in the coming weeks and also what he thought would happen in the wider forestry industry as we move towards what is being described as a ‘new kind of normal’.

“I think it will take the rest of the year to get a move towards some kind of normality. There will be huge stockpiles of log material at roadside so it will take the sawmills time to use this up. There may be less imported timber coming into the UK if movement restrictions remain. I think there will be change in our industry with some contractors exiting the sector and those that remain having to work hard to overcome the financial impacts of this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Derek estimated another month to complete the Eskadale site with, at the middle of May, most of the bottom peaty bit of the site harvested. That would see them return up to the steeper ground to get the larch and Scots pine left up there. There would be some reinstatement work required on a footpath before leaving the site. After this, the Prosser boys are ready to head to their next site, another thinnings job near Inverness.

“The next site again will be pretty much destined for slats and chipboard, but we have a major clearfell site with good log material on it ready to start once the markets pick up. So, fingers crossed, we will be chewing through that log material with our 1470 soon!”

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