From its base near Peterhead, S J Munro Forestry proudly claims to offer all forestry services, from standing tree to processed product. James Hendrie caught up with owner Stuart Munro to find out exactly what that entails, and how the business has grown in the seven years since its formation.

S J Munro Forestry, based at Hatton, just south of Peterhead, provides what it describes as ‘all forestry services, from standing tree to processed product’. I was interested to hear from owner Stuart Munro exactly what his company offers its clients and how it all started. As a family of farmers, the move into forestry came after Stuart’s father, John, planted 150 acres of woodland on poor-quality land in the 1990s.

“My father purchased a separate 150-acre block and took advantage of new plantation grants at the time to plant the whole area in mostly Sitka spruce, with some larch and mixed broadleaves,” Stuart said. “He planted everything and carried out weeding and management of the trees with assistance from some other workers at the time. We started thinning the wood by hand with little or no experience, taking out one row in six, hand-stacking and extracting with an old Toyota Land Cruiser and small timber trailer.”

So, from running a 300-acre mixed-operation arable and suckler cow farm, this decision saw John and Stuart move into forestry as well. To help process the timber harvested, John invested in a Palax 70S firewood processor. They used vented bags to store the firewood logs, which were seasoned for a year before being sold to a variety of customers in the local area. For Stuart though, there was to be a period away from the farm and Scotland, when he set off for Australia.

“For three years, from 2011 to 2013, I travelled and worked in Australia. I had always wanted to go there to see farming on a much different and larger scale to what I was used to here in Scotland. I worked driving combines during the harvesting season and loved it. It is such a great country to live and work in and, had it not been for the farm back home, I would still be there.”

Forestry Journal: Timberjack 1470D at Mintlaw on a clearfell site in November 2014.Timberjack 1470D at Mintlaw on a clearfell site in November 2014.

Returning to work on his dad’s and his own 110-acre farm, Stuart decided there was an opportunity to set up a fully fledged forestry business. Stuart, his dad and other farmers and estates had, over the years, moved into the use of biomass boilers as an energy source. Stuart was aware from personal experience that there was a need for a local wood supply source to fuel boilers.

The first of their own boilers was fitted to heat the farmhouse, office and a firewood kiln. A second biomass boiler was then installed to heat a second kiln and others for drying grain and heating a workshop. Stuart had identified this as being the base for his fledgling forestry business. The logic, in Stuart’s mind, was quite simple. He knew that there was a lot of woodland in his immediate area of Aberdeenshire that was located either on farms or estates. He felt that there was an opportunity for a local forestry business to derive value from these woodlands on behalf of their owners.

 “At the time I set up the business, there were a lot of farmers installing biomass boilers. I spoke to a lot of them who had their own woodland or required timber to fuel these boilers. They all said the same thing, they could not get any contractors to even look at their ‘small woodlands’ and any timber available to purchase was always over 50 miles away, making it expensive. The forestry business idea grew from there and I targeted working on all woodlands that other contractors deemed ‘too small’ to deal with.”

Forestry Journal: John Deere 1270G harvester working on a clearfell site at Fraserburgh March, 2020.John Deere 1270G harvester working on a clearfell site at Fraserburgh March, 2020.

For Stuart, this mantra that no job is too small or difficult for S J Munro Forestry to tackle or cope with remains the same, seven years on. “Thanks to the biomass sector, all timber now has a growing value on it. Back when I first started out, our customer base was so diverse that I would do anything from 500-tonne clearfell jobs to a couple of trees in someone’s garden. Work was all word of mouth, I’m a great believer in your work being your own best advertisement. Making a tidy job gets you a good reputation, which gets you more work.”

Returning to the business motto of being able to provide ‘all forestry services’ to clients, Stuart explained that S J Munro Forestry can offer a complete package, dealing with everything from woodland appraisal to seeking felling licence applications, to the marketing and purchasing of timber, as well as the felling and extraction of timber, its hauling off-site, right down to the removal of brash. Quite a package to be able to offer clients, especially those who are not large in scale.

Forestry Journal: Another load off a thinnings site for the John Deere 1210E forwarder at Aberdeen in July 2016.Another load off a thinnings site for the John Deere 1210E forwarder at Aberdeen in July 2016.

While the work on his father’s woodland was pretty much on a manual basis, Stuart realised that his new business would require machinery to drive success. His first major purchase was a Valmet 8400 tractor fitted with a Botex 560 roof-mounted crane and Keto 5.1 harvesting head. This head could be interchanged with a grab and, with a Farmi trailer hooked onto the tractor, Stuart had a ready-made forwarder. His logic was that, with this set-up, he had a single base machine that could effectively do everything.

Sadly, he soon found out the harsh forestry conditions he was operating on could quickly take their toll on the tractor. “The concept of this setup was great and versatile, but in practice, the tractor just wasn’t strong enough to be run with a harvesting head. Branches would burst tyres and radiators, cracks would appear in the chassis and I was removing hydraulic pumps to get it repaired right in the middle of woods!”

In April 2014, Stuart took delivery of his first purpose-built harvester, a Timberjack 1470D with a 758 HD harvesting head. This machine was purchased from John Deere Forestry UK, starting a business relationship that continues to this day. “Graeme Kemp (sales and accounts manager, north) was the person I dealt with on this purchase and on all the others that have followed. We hit it off right away and they have been great at supporting us both before and after each sale with anything that we have needed to keep this machine and others working.

“I had wanted a 1270 to be able to do thinnings and clearfells with one machine but none were available at the time, so I had the wheels taken in on this 1470D to reduce its width to three metres. I continued to run the Valmet 8400 tractor and trailer as my forwarder but it really struggled on the larger clearfell sites that we tackled.”

Forestry Journal: The newest acquisition – a John Deere 1270G that just goes out and cuts wood every day!The newest acquisition – a John Deere 1270G that just goes out and cuts wood every day!

The initial jobs for S J Munro Forestry were all located in and around the Peterhead base, never more than 30–40 minutes away. At this stage, they were woodlands on farms in the area that Stuart was aware of, being part of the local farming community. Then, as word spread of the work standard his company was offering, more work followed on both farms and local estates.

However, it was not always plain sailing, as Stuart remembers: “We were doing a thinning job around Peterhead when the 1470D got bogged down in a peat bog. That was a big learning lesson for me on how to carry out work early on soft peaty ground. It took two diggers and a lot of sweat and hard work to get it extracted and working again. The importance of a good solid brash mat for working on that type of ground was a hard lesson to learn. Like all things though, it was a good experience to have early on with the business.”

Forestry Journal: John Deere 1910E forwarder and brash baler in operation at Fraserburgh in September 2019.John Deere 1910E forwarder and brash baler in operation at Fraserburgh in September 2019.

Next up for Stuart was the purchase of a forwarder in June 2014. This machine was then quickly moved on and followed by another as has he attempted to get the right machines for him and the sites he was working on. “I purchased a 1985 Gremo 804 forwarder,” he said. “This was a great wee machine but it didn’t have many creature comforts and getting someone who was prepared to drive it was a chore. It had no air conditioning; I think it would have been cooler driving around in an oven. So, within a few months of buying it, I sold it and replaced it with a 1997 ‘black cab’ Valmet 840.”

The intention behind this purchase was not just getting a more operator-friendly machine, but also a more reliable machine that would be up to the rigours of the work that needed to be done. Unfortunately, this machine spent more time in the workshop that in the woods. Yet again, this was all a massive learning curve for Stuart. He soon determined that he was going to have to speculate to accumulate. So, he took the plunge and sought out finance in October 2015 to purchase a better machine.

 “Stephen Clark at Eagle Asset Finance was instrumental in arranging finance for me to purchase an ex-Forestry Commission 2010 John Deere 1210E forwarder. This was a massive cash commitment for the business and me, but this machine was a real step up from what we had been operating. However, I had plenty of work on the go at that time and I really needed to make the investment in a machine that was more reliable.”

The work that S J Munro Forestry was getting by this stage was still in small woodlands on local farms and estates; mostly below 1,000 tonnes and through word of mouth. However, the acquisition of the 1210E forwarder came at a time when the business was awarded a 3,000-tonne clearfell site on another estate at Peterhead. This, in Stuart’s words, “stepped them up a league” and ultimately led to a further two years of work on the same estate extracting 3,000 tonnes each year. It proved that they could handle bigger-tonnage jobs.

Forestry Journal: Thinnings jobs are a speciality for S J Munro Forestry.Thinnings jobs are a speciality for S J Munro Forestry.

Fast-forward a year to December 2016 and Stuart had enough work to justify the purchase of a second harvester. Once more, he plumped for a John Deere 1470D, as there were a lot of larger jobs and sites where this machine could be effectively deployed. However, despite being able to scale up with machinery to meet demand, Stuart still had issues recruiting operators.

 “As we were one of the first forestry businesses in this area it was hard to find people who had any experience operating this type of machinery. In addition, forestry was unknown in the area, as an industry, and was not something that attracted applicants for the jobs we had. It then took a lot of time training those I did recruit. There was also the risk that they would quit after a short period, after all the time and effort had been expended on them. That said, Matty Buist, who is still with me, proved the exception to the rule. He showed a real interest and aptitude for the work and that continues to this day.”

Stuart persevered, trying to work with the two 1470D harvesters, but, once again, in February 2018, he went back into the market, this time for a 2010 John Deere 1470E harvester. Once more, he had its wheels narrowed to allow it to do both clearfell and thinning jobs. “While I had the two machines, it became harder to keep them both going and one effectively became the source of parts for the other. I had visions of one being reduced to a shell if I kept on stripping it. The 1470E, being newer, was more productive and less likely to break down and cost money compared to the two 1470D machines so it became a case of simple economics to buy it.”

Stuart, in this short time of operating, soon came to find that it was better running newer, or in his words “fresher” machines, with less downtime. Keeping the machines producing was one of the key planks to his business’s strategy.

Forestry Journal: Another load for the Komatsu 840.4 forwarder on a clearfell site at Turriff in November 2018.Another load for the Komatsu 840.4 forwarder on a clearfell site at Turriff in November 2018.

In September of 2018, Stuart started to dabble in brash-recovery jobs. However, this was not to prove long-term, principally due to slow payment. He also utilised the John Deere 1210E on other extraction work, which included Christmas trees for Festive Fir at Ellon. To allow this to be done quickly and successfully, Stuart removed a hook lift from a lorry and placed it on his 1210E with the bolsters and headboard removed. This allows the netted trees to be collected on-site, loaded by the forwarder, and removed away from the field to be palletised.

Work continued on the clearfell and thinning jobs, with a Komatsu 840.4 forwarder being bought in to work alongside the John Deere 1470 harvester. Moving into early 2019, there was enough work to justify running a specialist thinnings squad.

“By the February of 2019, we had gathered so much work on thinnings that I could contemplate the purchase of a Hyundai LCR 145 crawler excavator equipped with an AFM 45 harvester head. This allowed more focus on the continuous flow of thinnings work that we had, but also meant we could carry out any excavator work at the same time with this combination. The Komatsu 840.4 forwarder ran in tandem with this piece of kit.”

A few months later, Stuart got the opportunity to buy a John Deere brash baler and the Komatsu 840.4 was traded in for a 2011 John Deere 1910E forwarder, onto which this baler could be fitted. This machine was more than able to operate on clearfell sites as well. “I believe this brash baler may be the last of its kind operating in the country. It allows a good finish to sites and, while we do not do a lot with it, we have five or so customers that we supply around 2,000 bales a year to. The brash is converted into 500 kg average weight bales, which can be burnt without smoke to produce 12 MJ of energy on average per tonne. We use these bales in our own biomass boilers while grain drying and we know that one bale lasts for four hours. It is a niche bit of my business but it’s another string to our bow.”

Forestry Journal: This ex-Forestry Commission John Deere 1210E forwarder loading logs on a thinnings job in Aberdeen in July 2016.This ex-Forestry Commission John Deere 1210E forwarder loading logs on a thinnings job in Aberdeen in July 2016.

As 2019 ended, the business was harvesting around 35,000 tonnes of timber and showed no sign of letting up. “By March of 2020, it was clear that we were still not catching up on the work that was coming in. The John Deere 1470E harvester was getting tired so I traded it in for a 2016 John Deere 1270G with a H415 harvester head. Meanwhile, the Hyundai/AFM excavator was great. It was a good machine to keep plodding away quite steadily but I found there was not a great deal of speed of operation from it. It struggled for power cutting through heavily branched coast spruce, for example, so I moved that on for a John Deere 1170E with a H414 harvester head. It was a task in itself to find a machine that fitted within the budget that I was prepared to pay. The H414 head is a great small head for thinning work; it’s very agile to operate in and around trees.”

The final machinery change this year was the replacement of the John Deere 1210E with a John Deere 810D. Stuart told me this machine was much more suited to the first thinnings work that they specialise in. He also explained that while he has had quite a few machines in the relatively short period of time that the business has been operating, they were all bought to take the business forward. However, he was quick to emphasise that he has been a firm believer in buying what the business could afford and at the right time. It has maybe meant many long hours in the workshop but he feels a degree of pride in being able to carry out the majority of the repairs these machines have needed over the years himself.

That said, because of the ever-increasing workload, downtime started to become a focus. To keep up with demand and keep his customers happy, as well as enhancing his company’s reputation, Stuart explained that his approach has always been to upgrade machines to suit the workload and the business cash flow. “The John Deere 1270G purchase was the cause of a few sleepless nights as it was such a massive investment, but it has definitely paid off. It just goes out and cuts timber every day.”

S J Munro Forestry, in Stuart’s words, mainly focuses on small under-managed woodlands on farms and estates. It has been the growth of the biomass market in the time that they have been operating that has brought value to these types of woodlands. They can offer the full range of services to a woodland owner, from initial appraisal work of the woods through to felling applications, as well as the contracting and marketing of the felled timber.

Forestry Journal: Below: An example of a recent first thinnings job, carried out at Aberdeen in April 2020.Below: An example of a recent first thinnings job, carried out at Aberdeen in April 2020.

Stuart works closely with RTS Forestry, who themselves specialise in offering forest management and contracting services. “The relationship started when I began cutting better-quality sawmill timber. There are only a couple of small sawmills up here and I approached RTS to market this for me. I got on well with their harvesting manager, Harry Wilson. We developed a mutual trust and he saw the opportunity to have a harvesting contractor in this part of the country that could work with them. Effectively, they do most of the paperwork and managing of the sites to allow me more time on the machines and also carrying out any repairs and services that I need to on my kit.”

As if running a forestry business was not enough, Stuart still helps on his father’s farm as well as running his own 110-acre farm, located close by. His father still operates the firewood business, Braco Firewood.

S J Munro Forestry is fully committed to working on the thinnings side and has invested to allow it to offer a complete and professional service to its customers. Stuart’s wife, Louise, supports him in the running of the business, dealing with the administrative side, keeping track of  jobs and managing all the customer-facing aspects of it that are vital to any successful business. For Stuart, she does all the “hidden and unseen work” that is necessary but that he “wouldn’t do half as well”.

However, Stuart is concerned that, with low rates for thinning work, some contractors are taking thinnings jobs to keep the wheels turning. “In doing this, they put in machines which are more suited to clearfell work and are too big. This leads to, in my opinion, a lack of time being taken to do thinnings properly, which, in my book, includes no shinning of the remaining crop, no ground or root damage, single row working, and the removing of the poorer-quality trees from the stand. We have invested heavily in this type of work and take great pride in making a good job, leaving the woodland in a way I would like my own woodland left after thinning.”

I was interested to see how Stuart saw this situation going forward and where he saw his business going. “I am happy with the size that the business is currently and have no plans to grow it much bigger. I will look to keep offering a service to our customers. We recently started offering small-scale localised timber movement using a Valtra T194 tractor and timber trailer with a Kesla crane. This can get right into the woods and extract the timber to where the customer wants it, as a kind of one-stop service.”

As 2020 has been the year of a worldwide pandemic, I had to ask how it has affected S J Munro Forestry. Stuart was pretty positive in his assessment of its impact. “The COVID-19 pandemic has not affected us and we have continued to work through it. The lack of traffic on the road during lockdown was, in fact, a great advantage to us getting to and from sites. John Deere kept open and supported us so it was literally business as usual. Forestry always has its ups and downs and maybe one of the impacts of COVID-19 might be that some businesses will fall by the wayside, leaving the sector clear for those that pride themselves on being able to deliver a good job for a fair rate.”

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