The world has changed a lot since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the UK into lockdown back in March. People across all industries have faced tremendous challenges and had to adapt to new ways of working. Forestry has certainly not been spared. In our May issue, James Hendrie reported on how forestry workers across multiple areas were adjusting. As we approach the end of the year, he got back in touch to find out how things have evolved in the intervening months.

AS the country heads into the winter months, the reintroduction of COVID-19 restrictions and a number of local area lockdowns, the forestry industry, like many others, has had to come to terms with new ways of operating. Forestry Journal, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdown, sought out a number of forestry sector companies and educational providers to hear from them directly about the impact it was having on them. Six months on, it’s time to go back to find out how things are now.

Forestry Journal: Prosser Timber Contractors John Deere 1470E it4 harvester heading back to work after a three-month lockdown.Prosser Timber Contractors John Deere 1470E it4 harvester heading back to work after a three-month lockdown.

Jim Mailer, who operates Treeworks Moray, took the decision to close down and only carry out emergency works during lockdown, so I was keen to get an update from him.

He told me: “Work is back to normal. With the very low impact seen at our local hospital, we made the decision to get back to normal working by late May, early June.

“One of the first jobs we did was a crown reduction on a chestnut, to allow a larger oxygen tank to be installed at the hospital. It was evident from that visit that A&E was not being impacted to any extent and we took the decision based on that to resume.

“Going forward for us it is work as normal, allowing for safe spacing for customers and fellow workers. We also managed an emergency first aid at work and forestry course on my premises with suitable spacing, masks and disposable gloves (especially for bandaging practice and testing), and a good official update on how to deal with casualties in a COVID-infected world”.

Prosser Timber Contractors has continued to operate throughout the pandemic and Derek Prosser told me that himself, his father and two brothers have been working flat out since we last spoke.

“Honestly, we have never been so busy with both the timber harvesting and firewood orders, which have gone crazy,” he said. “David and I are currently working on a clearfell site near Achnasheen for Euroforest up north. The demand for timber is very strong just now, so we are working fourteen-hour days to make up for lost time. Timber is moving as fast as we can get it to roadside.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Assessing the impact

“Donald and Henry are working on a biomass-thinning site near Braemar at Mar estate on behalf of Treeline Forestry. Once that site is completed, they are moving about one mile west to Mar Lodge to do four weeks of biomass harvesting and extraction there for the National Trust for Scotland. In addition, we have a site-clear job lined up and stump removal for the excavator, which we will do at the weekends.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought very strange times, but life and business still has to go on. Personally, I do not think the country can afford another long-term lockdown. Winter is coming in fast and with today’s strong biomass markets and the sawmills now screaming for logs I am very positive about the future. We are ready to invest heavily in more machinery as I think we have found the right people to work for.”

Forestry Journal: Pentland Biomass has invested in a Remet 150 wood processor during lockdown to help process smaller pieces of timber.Pentland Biomass has invested in a Remet 150 wood processor during lockdown to help process smaller pieces of timber.


Jonny Younger of Hi-Line Forestry echoed similar views. “We have continued to work on through lockdown,” he said. “We had cut a lot of timber just before and in the first couple of months we had plenty of timber to extract. I was looking to buy a forwarder and I took the decision to buy a Gremo. It is a low-ground-impact machine, which suits the estate work that we do. Moving to a purpose-built machine has made extraction more efficient and far quicker with a lot more operator comfort.

“In short, it has been very much business as usual for us. We are now back cutting and working hard to keep up with demand. From a workforce point of view, COVID testing with a quick result means that we soon know if a team member needs to isolate or can work. I think we all just need to keep being sensible both at work and at home until a vaccine is found.”

Mike Ramage of Mike Ramage Forestry, based in Melrose, has found some cutbacks on maintenance work and offered a cautious note.

“I still envisage a slowdown as there will be reduced felling so in turn less restock planting,” he said. “Woodland creation is great but it is always up in the air with passing through the hurdles of application. The real worry is getting through the winter without a second peak.

“Notably, I have never had to advertise for workers this season as we have kept the same crew. I have also never seen so many people asking for work, which is great on one hand, but lack of jobs is worrying for rural economies. My hope is there is a vaccine by the end of the year and we can see a real bounce back and stop looking over our shoulder at the spectre of COVID-19.”

Forestry Journal: Prosser Timber Contractors’ John Deere 1470E IT4 on a thinning job on the Mar Estate.Prosser Timber Contractors’ John Deere 1470E IT4 on a thinning job on the Mar Estate.


The BSW K2 sawmill at Fort William is now reopened, and mill manager Olly Stephen offered the following update.

“At the end of March, BSW took the decision to offer furlough to a large percentage of the workforce. Here in Fort William that meant almost 95 per cent of our employees were placed on furlough, with only a small number (including me) remaining at work, undertaking basic maintenance, loading, and site COVID preparations for the return of employees, such as line marking, sanitiser stations, canteen screens, and preparation of temperature checks.

Forestry Journal: Social distancing floor markers at the K2 sawmill.Social distancing floor markers at the K2 sawmill.

“We set up a test station at the entrance and set about ensuring that all the relevant cleaning products were available in areas that needed them. The mill was shut down for six weeks and from around the middle of May I started phasing employees back to work, based on business demand and skills. I am delighted to say that by 3 August, all employees were back to work and I have even managed to employ an additional six who are working in the development mill.

“We have seen a strong order book, heavy to DIY sector, also construction has just started to turn up the order volumes. Ordinarily our sales cycle would see us dropping back in the next few months, but as things stand orders continue to be strong. I believe that the imports are down and this is also helping matters.”

Meanwhile, at James Carr & Sons sawmill, near Dundee, owner Stephen Havranek managed to keep his mill open.

Forestry Journal:  Team members working at James Carr & Sons sawmill socially distanced. Team members working at James Carr & Sons sawmill socially distanced.

“Things have been incredibly busy for us at the mill,” he said. “There are just not enough hours in the day. With everyone on lockdown and not spending their money on holidays abroad, we have been inundated with orders for fencing, decking and sleepers. Let us just hope it continues. My concern is that things will get quiet in the winter once furlough subsidies stop and the number of redundancies rises.    

“Social distancing in a sawmill tends not to be an issue as work stations are at least four to five metres apart. We do however abide by all the government guidelines with regular audits, signage, providing hand sanitising stations and we have restricted areas and access. Everyone in the mill now wears a flip-down visor (a similar idea to a chainsaw helmet but not open mesh) in case they need to speak to one another. It works really well.

“We have all had an input into what measures have been taken. Every week the entire workforce takes the time to discuss concerns and to suggest new, safer working practices.”

Forestry Journal: Hand sanitising stations at the K2 sawmill.Hand sanitising stations at the K2 sawmill.


Calum Duffy of Duffy Skylining, based in Inverness, shut down his skylining operations during lockdown but is now back operating.

“We are currently working fairly flat out,” he said. “Initially we had to shut down for eight weeks, which was hard to take and I’m starting to feel the effects of that period in my business now.

“I took a financial holiday, which helped initially, but it now feels like I am treading water and working harder to catch up on the payments.

READ MORE: Forest industry urged to play its part in curbing COVID-19 spread

“I also kept up 100 per cent wage payments, while insurance costs remained the same, along with many other payments, which left the business in not great shape on starting back up. It then took four weeks of working to see any returns for our efforts, so cash flow was not good. As for managing COVID on site, I think we are doing very well. We have been developing a health-and-safety app called Safe Forestry, and are now using it to do daily symptom checks and manage track and trace on site.

Forestry Journal: Calum Duffy’s skylining operation back up and running after lockdown.Calum Duffy’s skylining operation back up and running after lockdown.

“We do not machine share, and we have all PPE present and hand wash stations and signs everywhere. The app has really helped us mitigate against COVID-19, using the ‘symptom from first thing’ feature, which records your temperature, asks how you got there, asks if you have any symptoms and then drops a pin of your location. We are now fifteen months into field-testing of the Safe Forestry app and are pleased with the feedback so far. We hope to have the full app and desktop available at the end of October.”

Liam Browning of Great Glen Shipping Company at Corpach has found it challenging to keep his ships operating.

“Timber shipments have been fairly quiet lately,” he admitted. “Our Pennyghael, Isle of Mull, contract shipping to Corpach finished in August. We are currently waiting for the next contract to kick off shipping logs to Corpach again, hoping for the second half of October. Galaxy is still on full-term charter to Iggesund, shipping logs and small roundwood down to Workington and Wicklow and Corpach.       

“Shipping timber is not a cheap option for the sawmills compared to road haulage. I do not feel that the shipping of timber, as an alternative means, is really supported by Forest and Land Scotland or Transport Scotland. Grants are hard to achieve, which is a shame. I have managed to keep the fleet busy over the last few months with other cargoes. We wait to hear from the timber sector.”


Across at Pentland Biomass outside Edinburgh, Richard Spray (who had previously viewed COVID-19 as an external factor to deal with) confirmed that things are still going well for him and his company.

He said: “Business is still good; there is a big demand for timber at the moment and it is hard to come by. On the open market, prices are anything up to £10 a tonne for standing timber, more than they were pre-COVID-19.

“It is hard to compete with the bigger buyers of it, but we do pick up many smaller parcels off local farms and estates. This is where we manage the whole project from felling permissions right through to replanting. We have also teamed up with a good selection of contractors and consultants.

Forestry Journal: Stove logs are the end product after processing through the Remet 150 at Pentland Biomass Ltd.Stove logs are the end product after processing through the Remet 150 at Pentland Biomass Ltd.

“Now we are really focused on maximising our firewood production, both to satisfy demand and to use up our timber supplies. We are taking on two new workers and will have four of the team solely doing this on an ongoing basis. We have invested in a new Remet 150 woodchopper machine to help process more of the smaller bits of wood that in the past would have gone to chip. These will be marketed as stove logs, helping us maximise the cash return.

“Our trucks continue to be well employed as again there is a demand to move timber. We have bought a new DAF rigid with a crane so we can deliver the pellets and bulk bags of logs easier and more efficiently. Our website is also being overhauled and we are adding a click-and-collect service for our firewood customers. COVID-19 made us continue to focus on keeping the business efficient and striving to be as productive and cost conscious as possible.”

Forestry Journal:  Ground preparation almost complete at a new planting scheme for Michael Ramage Forestry in the Ettrick Valley, in the Scottish Borders. Ground preparation almost complete at a new planting scheme for Michael Ramage Forestry in the Ettrick Valley, in the Scottish Borders.

Catching up with the industry so far had been quite positive, but I was saddened to hear from Paul Cruise of Living Solutions at Cowdenbeath, trainers in the forestry sector, that they were not reopening.  “COVID-19 and other issues have left us with no option but to close our doors after 15 years,” he said. “Lack of work, lack of grants, delays in training due to COVID and uncertainty on government training mechanisms all factored in our decision.

“We worked with Fife Council’s employability side of things, but slightly at arm’s length, with no service level agreement. We ended up funding projects that brought Forest and Land Scotland woodlands under management while training young, unemployed people with additional barriers to work. Our funding applications were sadly unsuccessful.

“On top of this, Forest and Land Scotland never applied for any felling licences or WIAT applications for their 80-plus woodlands, so we had nowhere to train, to sell timber from or to earn WIAT monies. Therefore, we could not find a way to keep the academies running. In addition, our insurer was going to massively increase our premium. I felt we had no choice but to close our doors, painful as it was.”

Gill Berkeley, head of curriculum at Inverness College UHI, updated me on what was happening at the Scottish School of Forestry.

“The Scottish School of Forestry (SSF) is following a blended approach to learning this semester,” she said. “This includes a combination of video conferencing, inventive online learning technologies, real-time support from lecturers and other staff, as well as face-to-face teaching, where it is safe and important to do so.

“We have looked at our courses and identified where teaching can be delivered remotely using a combination of video conferencing, online materials and timetabled interactive sessions, but also where face-to-face delivery is necessary to provide students with the appropriate skills and the best experience possible. Our priority is to provide a safe learning environment for our students, and we have put in place measures to ensure their health and safety during this pandemic.

Forestry Journal: The Scottish School of Forestry is offering a blended learning approach to its students.The Scottish School of Forestry is offering a blended learning approach to its students.

“We now have students back on site learning practical elements, from fencing and forest machine operations to the clearing and cutting of vegetation, working with new students but also those who were unable to complete practical elements before lockdown.

“In terms of remote delivery,  we’ve been looking at how we can use technology more innovatively to engage students, and we’ve seen staff really embrace this, with some tutorials and site visits, for example, being recorded by staff from within forest locations to enhance remote learning.”


Iain Chalmers of Chainsaw Creations was still as upbeat as before when I contacted him, telling me that he was still working away. “I am just doing things differently as there are no shows,” he said. “I am very busy with commissions. I think everyone is doing their gardens up this year!  My only issue has been getting supplies of paints and oils. However, it is all good.”

Forestry Journal: All the main chainsaw carving events were cancelled this year, including Carve Carrbridge.All the main chainsaw carving events were cancelled this year, including Carve Carrbridge.

Overall, then, I found in the main an upbeat assessment from a cross-section of the industry as to how things were going. However, most remain cautious about the future and what lies ahead until the COVID-19 pandemic is finally brought under control.

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