Simon Bowes recalls the purchase of his first harvester and the valuable lessons the venture taught him.

I was thinning some research blocks in the winter of ’99/’00. It was fiddly work; we were under strict instructions to only remove the marked trees in each square plot. In some of these plots every single tree had a number painted on it, even the standing dead ones.

There are a number of these research areas dotted about the local FE district and we had found out just how jealously the FC’s research department guarded them. In the previous summer, we had been given the task of going through a large area given over to research that had been thinned as part of a standing sale. The buyer hadn’t been particularly smart in that he had felled what he wanted rather than what was marked; consequently he had been thrown off the job and fined.

My stock must have been quite high at the time as I had been given the job at a very favourable price and I was, in turn, making an excellent margin tidying up and finishing what the previous incumbent had started.

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In a typical twist to the truth that prevailed back then, I had been engaged to try and salvage something for the Forestry Commission, but in the coming months, rather than be part of the solution, I was branded the villain. No matter how many times I pointed out that I didn’t get thrown off the job but was brought in to sort it out, I still lost credibility with some people who not only should have known better, but who actually did. I still feel bitter about it 20 years later.

Security plots were included in most of the thinning work we did back then. Usually, these were 10-metre circles denoted by a small post driven into the ground at the base of a tree that marked the centre of the circle. The marking gang would count all the unmarked trees in the circle and, once the compartment had been felled, they would go back in and count the stems left in each plot. There would be hell to pay if the numbers weren’t right.

It wasn’t hard to find these marker posts if you were hand felling. Sometimes, the marking gang had mistakenly placed the marker post at the bottom of a marked tree, so the faller found it when he was felling, and, sometimes, if you were getting a few extras, it was discovered when a freebie was being taken. We eventually learned that these markers were always placed next to a poor tree, usually the worst in the plot; the reasoning being that no one was going to pinch rubbish trees. It was the best ones that were filched, in general. Naturally enough, they were also always on flat ground, close to a path or track, and usually within easy walking distance of the main road.

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I became quite proficient at spotting likely locations for these security plots and so we generally found them. There was a game we played with the forest foreman at the time; we would goad him into talking about the security plots and he would usually tell us, quite proudly, just how many plots were in each compartment. If we found them all, it made life easier, though I must stress we didn’t set out to fell extra trees for any reason other than to make felling and extraction easier. Skidding trees in pole length was often made difficult because the marking never gave the skidder driver the space he needed to get the poles out without doing damage to the standing crop. Removing a few extra trees eased the process, and having a bit more room to get trees down made the faller’s life more tolerable too.

The trouble with this subsequent research job we had was that it was wet, it was at the bottom of a long slope and it had deep gutters that cut the site into squares, and it was winter. It was a wet, miserable winter and every afternoon while I was cross-cutting on the muddy road, a father-and-son team would pass through my site on the way home. They were thinning up on the top of the moor. They were clean and dry, they were wearing nice jackets, jeans and ordinary work boots. They had a harvester and a forwarder.

We were sitting eating our dinners one day in the middle of December. It was cold, there was wet snow on the ground and it had been sleeting on and off all morning. I had made the decision that I’d had enough of dragging timber through the mud to the roadside. I had taken a ride up to see the site where the other contractors were working with their Kockums forwarder and Valmet harvester. Their timber was clean and it was stacked in long heaps, multiple wagon-loads in each stack. I watched enviously as a wagon loaded pallet wood from one of the big stacks – there wasn’t one single speck of mud on any of it.

I returned to my own site with my mind made up: ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to buy a harvester.’

I finished that job with an unhappy group of workers, except for one who had decided to buy my best County skidder. The rest of them had lost interest in felling to any decent standard, which left me ruing my outburst and doing a lot of felling at weekends with the one man who saw a silver lining in the impending cloud. It took into the summer to find a suitable machine. I had sold everything I had, barring the one tractor Rob had agreed to buy, and bought a JCB 812 fitted with a 600 Tapio harvesting head from the now-long-gone Woodlans Engineering (that’s Woodlans without a second ‘d’) that was bought up by Timberjack and became John Deere UK in the fullness of time. I still have the FMJ magazine that has the Woodlans advert in it with a JCB 812 harvester ringed in Biro.

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It wasn’t an easy decision to buy an oddball machine. I’d watched the guys up the road with their Valmet fitted with a 150 Keto harvesting head, hammering lodgepole pine through at what appeared to be a phenomenal rate. A friend of mine with an OSA 250 EVA fitted with a 746 Timberjack head bragged he could cut more in a day than my team of four could manage in a week. He didn’t specify whether that included all the downtime I knew he suffered.

I was familiar with the JCB base. I’d had a brief flirtation, hiring an 805 fitted with a big Skogserik stroke boom. I liked the idea of a construction machine with a proven reliability record and a head that didn’t have a complicated computer or huge hydraulic demands. The Tapio would run happily on the JCB’s low delivery gear pump. The fact that the salesman described its action as reminiscent of a drunk monkey climbing a tree didn’t put me off one bit.

I went with the low loader to collect the machine and was left scrabbling for an excuse when the driver, Geoff Dodds, now sadly lost to us, asked me to show him how this unusual machine worked. I could only shake my head and admit I didn’t have a clue how to use it. Geoff was a rare bloke in that he was so good humoured and had such an engaging personality that it was impossible to get mad despite his insistence. He climbed into the cab and together we worked out which button did what. Driving the base machine and operating the crane was no challenge but that head was a mystery. It didn’t take us long to work it out and, after a few minutes, Geoff jumped down and went to get his camera. I felled a tree and processed it into lengths; I couldn’t say what these lengths were because the internal battery in the computer had gone flat while it had been standing.

In an early lesson on running harvesters, I rang the then Tapio agents and was quoted £30 to replace the battery if it didn’t recharge once I started using the machine. I had to take the main board out of the computer, package it up, then post it off and wait for it to be fixed and returned – a 10-day turnaround. I took it apart on Friday afternoon and dropped it into the local computer repair shop on Saturday morning. It was repaired for a single £5 note while I waited and was refitted before midday, so I could spend the afternoon harvesting. It took me about a week to become reasonably confident operating the machine, although the realisation that I would soon get sick of carting five-gallon drums of diesel about was the major memory of that first couple of weeks. I’d been used to supplying fuel to a couple of Ford tractors and I soon discovered just how much fuel a turbo-charged Perkins running at 80 per cent throttle all day could get rid of. I would need a diesel bowser and I had better find a decent oil supplier too as the flashing hydraulic oil level warning light revealed the oil tank would need topping up and it’d need more than the occasional 25 litres of hydraulic oil to keep it happy, especially as the Tapio used the machine’s hydraulic oil to lubricate the chain.

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The first job I did with the JCB–Tapio combination was as ill-fated as my plan to subcontract the forwarding out to the guy with the OSA harvester. He had a spare forwarder, but it was his phone call that almost killed off my move into mechanical harvesting before I’d got a single load to roadside. He rang to tell me the FC had been and locked the gates on his site. WMS, the company we were both working for, had ceased trading so I wouldn’t need his services and he would be lucky to still be in business at the end of the month anyway. He had finance on his machines, a bank loan and an overdraft to service. The JCB was left stranded on site for a month before I could negotiate another job for it, and to add insult to injury, someone smashed a side window and stole the few tools I’d had in the cab.

I did eventually find myself working for Euroforest again, which almost completed a circle as the first felling job I’d been on as a complete novice had been an EFG site. EFG had become Euroforest when I’d been one of their regular contractors some years previous to all this happening.

Forestry Journal: Plans are being developed for the 1270.Plans are being developed for the 1270.

 I bought a cheap forwarder and eventually I got myself up and running properly. I never saw a single penny for the two weeks’ harvesting I did on the WMS job. Maybe that was good training for what I’ve had to endure over the last 20 years. It did teach me how to survive adversity, which is a valuable lesson for any contractor.

That JCB served me well, as did the Tapio. The JCB had a penchant for shedding a track – always the same one and always under the same circumstances. It would walk itself off if you turned hard with a stump in the wrong place and so I avoided turning with the left track on the outside of the turn, and, if the tensioner was kept pumped up, losing a track was a rare occurrence. I also got very proficient at putting it back on. I kept a couple of modified snigging chains for that specific task. The Tapio was similarly reliable and the fact I could churn wood out almost uninterrupted for the best part of six days a week was the key to my survival.

The 600 Tapio had its weaknesses though. Its measuring system was notoriously fickle, caused largely by the use of a spring to hold the measuring wheel against the tree as it was processed. I could only cut 3.8-metre logs if I concentrated hard and cut each piece as if it were going to be examined by a committee of learned timber aficionados. Simply hitting the sawlog button then sawing when prompted would result in logs anywhere from 3.5 to 4 metres long. I calibrated that measuring system so many times I could do it in my sleep, but I never got it to cut long lengths with any consistent accuracy unless I walked them through manually. Posts, short logs and pallet wood up to 2.5 m in length were no problem; it would cut 1.7-m posts with unerring consistency; and, other than breaking the M8 cap screws that held the knife rams in place, it was superbly reliable. I know an operator who used a Tapio to cut chipwood in thinnings for years who said he would pray for a breakdown just to break the monotony.

You might be wondering why I’ve dragged up these bittersweet memories from the turn of the century. They may make interesting reading but where’s the connection with the present day? Has the old boy spent too many days in lockdown contemplating his navel?

Last winter, when COVID-19 was something the Chinese were suffering an outbreak of and it was no more than a news story, I had sold two forwarders and a harvester. My County had long since found a new home, I’d acquired a newer forwarder and a newer harvester was on the way. I was left with an old 1270A I’d not used much in a couple of years. I didn’t have a driver for it and I had no intention of finding work for it. I had sold the Viking head off it with the intention of replacing it with a Timberjack head I had sitting on a pallet, so I hung the 743 head on it and commenced the conversion in the usual ‘now and then’ fashion, but circumstances overtook my well-laid plans.

We took the decision to fit the Viking head onto the newly acquired 1270 using the entire Timberjack control system rather than using the Dasa we’ve always previously used.

I now had a Dasa with the associated controls sitting in the cab of the 1270A and a Timberjack head hanging on the end of the crane. I had sold this machine to a contractor in the south of England, but, understandably, with some of the first UK cases of COVID-19 being identified in a group of people in a York hotel just 30 miles south of where I live, it was becoming clear there was trouble ahead. We agreed to wait, but once the first lockdown began to bite, we agreed to cancel the sale.

Time marched on, and now, with 2021 just around the corner and a second lockdown in place, I decided to do something I’d had in the back of my mind for many years; I’m going to fit that 1270A with a 600 Tapio. I have been looking for a 600 for most of the last year. I’ve found a number of 400 Tapio heads but, having used both types, I won’t defer to the people who insist there’s no difference other than the size of the saw box. I wouldn’t put anything other than a 600 on a machine as big as a 1270. The 600 Tapio recently sold on eBay for £2,800 +VAT would suggest I’m not alone in my opinion.

I have bought a 600 Tapio, but it’s in Ireland. I’ve paid for it and it’s on a pallet waiting to be couriered to the UK, but when it’ll be here, I have no idea. Whatever happens, the head will need a full refit before it can even be considered suitable for fitting. It’s been sitting under a tarpaulin for some time and was removed because it had an electrical fault. So, there’s much to do but lots of time to do it in.

I do have a job for this machine if we ever get round to it. I have 25 ha of mixed plantings to thin; a mix of pine, oak and ash which will have to be chipped, so we’ll probably do a whole-tree extraction which will require a narrow harvester with a tree shear or a head that can double up as a grapple. Guess what I’m going to use.

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