Simon Bowes reflects on his early ventures into mechanical harvesting as he considers dusting off an old friend.

I’VE always been a fan of sport. I played cricket and rugby at school and beyond. I was a pretty average cricketer, but a reasonable rugby player. I have followed one football team since I was very young and, naturally, am a big Yorkshire and England supporter. In fact, I’ve got the first test from Galle on the TV as I’m writing this. Sri Lanka have just been bowled out for 135 in what the pundits are describing as one of the worst test batting performances ever. I await England’s response with some apprehension as I look up and see they are currently 10 for one (going on to score 420 and eventually wining the test by seven wickets).

Following a team can be painful sometimes. County cricket is following the course of decline that village cricket has set over the last few years. As a boy, my village cricket team was very important and the cricket ground was a focal point throughout the summer. I would be there every evening playing games on the outfield while the first team players practised on the square. The village team where I live now was disbanded a couple of years ago and, with COVID ruining last season and maybe this coming summer too, I fear for many of the local village teams. I drive past the cricket field most mornings and to see sheep grazing on the pitch where we weren’t allowed to walk a few years ago is sobering to say the least.

I’ve had to search around for sport to watch lately. Football without fans just isn’t the same and each game looks like a vehicle for fulfilling the clubs’ commitments to their sponsors. For me, the passion has gone. I’ve taken to watching American football (or rugby with a health and safety twist, as I see it). It’s where I picked up the title of this piece, ‘the hard yards’. It’s not a free-flowing game like rugby union. It’s a long, hard slog with the defence of one team facing the offence of the other team, man for man, blocking movement and trying to frustrate every attempt to advance forward.

It reminds me of forestry in the UK, except the referees don’t let either side cheat and there’s always the option of ‘throwing a flag’, where the team that thinks it’s spotted a foul can ask for play to be stopped while a video ref can examine the footage and make a judgement. If only we had an independent arbiter like that in forestry ... some kind of accord maybe?

Forestry Journal: A Lokomo 909 with a JCB Tapio combination lurking in the trees.A Lokomo 909 with a JCB Tapio combination lurking in the trees.

Anyhow, being a harvesting contractor demands a lot of hard yards, and if you don’t put them in, you don’t survive. I found that out very quickly, back when I bought that JCB/Tapio combination. I worked six days a week once I got the machine up and running and finally learned to calibrate the measuring system. I really thought I’d arrived as a mechanised harvesting contractor, but then the wheels fell off one by one.

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I’d managed to recover after the company I was working for went bust. I’d found more work, but as I didn’t have my own forwarder I was relying on somebody else to do my extracting. Trouble was, he’d had the same problems I had, only he’d lost a lot of money and so I couldn’t rely on him for anything. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to do the forwarding for me, but he couldn’t. He’d not been able to pay all his staff and so some of them had walked away. He now had a harvester and two forwarders, but only two drivers. I needed to find an affordable (meaning cheap or free) forwarder to buy so I went back to Woodlans, begged and pleaded and – hey presto! – they produced a machine I could use. All I had to do was get it working.

I drove up to Consett to see it and there it was; a 909 Lokomo that I was told had been working when it was traded in. The bonnet was lying next to it, it had a spreading oil slick beneath it and the windscreen was missing. The story was that when they’d been loading it onto the lorry there’d been an ‘incident’ which had resulted in the bonnet being ‘damaged’ and the windscreen being ejected and smashed into a million pieces. “Does it drive?” I asked.

“Oh aye, so long as you only want to drive forwards.”

Forestry Journal: A heater and a radio was a huge step up from cold feet and wet gloves when there was snow on the ground.A heater and a radio was a huge step up from cold feet and wet gloves when there was snow on the ground.

The deal was, if I was interested (which I had no other option than to be), then I could get it ready to go on a lorry and take away. I would then fix the problems and either pay for it or allow potential buyers to see it working and then give it back, if it were sold. I was being told that it was basically scrap and they needed a punter to do the work they didn’t want their fitters tied up doing. This I had no problem with and I was grateful for the opportunity I was being given. I had handed over most of the spare money I had in order to buy the JCB and what I had left had gone into keeping my head above water in the past few weeks. Having considered my options for a split second I started measuring up the hole where the window had been and writing down the part numbers off the filters.

I returned a couple of days later with my brother, who was home from his job in Africa where he was the senior fitter on a gold mine. We bolted in a sheet of Margard for a windscreen and welded up the ripped-off bonnet hinges. I changed the filters, changed the engine oil and topped up the hydraulics and the transmission. We had a look at the gearbox, which Will had recognised as a Massey Ferguson 50B torque converter-driven shuttle box. He knew a bit about it, so we tried a few things to get it to work and, suddenly, it did.

Forestry Journal: The Kockums 822 with Skogserik type boom processor was the earlier incarnation of the double-grip delimber concept.The Kockums 822 with Skogserik type boom processor was the earlier incarnation of the double-grip delimber concept.

The little Perkins four-cylinder engine started and ran reasonably well and it went to and fro in the yard like a real forwarder, until I tried to stop it and the reason for the deleted bonnet and missing screen became obvious – it had no brakes. It took most of the rest of the day to take the brakes apart and discover a lot of mashed-up seals which had been wrecked because someone had been putting hydraulic oil in the brakes instead of brake fluid. Still, we did at least get the air brakes working on the park brake switch, so when I loaded it on the wagon it would sit still and would stop if you really needed it to, albeit very suddenly.

It was a real pleasure using those machines after years of being wet, cold and dog tired at the end of most days in winter and hot, sweaty and dog tired at the end of most days in summer. I started a job line-thinning my favourite lodgepole pine just a couple of miles from the site where I’d started out felling with a chainsaw almost 15 years before and, although I didn’t consider myself a complete novice this time around, I really was. I felled rows and rows of timber before the forwarder arrived and I spent days leading out all I could, but I soon found the forwarder wouldn’t travel some of the ground where the harvester had gone.

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I enlisted my brother’s help again, this time to drive the JCB, dragging the forwarder up some of the slopes and across some of the boggy sections. He soon took over the forwarder, picking it up very quickly. He was in no rush to go back to Africa as there were some local disputes going on (these involved armed rebels and, as he’d spent more than a year as a hostage with the UNITA rebels in Angola in the early 1980s, he decided to stay in the UK). So, he became a machine operator for a few weeks, which got me back on my feet.

Forestry Journal: A prototype Tapio under development by the Tuurinkoski brothers in Soini, 1980.A prototype Tapio under development by the Tuurinkoski brothers in Soini, 1980.

It always amazes me, looking back at how consistent the production was with those two machines, to consider the total cost of both was £12,000, while additional costs to get them working – including the second-hand gearbox I eventually fitted in the Lokomo – couldn’t have been more than another £2,000 or so.

I aimed to cut around 150 tonnes per week, but I generally fell short. When I was back on my own I was doing around 400 tonnes a month, which amounted to more than the cost of the Lokomo every fortnight and, with small outgoings, I was making money. This was all down to the reliability of that JCB/Tapio combination, a good work ethic, a good manager in Steve Dresser, who helped me out at every turn, and a good amount of luck.

Tapio heads are quite a rare sight now in the UK, but it’ll surprise many people to learn that as harvesting heads go they are one of the most numerous types built, with over 4,000 units sold. It’s an interesting story that started in the garage of inventor Tapio Saarenkedo back in 1979. Saarenkedo was well known in Finland as an inventor, but it was his nephew Esa Ahopelto who came up with the idea for a stroke-type harvesting head. It’s rather quaint and a little ironic that we know these heads as stroke heads, but the Finns call them ‘heart pulse’ harvesting heads. I’m sure something is lost in the translation.

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Ahopelto came up with the idea and he and his uncle built the first head from steel plates cut with a gas torch, hand formed and welded up on a bench in the garage. It helped that the young Ahopelto’s day job was as a hydraulic systems designer working for a sawmilling equipment company. The prototype head was supplied to contractors the Tuurinkoski brothers in the summer of 1980 when they fitted it onto a Ford 5000 tractor equipped with half tracks and a Fiskars crane. The head was tested and further developed in association with the Hirva forest school in Rovaniemi and, in the following summer, the Tuurinkoski brothers took delivery of the first production Tapio 400. This head was mounted onto a modified Lokomo skidder. The bigger carrier proved a success and several Tapio 400s were fitted onto other machines, quickly becoming a popular option with exports to Sweden following at the beginning of 1982.

Forestry Journal:  A new 400 Tapio at the 2018 APF show on importer Richard Court’s stand. A new 400 Tapio at the 2018 APF show on importer Richard Court’s stand.

It was the smaller Tapio 250 that really set the company on its way, with a big demand from Finnish farmers who often own woodlots. The 250 had low power demands, so could easily be mounted on agricultural tractors that were returned to farm use after the winter forestry season, yet it had the capacity to fell trees big enough to negate the need for carrying a chainsaw.

We are used to seeing what was known back in the early days of mechanised harvesting as single-grip harvesting heads: a head that grips the tree between two rotating rollers that drive the stem through a set of delimbing knives. Tapio heads are twin – or double-grip – harvesting heads. They hold the stem with one pair of fixed-position knives while a second set of knives are pushed along the tree by a ram in a telescoping frame, thus delimbing the stem. The fixed knives then release their grip while the delimbing knives tighten and pull the stem through the head. The fixed knives tighten up again and the process starts over. Measuring is done using a pair of pencil type proximity sensors working against a rotating square cut gear, simple and inexpensive but not the most accurate even in its day.

Diameter measuring (if fitted) works by taking measurements through an encoder that measures how far the delimbing knives are open as the stem passes through in the conventional way. The low hydraulic demands of these heads are usually around 50 per cent of what a similar-sized single-grip head requires, mainly due to the fact they have no wheel motors that need both high pressure and high flow to work efficiently.

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The Tapio has a stroke ram, a tilt ram and four short knife rams. The only thing that needs a substantial amount of flow is the saw motor, which has short operating times and consequently isn’t a big problem, though historically the saw speeds on low-output base machines could be annoying in bigger trees. The chain speed on my old JCB could be categorised as relaxed or unhurried and so I became very good at sharpening .404 saw chain, although the next Tapio, which was a 400, had no such issues, being fitted on a Kockums 822GP which was designed to carry and run a Skogserik-type stroke boom, which had much better hydraulic capacity.

Tapio heads were historically seen as a way into mechanical harvesting, although now anyone looking at harvesting without hundreds of thousands of  pounds to invest might consider it a daunting task. The only way to survive now is through high productivity with high profitability taking a back seat. When I started out it was the reliability of low-cost machines that set me on the road, although it was still a bumpy road. This approach won’t cut it now unless a new starter – or a well-established business, for that matter – can find landowners who need high-quality work and who are willing to pay a little bit more to get it.

Forestry Journal: The Lokomo 909 was a surprisingly nimble little machine. Unfortunately this one became a burned out wreck after it went to its next owner who fell victim to vandals.The Lokomo 909 was a surprisingly nimble little machine. Unfortunately this one became a burned out wreck after it went to its next owner who fell victim to vandals.

These people are out there and they are starting to see that having a contractor come in and go through their woods looking for high production doesn’t always mean better returns. Often, the main complaint is that timber is produced at such a rate that it’s left stacked drying out for weeks, and neither the contractor, haulier or indeed the landowner wins in that scenario.

There is the question of good silviculture too; crop damage, poor thinning discipline and ground damage that are being talked about again after being put aside for many years.

I’m going to try to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve got work that isn’t suitable for the harvester and forwarder we use daily, so I’ll freshen up that Tapio that arrived at Phil Cooper’s yard on a pallet from Ireland and we’ll put it on a base, maybe the 1270, maybe something smaller. I’ll try and find a smaller forwarder too, although finding one of those is like looking for rocking horse doo-doo.

Given a fair wind – and COVID permitting – we’ll be using a stroke head by the end of summer. We’ll still need the more conventional machines to do the heavy lifting, but I’m willing to bet there’s other work out there for something in between hand felling and full-on mechanical harvesting.

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