Fourth-generation forester Sarah Yeaman of Perthshire-based RY Timber doesn’t shy away from hard graft, doing everything from operating machinery to hand-cutting. Here, she shares her story with Fraser Rummens.

SOME people were just meant for work in the woods; and that’s certainly the case for fourth-generation forester Sarah Yeaman. As a child, she would visit her father on site and stay in a caravan. The forest was her playground.

Today, she works alongside her father Ralph at his Perth-based business, RY Timber, doing everything from hand-cutting, winching and thinning to climbing and operating the firm’s forwarders and skidders. RY Timber does a lot of work on the Dupplin Estate, where Sarah’s grandfather extracted timber with horses many years before.

“My dad started cutting back in 1982 but took a break from the industry for a few years and suffered a heart attack during that time,” Sarah told Forestry Journal. “But it’s obviously in the blood, as he returned and set up RY Timber in 2009. He started out this time with a different mindset, having learned a lot from his first time around.”

Forestry Journal: Sarah is no stranger to the woods, having visited her father on site as a child.Sarah is no stranger to the woods, having visited her father on site as a child.

Ralph went back to work, hand-cutting and extracting timber with his old Rottne Blondin. “I remember him saying he was looking at a mature oak thinning job with RTS Harvesting manager, Ross Kennedy. Due to his absence from the industry for a few years, he was struggling to price it and he asked Ross for advice. When Ross gave him the going rate, he almost snapped his hand off as he was thinking £10 per tonne cheaper, and the rest is history,” Sarah said. That Rottne still runs, but Ralph has since added to his collection of machines, with 18 in total now. This, Sarah added, is particularly impressive as he’s done it pretty much single-handed.

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Sarah was working for a precision engineering company in Fife when Ralph suggested she have a go on the saw. So, one Saturday she visited him on a small clearfell job he was doing with her brother, Ralph Jnr – and she felled her first tree.

“I remember thinking, ‘this is not as easy as it looks, and these guys are very skilled at what they do’,” she recalled. “I loved the idea of working for myself and being outdoors, so on Monday I handed in my notice and went to work full-time on the saw. It’s very physically demanding, cutting full-time in all weather, and I take my hat off to anyone who does.”

Forestry Journal: Sarah and her brother, Ralph Jnr.Sarah and her brother, Ralph Jnr.

Sarah soon found herself on jobs where climbers had to be brought in. “As soon as my brother and I saw this we both said, ‘that’s what we need to be doing; this would enable us to do all aspects of the job’.

“We did our climbing tickets with Alan Plumber who was brilliant. We both took to it quickly. My brother had done a lot of rock and ice climbing before and neither of us fear heights.”

The pair’s ground-cutting and chainsaw experience also proved to be a big advantage when learning. Sarah went on to climb with Ralph Jnr for several years, growing a very successful tree surgery business, Tree Tec Scotland, of which he is director.

Sarah continued to climb until she was four months pregnant, at which time she decided it might be a good time to learn how to operate a forwarder. “My first job was a birch first thinning my brother had cut with dad’s old harvester, which we spent more time fixing than it did cutting!

Forestry Journal: The Tigercat at work.The Tigercat at work.

“I took it out with the Valmet 860. Looking back, I think I only did it because I didn’t know any better. I remember thinking this is impossible and I’d be quicker stacking this by hand. To top it off, the pin also came out the grab and disappeared, which resulted in a delightful phone call to dad! Fortunately, he has a great working relationship with Iain Wilson (Jas P Wilson) and a new pin was on the job the following morning. Job finished, customer happy and some money made.”

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Sarah operates RY Timber’s Valmet 890, 860 and 840 forwarders, and two Timberjack and Tigercat skidders. She said: “The 860 Valmet has been narrowed in specifically for thinning work, and I really enjoy working this machine, but hands down the Tigercat skidder must be my favourite. You just need to look at it; I think it is a thing of beauty and so simple to operate. It’s an older machine but it’s just an awesome bit of kit.”

She added: “Learning the forwarder has taken time and I am in no way an experienced operator yet, but I can work away. I found the skidders are a lot easier; it’s more getting used to the different controls in the different machines.”

Forestry Journal: Sarah said that being a woman in the industry has never held her back. She doesn’t want, expect or receive any special treatment.Sarah said that being a woman in the industry has never held her back. She doesn’t want, expect or receive any special treatment.

The vast majority of RY Timber’s machines were made between 1979 and 2012, and are much cheaper to run than new machines, Sarah said. “This does reduce the pressure to produce large tonnage week in, week out, and you can also take on smaller, more interesting and varied jobs.” Working with these older machines does have its drawbacks though, as a lot of time is spent fixing them when they break down, with spare parts harder to come by.

“A day without having to repair something is a rarity, and this can be very frustrating at times. Also, you’re lucky if you have a working heater or air con, never mind a fuel gauge, which is usually a nice clean stick for dipping the tank!”

Sarah recalled a recent scorching summer, melting in the forwarder and suggesting the air con should be fixed. Her dad’s reply was simply, “Never had air con back in my day, just jam the door open!”.

“I think we do now have working AC in most of the machines, thankfully,” she added.

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“Dad and my brother are both very mechanically minded, which enables us to carry out most of the repairs ourselves. We do have a mechanic, Grant Wright, to call on when required and this takes a lot of stress off dad. Sometimes, when everything is breaking down, we often think we should just trade them all in for a new machine, but there is something very rewarding about running older machines.”

As rewarding as running older machines may be, RY Timber recently purchased a 2017 John Deere 1170 harvester, which Sarah said is incredible.

RY Timber is currently working on a pine clearfell project, quite a big job for the firm. “We are felling by hand then stacking the whole trees with the HarvaDig, which has just been fitted with a brand-new fixed grab, perfect for this job.

“I’m then dragging them down with the Tigercat to be processed with our Doosan digger, which has been recently fitted with a Logmax head. The weather’s been very testing on this job with the snow and rain, which can be frustrating when it stops work with the machines, but overall it’s going well and we can continue to fell.”

Forestry Journal: Sarah said she takes her hat off to anyone who cuts full-time in all weather.Sarah said she takes her hat off to anyone who cuts full-time in all weather.

The project is being carried out on a steep banking, which reminded Sarah of a particularly memorable job RY Timber completed on the Dupplin Estate, felling hemlock close to the laird’s house. She recalled: “My brother felled for us on this job. He was harnessed and anchored while cutting. We winched them over with the Timberjack skidder then took them out in large logs with the Tigercat, while hardly leaving a mark on the lawn. We used the small 810 Timberjack to tidy up and hand-stacked then burned the brash on the banking, leaving a very tidy job.”

Looking ahead, Sarah said the firm has a number of jobs coming up which she’s excited about, and she has recently started learning how to operate a harvester.

“I have only been processing so still yet to be let loose felling, but I am excited about that. I have certainly picked up operating this a lot quicker than the forwarder. It could be my motor skills have developed a lot with operating all the other machines.

“I would like to perfect my stacking skills this year. We have an experienced forwarder and harvester operator, Andy McKerchar, who has been with us for a few years now, and his stacking skills are incredible. I would like to be as neat as that one day,” she said.

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There’s no denying that while the world at large has made great strides in gender equality over the years, the forestry sector still has some way to go. Seeing a woman felling a tree or operating a machine is still an uncommon sight to many, but Sarah said it has never held her back and she doesn’t want, expect or receive any special treatment. She does, however, admit that she did feel some pressure starting out.

“I think some people thought I was making a mistake and said the woods was no place for a woman, so I did kind of want to prove them wrong, which I think I have,” she explained. “Yes, this is a very male-dominated industry, and I don’t get treated any different and dad definitely doesn’t cut me any slack. Everyone I have met in the industry has been very welcoming and I do very much enjoy my job.”

Forestry Journal: Sarah with RY Timber’s Tigercat 630 skidder, which she described as “a thing of beauty”.Sarah with RY Timber’s Tigercat 630 skidder, which she described as “a thing of beauty”.

Outside the forest, Sarah is a keen horse rider and has competed all over Scotland and the north of England. A particular highlight was in 2019 when she competed at Blair Castle International Horse Trials in the BE100 Scottish Championship, finishing fourth – while six months pregnant with her second child. She also does the odd bit of driving, hauling potatoes for Perthshire company JL Wilkie, since passing her Class 1 licence at the end of last year.

Sarah did acknowledge that being a mum of two does have its challenges when it comes to working in the woods. “I think all full-time working mums in any industry need great organisation skills and have added challenges to overcome,” she said.

“I want to set the same good example to my kids that I had growing up. You can do anything you put your mind to, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sometimes you may need help but it’s very easy to make excuses in life; if you enjoy what you do, you’re halfway there already.”

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