James Hendrie catches up with Calum Duffy to delve into his three decades of working in steep-ground timber extraction.

IT was back in 2012 when I first met up with Calum Duffy, of Duffy Skylining, in the Western Isles Hotel on Mull, to find out about his skylining business. Calum, having gained experience of skylining working with his father Hugh, had set up his own business in 1994 on the back of a £5,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust. He purchased a Timbermaster skyline winch from A&B Services at Killen, Perthshire. Sadly, the plunge in timber prices during the 1990s saw him mothball his own business and return to working for his dad, alongside his brother Iain.

However, by 2006, Duffy Skylining was back in business. At the time of our meeting, Calum and his team were participating in a steep-ground harvesting project trial in the South Laggan forest, designed to gather data on steep-ground work and the management of harvesting and restocking operations. Calum told me he hoped this would lead to more work for his business and show the worth of skylining for steep-ground timber extraction.

Fast-forward to 2020 and, after a number of calls with Calum to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on his business and his involvement in the development of the Safe Forestry app, I suggested it might be time to find out how things were going with Duffy Skylining. Clearly, the starting point of our discussions was to go back to 2012 and the steep-ground trial at the South Laggan Forest. I wanted to hear from him what happened next.

“We trialled several systems for the Forestry Commission,” said Calum. “I made many good friends and contacts and I keep in touch with most of them. Some valuable production figures were gained. We collated good information on using tree jacks as well.”

Forestry Journal: The A82 squad carrying long extraction of Sitka spruce over several large ravines at Duffy Skylining’s current job at Callert na Gobhain.The A82 squad carrying long extraction of Sitka spruce over several large ravines at Duffy Skylining’s current job at Callert na Gobhain.

The trial itself did not directly lead to more work for Duffy Skylining, and Calum and his team returned to work for Iggesund Forestry. It would, however, prove to be of great value in the future, with the information gathered on tree jacks strengthening the case for their wide use in the forestry sector.

When we chatted back in 2012, Calum told me he was using Dyneema fibre rope on the trial rather than his normal 10 mm steel cord Certex rope on his skyline. Then, it was an ‘unknown quantity’. The advantage it offered was that it was five times lighter than steel and easier to operate with, but it was much more expensive, so he wasn’t sure if he would persevere with it.

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Speaking more recently, however, he said: “The one thing that has stayed with us to this day is the use of Dyneema fibre ropes. We use them in our rigging now and I have shared this information with Oregon State University and Worksafe New Zealand as we look to improve fibre rope applications, as it’s ergonomically better and safer if it breaks.”

He came to share information with these two bodies through his work with the Forestry Commission. “We shared a common interest in fibre rope and we have continued to collaborate in its use. We still use steel ropes (Koller and Tuefelberger) in our everyday works. The fibre rope is integrated in certain parts like spar-tree and support-tree rigging. It works alongside the steel.”

Forestry Journal: Dyneema rope, which is used to anchor on supports and spar trees. Calum has used fibre ropes since the steep-ground trials in 2012.Dyneema rope, which is used to anchor on supports and spar trees. Calum has used fibre ropes since the steep-ground trials in 2012.

In 2012, Calum was very critical of the government’s lack of support for skylining. He felt there was little financial support, in contrast to Europe where the sector was heavily subsided. Nine years on, his views have not changed much.

“The only real government support for skylining comes in the form of a few long-term contracts which offer work consistency and a better ability to invest in new equipment,” he said. “We have continued to make trips to build our knowledge about the skylining sector in other countries. In 2017, on a visit to a steep-ground working conference in the Czech Republic, we quickly realised that our systems are more modern than theirs. We are constantly evolving our skylines and only last autumn developed the first hydraulic skyline rope guide in the UK. The hydraulic rope guide is a big step forward in health and safety as it removes the possibility of a person being around the revolving drum with all the associated risks.”

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The JCC group, which bought A&B Services, from whom Calum had purchased his very first skyline, installed this. Calum sad they are “always keen to design new applications”. While Duffy Skylining has continued to develop, innovate and expand, I wondered how Calum felt skylining, as a part of the forestry sector, was doing.

He said: “Skylining in the UK currently is a very small niche, with potentially fewer than 10 active crews in Scotland, possibly more in Wales. This part of the industry is shrinking, mainly due to the lack of new workers, the jobs getting more difficult and a lack of consistent work. It is very labour intensive and expensive compared to conventional harvesting systems. I am not aware of any new set-ups established in Scotland recently, but I know of a few that have left.”

Forestry Journal: Tractor and chipper in use at Loch Lochy chipping branches as part of the South Laggan trial in 2014–15.Tractor and chipper in use at Loch Lochy chipping branches as part of the South Laggan trial in 2014–15.

Another important element of the South Laggan forest trial was the chipping of brash residue produced from the operation to see if brash was a viable by-product that could bring additional revenues. “This was a long extraction site and we trialled this with the Forestry Commission,” said Calum. “The trial lasted 18 months, with the main pluses being a much cleaner site at the end and extra revenue from the chips produced. Negatives were that it was labour intensive, with more machinery and expensive infrastructure required. This included a large chipper and working area to allow this to be done. It did not stack up financially at that time, but now, with markets improving, it is starting to become more viable and we are currently being asked to stockpile brash for chipping again.”

Since 2012, Duffy Skylining has been involved in the A82 Project, an effort to harvest trees and make hillsides safe above the A82 trunk road between Glencoe and Inverness. This project started under the auspices of the Forestry Commission, now Forestry and Land Scotland, and is not expected to be completed until 2030. It is an essential project because the road is a busy route and the trees, some of which were planted in the 1920s and 1930s, are now at maturity, posing a potential risk to the road as a result of being brought down in storms.

Forestry Journal: The full team: Donald Halbert on the far right, Tommy is wearing a baseball cap standing beside Calum’s brother-in-law Michal towards the left of the picture.The full team: Donald Halbert on the far right, Tommy is wearing a baseball cap standing beside Calum’s brother-in-law Michal towards the left of the picture.

The initial operations were at Glen Righ, just south of Fort William. Here, Calum’s team operated a skyline opposite the Loch Linnhe picnic site, extracting harvested trees uphill to the forest road.

“Glen Righ was the first real A82 skyline job, which involved traffic management in place,” said Calum. “Controlling traffic was paramount to the safety of road users. It was very steep ground with massive trees overhanging a main trunk road, and it proved to be very technical in all aspects. The Forestry Commission put in very good infrastructure for us and we learned as we went along. In the end, we developed several steep-ground felling techniques, such as the use of tree jacks, winch-assisted felling, holding trees with the skyline to hold trees on the hill, and section-felling certain trees that overhung the main road. We worked this job on a day rate rather than production as the restrictions on the job made it impossible to be highly productive.”

Forestry Journal: The John Deere 1910E at Ratagan 3 Wades Bridge site last summer.The John Deere 1910E at Ratagan 3 Wades Bridge site last summer.

The project has seen Duffy Skylining work in other areas along the A82, including Loch Lochy in 2015, which Calum explained was a technical site with very limited space for operations: “The machinery sat on the old railway line and the coup had a lot of windblown trees throughout. We had to extract the stumps off the hillside as well. The chipper was used here to deal with the branches and tops. The stumps were taken out in dumper trucks and left in a safe area.”

Forestry Journal: The Volvo 460BLC at Wades Bridge last summer, just back from COVID-19 restart.The Volvo 460BLC at Wades Bridge last summer, just back from COVID-19 restart.

By 2017, they had moved on to Primrose Bay: “This was our first experience of felling very large Douglas fir on extremely steep slopes. This took a lot of planning and extra rigging was required to hold the trees on the hill. The terrain was very steep, with many loose stones, so the Forestry Commission installed a catch fence. This helped catch loose rocks when they dislodged, but it would not stop a tree if it got away. So everything had to be done very methodically.”

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Last year, Calum and his company secured a further contract as part of the A82 project at Grotaig. “The job is scheduled to start in October of this year. A catch fence needs to be installed along the bottom of the forest to protect the A82 road users from loose debris when we are not on site.”

Forestry Journal: The Borntrager. The Borntrager.

Another interesting job, which Calum told me they had been involved in during 2018 and 2019, was working for FLS to help restore Caledonian pine woodland at Achnashellach in Wester Ross, focusing on a number of mature conifers, mainly Sitka spruce, at a site known as Allt na Choinais. These trees were planted originally on a steep, isolated and difficult-to-access site, on the wrong side of a deep gorge. Enter Duffy Skylining. The trees are a valuable crop, making their removal worthwhile, and they had to be taken out to allow the Caledonian Pine woodland restoration to be a success. In setting up what has been described as ‘the longest extraction system in the UK’, nearly all of the wood was extracted. This skyline system allowed trees of up to two tonnes in weight to be hauled around 650 m to the processor, 150 m below the skyline rope. From there, they were taken to a roadside collection point. It was a job Calum feels demonstrates the company’s capabilities to tackle such sites well.

Forestry Journal: The view from the choker man on the hill back towards the skyline at Wades Bridge last autumn.The view from the choker man on the hill back towards the skyline at Wades Bridge last autumn.

“This was a very good and challenging job to be involved with,” he said. “We had to fully suspend the non-native trees out from the Caledonian pines. This required technical felling and the setting up of rigging to avoid damaging the Caledonians. On this job, we had a skyline set up approaching 700 m, which was the furthest out we had ever been, involving full-tree suspension. Our equipment handled it no problem. Our Volvo 460BLC skyline can go out over 1,000 m on a 20 mm skyline rope.

“We run Koller MSK4 slack-pulling carriages, Ludwig automatic-release chokers and Austrian ropes. The Koller MSK4 carriage is a ‘pay-out’ carriage, which makes the work for the chokermen easier than having to physically pull the rope out. The Ludwig chokers are fully automatic, which adds speed and efficiency to the operation. Ultimately, it is more efficient and safer, as there is no one outside a safety cab, compared to non-automatic chokers which need manually disengaged.”

Forestry Journal: Sitka spruce trees felled at Wades Bridge ready for extraction.Sitka spruce trees felled at Wades Bridge ready for extraction.

In 2012, the equipment Calum was operating consisted of a Daewoo 220 Solar excavator-based skyline with an Igland 8000 winch. On the South Laggan trial, he also employed a Koller USKA 1.5 carriage for the first time. At the time, he said this was to speed up the uphill extraction and long downhill racks. I wondered if his confidence at the time had been justified.

“We had only four months’ experience with a second-hand 1.5 carriage prior to this trial, but it instantly showed us the potential, so I bought a new one,” he said. “It was great compared to the older locking carriage we had, especially on uphill extraction. It was very responsive and worked fault-free instantly. It paid back the investment very quickly.”

Forestry Journal: Packing up at Wades Bridge with the John Deere 1910E forwarder and other machinery just awaiting the lorries to come in and move everything to Callert na Gobhain.Packing up at Wades Bridge with the John Deere 1910E forwarder and other machinery just awaiting the lorries to come in and move everything to Callert na Gobhain.

The other machinery Calum used then included a Timberjack 1410D forwarder, which he replaced with a John Deere 1710D, describing it as “a great machine that gave very few problems”. His processor then was a Caterpillar 320CL with a John Deere 758HD harvesting head. He was just taking delivery back then of a new Volvo 360BLC skyline and I was certainly interested to find out how he had got on using that.

“I still have the machine,” he said. “Duffy Skylining has been a two-team business since 2018, when I bought over Highland Timber Harvesting’s skyline unit. It was an opportunity to try to expand the business using some existing and very experienced staff. My idea was to make two active crews and let some of the more experienced guys take on the responsibility of running their own team. It has worked very well, and we now have two very good, efficient crews.”

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Donald Halbert, Calum’s experienced foreman, heads up the A82 squad and Calum has taken on some younger guys to train up. While many people have come and gone in the nine years since I last met up with him, Calum told me there remains a solid core of the 2012 team in both squads, including his brother-in-law Michal Poprawa, who was with him back in 2012.

Forestry Journal: The Koller MSK3 carriage at Ratagan 2 Wades Bridge site hauling Sitka spruce trees last summer.The Koller MSK3 carriage at Ratagan 2 Wades Bridge site hauling Sitka spruce trees last summer.

The A82 squad has a Volvo 460BLC skyline, the biggest excavator-based skyline in the UK. “This machine was built to service the main A82 works. It is built for power and not so much speed. It’s very controllable and operator friendly. It was refurbished in June 2018, which made it into an uphill/downhill machine with long extraction capabilities. Nothing else this large exists in the UK, while you would have to go to Canada, the USA or New Zealand to find something bigger.”

That squad also operates a Tigercat LH855C with Log Max 10000XT head. “This is our harvester which deals with the trees the skyline extracts, cutting them to length for sawmills.” Forwarding duties are carried out using a 1910E John Deere forwarder. “This is the machine that uplifts the harvested timber and stacks it at roadside for uplift by lorries. Simple duties, but a machine that is very effective at carrying them out.”

Calum’s final piece of kit is a Doosan DX300 excavator. “This machine can act as a digger to establish winch pads. It has a grab attachment, which can be used to move trees or large logs if needed. We can also attach a steel tower to it, which lets it act as a steel spar. This is very useful, as you do not need to set it up on a tree. It’s much faster and safer as a tree’s strength cannot be quantified, whereas a steel spar’s can.

Forestry Journal: The other crew at Ratagan 3, Wades Bridge site, with the Volvo 360BLC and 1910E forwarder.The other crew at Ratagan 3, Wades Bridge site, with the Volvo 360BLC and 1910E forwarder.

“The other team has a Volvo 360BLC skyline with Koller MSK4 carriage, Ludwig chokers, a 1910E John Deere forwarder and a Tigercat LH845C with a 7000XT Log Max head. All very similar kit but slightly smaller specifications as they do not need the heavy machinery, as the timber they are working on to extract is not quite as large. They concentrate on mainly long-term contract works for Tilhill, which ranges from standard skyline extraction to technical extraction.”

Like many in the forestry sector, Duffy Skylining has found the last year to be challenging and unpredictable. I had been in touch off and on with Calum to understand how COVID-19 had affected his business and learn more about the Safe Forestry app (Forestry Journal 320), so I knew that it had been a tough time for him and his team.

Forestry Journal: Team member Owen Grainger at Wades Bridge, hauling out a drag of trees with the skyline.Team member Owen Grainger at Wades Bridge, hauling out a drag of trees with the skyline.

He explained: “2020 started really well for Duffy Skylining. We were very busy at a job in Stromeferry in Wester Ross-shire. This was a standing sale job we were doing for Munro Harvesting from Dingwall. It was large tree extraction with skyline and some conventional harvesting. It kept us busy between the A82 contract finishing in August 2019 and restarting in June 2020. Then in February we had not long started a job for Tilhill when COVID-19 came in. We were shut down initially for eight weeks, because chainsaw operations were deemed a high-risk activity by Tilhill, and this was financially very hard to take.

“Other forestry companies kept working and that was difficult to watch. It was very frustrating to see others working when we were sat at home. I tried several ways of justifying working, but it was a company policy we couldn’t get around. It was a massive relief when we got the word we could start up again in May, but a lot of damage had been done financially. Then, in June, the new FLS A82 contract at Wades Bridge at Ratagan in Lochalsh began. It was very large tree extraction with massive Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. A very technical felling and extraction, but we approached it methodically and took it apart with good planning and knowledge.

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“It was a huge relief to get consistent work and cash flow started. From that point on, both crews have been very busy and the timber industry being essential has helped us keep working. We have used our Safe Forestry app to record our COVID-19 checks and upped our on-site protocols and facilities.”

After such a turbulent year for both Duffy Skylining and the forestry industry at large, I wondered how Calum saw the coming years panning out. “Looking ahead, our plan is to carry on with the two crews and continue training the existing crew up on the various machines. I will maybe look at any new starts that want to try it out. I have no immediate plans to buy any new equipment, although I may upgrade the harvester to a larger one in the other crew to improve their capabilities. There is stability in work with the A82 contract running and a good working relationship with Tilhill. We are their main steep-ground contractor specialising in skylining.

“My son Tommy has worked for me since July 2018 and is getting on really well. He works in the other crew and, although only 20, he’s a respected member of that team. It’s great to see him following the same path as me and I’m proud of what he has achieved so far. So I now have a further reason to make sure my business thrives and continues to develop safe working procedures and to push a safety-orientated work environment.”

Forestry Journal: Michal cross-cutting Sitka spruce logs at Wades Bridge coup.Michal cross-cutting Sitka spruce logs at Wades Bridge coup.

Since our last meeting, Calum had relocated from Mull to Inverness, which makes commuting to job sites much easier. As a nine-time winner of the Tour of Mull car rally, I asked him if this relocation had meant that he had not been as regular a competitor in this famous event.

He said: “COVID-19 floored any rallying last year, but if I had the opportunity I’d rally again. Even though, like forestry, it can be a high-risk pursuit, rallying is my way of forgetting the work stresses, a way to do something totally different and really enjoy myself. I don’t see it as high risk at all. I see it as pure fun.”

At the end of our first interview in 2012, Calum was upbeat about the future and told me he was in things for the ‘long haul’. As we approach a decade since that meeting, I wondered how he saw things now.

“It certainly feels like it’s a long haul these days, in the world we live in,” he said. “Skylining is more niche than ever before. There are very few people doing it and even fewer starting into it. To say it is a dying trade is an understatement. It is unbelievable, when you look around the Highlands, as there are tens of thousands of tonnes of skyline-ready timber. The resource is diminishing very quickly and I do not know what will kick-start that back up.

“That said, I think I’m more optimistic these days, as I realise we are a needed resource in forestry. The future is bright for my company and my guys. For skylining in general, it’s not so bright. The lack of consistent work, training and knowledge will continue to make it a hard game to get into and sustain. It’s not my job to fix that. It’s my job to make sure the men on my team have a good place to work, good machinery and a safe working environment. I hope that if I do this, they will actually enjoy it a little too. I know I still love it!”



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