Phil Sparrow continues the story of Danny, a young forester whose hunt for work and enthusiasm to try anything took him from the sawmills to harvesting heather to shearing sheep to, in this latest chapter, coppicing chestnut with some questionable characters.

I have always had this vision in my mind of Great Britain looking just like modern-day Svalbard. Where on earth is Svalbard, I hear you ask? Svalbard is an archipelago near the Arctic Circle located north of Norway and east of Greenland. It’s a cold, treeless place spending much of its life in darkness. It has a population of roughly 2,500 people made up of Russians and Inuits. It is a Norwegian territory and apparently it’s very popular with polar bears and a must-visit if you wish to see Arctic foxes.

Imagine Britain about 9,000 years ago. The last ice age has finally relented and the ice sheets which covered the bulk of the landscape have melted and a boggy, sparsely grassed, rocky and treeless landscape is all that can be seen; something very much akin to modern-day Svalbard. The North Sea still doesn’t exist and, as grass begins to establish itself in the southern areas of what is now Britain, large herds of mammoth and woolly rhino graze on these emerging pastures. Slowly, very slowly, trees begin to inhabit the landscape. Pollen samples suggest the first arrivals were birch, willow, ash, hazel, oak and larch. As the climate continued to warm these species spread further north. The speed of their progress was dependent entirely on seed dispersal and so some progressed at a faster rate than others.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 3)

These are our woody ancestors, our indigenous species. Beech took a little longer and arrived about 3,000 years ago. Many other species are much more recent. Elm, for instance, was probably introduced by Bronze Age farmers, whereas chestnut and sycamore were introduced by the Romans to remind them of home – or so we thought. Recent research suggests both species may not have arrived here until the 1600s. Once introduced, these species thrived, particularly along the south coast of England.

Forestry Journal:

There exist in the south of England several chestnut harvesting contractors who specialise in felling and fencing. They have several branches (excuse the pun) around the UK, employing a large number of people. Danny spotted the following advertisement online, which read:

Please note: If you do not send a covering message relating to this job advert on your application, you will be deleted and not considered for the role. Your covering message should include things like your location, email details and most of all your experience in forestry or similar working environments. Try to sell yourself and you might have half a chance of being offered a job! Regrettably, I have zero interest in your social habits or your GCSE qualifications.

So, with that out of the way, the job will be working prominently in chestnut coppicing for the production of agricultural fencing material. It will also include other commercial forestry operations. The job will commence from now through to March 2021 and possibly longer if required. Work is centred around Petworth and nearly always within a 15-mile radius.

Training will be given to guys that are enthusiastic, but you must be self-employed, organised, be able to tolerate hard graft, budget effectively and be generally awesome. A saw will be provided if you can demonstrate the skill to use it safely.

This is a very physically demanding job so you will need self-motivation and physical fitness. Some non-chainsaw type work will be required.

You will also need your own transport. Motorbikes, bicycles, buses or broomsticks do not qualify.

If you know how to use a saw and cut to spec then you will be fine but don’t expect to earn loads of money if you can’t. Your earnings will be between £100–180 per day on piece rate if you have the skill. I’m happy for anyone with the basic skills to give it a go as everyone has to start somewhere, but if you can’t get out of bed or give it 100 per cent then you will not get on with me or the rest of the lads.

We also need people who are willing to commit to full-time. If after a period of time you decide it’s not for you then that’s not a problem but be an adult about it. You will be required to commit to five days a week and some weekend days, normally one every three weeks.

Experience with purpose-built forestry machines is also useful.

P.S. COVID-19 considerations: You will be working in a very isolated, outside woodland environment. Social distancing is pretty much default in our line of work.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 2)

Forestry Journal:

Danny had come across the job simply by searching online for ‘chainsaw operator work’, and this is what emerged. I think he was most impressed by the filtering system as it left no-one in any doubt what the job entailed. He applied immediately on a trial basis.

The big difference between the north and the south of the UK is that in the south the forestry blocks are much smaller and a higher proportion of the trees are hardwood. Posts come from coppicing, whereas up north it’s Sitka thinnings that provide the bulk of the roundwood. This involves two different techniques for the cutter. Armed with his trusty Hilux, a selection of Husqvarna chainsaws and a multitude of carefully prepared chains, Danny headed south.

Accommodation would be in the Bear Hotel. This was the cheapest he could find and was further discounted by his length of stay. The hotel was basic but adequate and provided a hot shower, a bed and a floor on which to throw his work clothes. His first meal – sausage and mash – was a huge disappointment. After a day of hard physical graft the body needs refuelling and the miserly offering laid before him just didn’t hit the spot. It wasn’t as if the hotel was run off its feet. This was at the height of COVID and there were only a few people in the place. Danny got up from the table and slipped into the kitchen. The cook was a large, motherly lady who was busy cleaning work surfaces and Danny coughed slightly to announce his presence. He explained that he’d just driven down for several hours and was about start a really physical job and asked if there any possibility of maybe two sausages. She clearly took to him as her ‘motherliness’ (if there is such a word) overflowed and from then on portions could only be described as gargantuan. She even made his packed lunches which were so large he couldn’t eat it all.

Forestry Journal:

The week’s trial in the chestnut forests began with a process called ‘breaking in’. The big, old, gnarled chestnut stumps had been coppiced several times before. Once coppiced, the stump then sends out several new shoots which are allowed to grow to a height of around 25–30 feet. This process takes roughly 15 years. The wood that is cut falls into four categories. Basically, everything is cut into 8’ lengths. Anything under 3” in diameter and irregular is chipped. Lengths averaging between 3–6” are called rounds and stacked. Anything around 6” in diameter is called ‘bustables’ as they can be split for fencing. Anything straight, 9’ long but between 3–6” can be kept as strainers. All wood is stacked and the person coppicing is paid accordingly.

Forestry Journal:

Danny quickly assessed the competition. In fact, he concluded there was no competition. Whether the pandemic had impacted on the availability of workers or due to the physical nature of the job, the company had struggled to recruit suitable people and the result was a rather rag-tag collection of individuals. One guy was apparently taking a break from appearing in adult movies and there was a light sprinkling of ex-cons and journeymen. None seemed particularly motivated or well-suited to that kind of work. There were a few exceptions and Danny quickly developed an affinity with one experienced cutter who knew the system and from whom a great deal could be learned. The manager (a slavedriver to some) was a hard-working and genuine man whose unenviable task it was to maintain this group and somehow achieve a high level of production. Stacks of coppiced wood were meticulously checked, and deductions made for incorrect lengths or numbers.

READ MORE: Danny, the champion of the woods (Pt 1)

Danny had already spotted that the key to achieving a high level of production was to manage his saws effectively, changing saws or chains if and when required. He noticed how much time others wasted trying to sharpen chains. His own experiences in forestry work up north, his determined work ethic and ability to sharpen saw chains set him apart. And so it was that he returned the highest level of production ever achieved. In fact, when it came to counting the bustables the foreman could barely believe it, noting that they may have to change the upper limit of earnings in the job description.

Then it was back to the Bear Hotel for a hot shower and a platter of food by now so large that it nearly needed two people to carry it.

With the coppicing process cracked and near record levels of production being achieved, attention began to shift to another element of the job description: “Other commercial forestry operations”.

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £75 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.