Phil Sparrow introduces the latest account from young forester Danny Graham who last issue was hacking through larch in Devon, but this time heads north to tackle willow in questionable company.

BEFORE we disappear into the wild woods of Lancashire, I thought I’d share a moment with you. Earlier in the week, I was fortunate enough to spend the evening with a very dear friend. He’s a retired archaeologist and what he doesn’t know about palaeolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements in Northumberland you could probably write on a small shard of pottery.

I always enjoy chatting to him as I invariably learn something new. I particularly like how he creates the scene at any given moment in time of a landscape covered in trees and lakes, quite different to how it appears today. He has an extensive library and, when

I arrived, he’d been reading Roald Amundsen’s account of his journey to the South Pole. In the front of the book was the signature of one Captain Armitage who was the captain of Scott’s ship the Terra Nova. 

READ MORE: Sawmill recruitment: Young forester Danny's latest adventure

In a time long ago (when we were allowed to have British heroes), Scott, Drake and Shackleton were my men. The fortitude and bravery of these individuals is etched indelibly on my brain. I remember reading about Scott’s journey to the pole. I remember trying to imagine the scene when Captain Oates bravely leaves the tent in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice and holding back tears as Scott penned his final diary entry. Yet, I’d never once thought of the whole scene through Amundsen’s eyes. And here it was, right in front of me, acting as an arm rest. Apparently, my friend informed me, he’d found the signed volume in a skip in South Shields. 

Our conversation inevitably turned to COP26 and the subject of carbon capture. Why, he enquired, were ‘big’ firms fighting to buy large areas of a hill farm which had recently come up for sale? This is a question I’ve been asked several times recently by people from all walks of life.

The public perception is that tree planting will create a Garden of Eden where red squirrels and beavers will live in perfect harmony and the public will be encouraged to picnic in sweeping meadows of wild flowers. I assured my friend that these ‘big’ firms certainly didn’t have this in mind. Carbon capture here is a purely commercial venture.

Plant trees that grow as fast as possible and in return you get paid for their cubic capacity (I’m not sure where the squirrels and beavers fit in). Judging by the conversations I have in the pub, I’m convinced the general public have no idea what’s going on other than it sounds like a good idea and, just like my view of Amundsen, maybe I need to try and see things from a different perspective. I think more pondering and information is required. 

And so back to the tale of our intrepid young forester Danny who, fresh from his travels down south, headed north into the nooks and crannies of Lancashire... 

Danny Graham: As forestry goes, Lancashire doesn’t have the density of some of its neighbours like Cumbria, Yorkshire and Northumberland. When you think of Lancashire you think of Manchester, Wigan, Blackpool and other industrial areas, but this is a big county and, as you head north from these centres, the landscape becomes much more rural. The large, flat plains running down to the sea are particularly prolific in the production of vegetables and carrots. Then, as you move inland, onto the heavier ground, it’s nearly all dairy. Being on the west coast means a consistent supply of rain and milder weather, which is ideal for growing grass. Lancashire’s udders produce a whopping 530 million litres of milk each year. No wonder the cheese industry is on the up! Then, as you head eastwards into the Pennines the land becomes poorer and it doesn’t really matter what type of ‘culture’ you belong to as there’s not a lot going on; bare rock, scrub and heather, ideal conditions for a few Swaledale sheep to try and get fat by licking moss from the rocks.

Forestry Journal:

So, there’s not a lot of forestry going on, but it’s not totally void of trees. There are still small mixed plantations on wet, boggy ground acting as shelter belts or pheasant cover, some of which have struggled to maturity but are by and large poorly managed.

Because of the absence of large blocks of timber, there’s no real forestry infrastructure.

The harvesters and forwarders and the commercial hand cutters just aren’t there in any kind of volume. From what I could see, the only people having a go were tree surgeons.

I’ve been visiting the area now for roughly the last 10 months and from my own observations, tree surgeons in a forestry setting are as out of place as a farmer standing in a high street holding his wife’s handbag while she’s in a shop trying on a scarf. The ones I’ve observed don’t seem to possess the basic fundamentals of production cutting and, despite my youth, here are a few suggestions...

They could start the saw at least an hour earlier in the morning and actually spend time learning how a chain cuts and how to sharpen it correctly. Then, learn how to work at a sensible and steady pace for the whole day, rather than in irregular bursts which usually leave them exhausted by 2 pm. Leave the phone in the bag and concentrate on the next tree to fell, rather than the one tattooed on the arm. I guarantee you’ll get a lot more done with a lot less effort and make more money.

As a favour, I agreed to help out a friend last month for a brief five-day stint. I found myself (in Lancashire) in a three-hectare block of densely self-set 20-ft-high willow. The area was council owned, planted with hardwoods 15 years ago and, like many blocks of woodland, completely neglected. This neglect, on the council’s behalf, assumed that nature would turn the area into a beautiful wood for all to enjoy. The willow clearly had other ideas and was now towering 10 feet above the originally planted trees. Had the council been in 12 or 13 years ago and sprayed it or been in with a brush cutter three years ago, then the costly business of paying people with chainsaws to come in for 15 days and knock it all down could have been avoided.

Forestry Journal:

It wasn’t terribly skilled work, just monotonous. Swipe them off at the bottom, push them over behind you, try to avoid flattening the tubes, repeat for three hectares. What follows is a diary account of my progress.

Day one: Things look promising as there are four of us and spirits are high. Around 2 pm the heavens opened and we got a real soaking. Spirits quickly dropped and the arborealists began to desert their posts. I was very soon the only one working. 

Day two: One guy didn’t turn up at all and the other two turned up late. Not looking good, although I think I’ve worked out a plan of attack. The stems of the willow range from 20 to 60 mm. I’ve discovered that by opening up the 562 with a near rakerless chain I can saw through a good 12 stems per go without getting stuck. Just the same as brashing the side of a young sitka. The arborealists didn’t seem to be able to grasp this technique and struggled on with their underpowered surgery saws one stem at a time.

Day three: An outbreak of ‘bad back’ virus has spread rapidly through the group. Fortunately, having been vaccinated with the hard work serum, I was able to avoid contamination. Moaning seems to be an accompanying symptom.

Day four: I am now alone with one hectare in front of me. I doubt I’ll see anyone now until the final straight.

Day five: Still alone. Sometime in the afternoon I receive a visit from the council department that allowed funding for the felling. The council’s representative is a rather portly gentleman prone to wheezing who seems to have struggled to reach my location.

He is accompanied by a stick and a camera. He begins to talk... and talk and talk. He informs me that I’m doing it all wrong, using the wrong tools and in the wrong direction.

In between wheezes, he communicates that a brush cutter would have been much more time effective. By now I’m highly irritated and refrain from explaining that after a decade of cutting heather on the Northumberland moors, I was very aware of the capabilities of a brush cutter and furthermore, unless I was planning on bringing several new shafts and heads every day, it was far better to leave the brush cutter at home. The more he talked the more I was convinced he’d never done a day’s work in his life. Finally, I could listen no longer and I pulled down my visor, fired up the saw and headed into the willow.

Twenty minutes later, I returned to the spot to refuel but there was no sign of him. I presume he made it back.

As I drove home, I reflected on my five days in the willows. Something I had seen on YouTube about North Sea fishermen came to mind. People might think what I do is demanding, but then there’s no way I want to go out on the sea in a tiny boat. It’s all relative. Fishing seems to be in the blood, with successive generations following in the footsteps of their forebears. Get-rich-quick guys don’t seem to last. It’s the same in the woods, although I think the woods are a little more forgiving than the ocean.