James Hendrie pays a visit to the multi-skilled team at KF Forestry in Kirkcaldy, a company that offers a full suite of forestry and arboricultural services to both private and commercial clients, capable of tackling thousands of trees across rugged terrain or a single specimen in a domestic setting.

A recent visit to Kirkcaldy to meet up with the people behind KF Forestry was doubly welcome, signalling a return to something more like normality, with face-to-face meetings now possible after COVID-19 regulations being relaxed, and allowing the chance to meet up with Kieran Kelly once again. Kieran is the manager of KF Forestry, which is a division of Kingdom Farming (KF), but prior to that he, along with his two brothers, owned Kelly Tree Care (KTC).

Back in 2013, I met up with them to write, firstly, a feature about their business and then one about a new piece of forestry kit, a Vimek 608.2 forwarder, which they were operating. KF acquired KTC in 2016 and invited Kieran to remain and manage KF Forestry, the new forestry business.

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KF was set up over a decade ago by John Drysdale, primarily to deliver contract arable farming services to farms and estates in Fife. John’s son Renwick is now involved in the business and it was with him and Kieran that I was able to have a chat, though John did join us for a short while, providing insight into why he decided to move into forestry.

Forestry Journal: The Valtra and Novotny loading.The Valtra and Novotny loading.

Kieran had done work for John in the woodlands they look after and he was pleased with the results. Seeing the opportunity to add to the services he could offer his clients, approached Kieran about taking over KTC.

He said: “We look after quite a lot of hectares of woodland and the timing of the purchase of KTC was right, with a good price per tonne for timber. That said, it has been challenging, with many lessons learned about the difference between working in agriculture and forestry. Two of the main things that we found out are that forestry machines break down more and that good machine operators are difficult to recruit. We have learned a lot and the acquisition has been a springboard into other areas, such as the forestry carbon market.”

John was forthright enough to admit that while the experience had been enjoyable for a big percentage of the time, it had been a nightmare on some occasions. That said, he has approached it with an open mind and a desire to succeed and to support Kieran and his team to deliver success. This includes providing them with the kit they need, whether that is in the form of machinery or PPE for working at height.

Forestry Journal: Two machines stacking.Two machines stacking.

Renwick picked up on the theme of the differences between arable works and forestry.

“Farming is based on seasons, with different requirements for our machinery and men at different times of the year,” he said. “Forestry, on the other hand, can ebb and flow in terms of the work streams. On the farming side, we employ a dozen workers and they are fully employed working on several estates we are responsible for, as well as on our own farm at Kilrie.”

So for John and Renwick, the purchase of KTC provided a chance to move into new areas, but I wondered how Kieran felt about his business becoming part of a bigger company and having to give up control to others. 

Forestry Journal: Kieran believes preparation from the ground up is the key on any forestry job.Kieran believes preparation from the ground up is the key on any forestry job.

“I had been self-employed for 18 years, and initially the discussions with John were around him buying a harvester that I had for sale,” he said. “However, in the end, he bought that and I came along as well! I had a good relationship with him because of the work we had done before and I can honestly say that since I have joined KF I don’t feel like an employee, but rather part of a team.

“One of the big differences is the support and backup that I and my forestry team have from others in KF. Administration, which I handled myself in my own business, is dealt with by the office staff. There is a fully equipped workshop with first-class facilities and, in Alistair, a very experienced and capable farm engineer. This ensures we have very little downtime when our machinery hits problems.”

KTC became KF Forestry on 5 April 2016, with the jobs in hand and all equipment moving across, as well as Kieran. “I still have people contacting me on my old number as well as the new one, and sometimes both,” he said. “John supported me with investment in bigger and better equipment that has allowed us to expand our capabilities and offer more forestry services to our customers.”

Forestry Journal: A tractor and trailer is used to move equipment.A tractor and trailer is used to move equipment.

Both Renwick and Kieran, when I met them, were excited about their latest plans to invest in a Komatsu 825TX, coming in early 2022. This specialist thinning forwarder fits very well into the niche area in which KF Forestry operates, providing low-impact forest management for clients. They look to offer cost-effective solutions to manage woodlands, including harvesting crops, and minimising the damage to the land and the trees left in place. Kieran believes it might be the first of the new models to operate in Scotland.

“The Komatsu 825TX is a proper thinning forwarder, large enough to remain economically viable, but able to maintain a low-impact footprint,” he said. “It will make us more productive, but in a way that fits with our business aims. There were many options on the market, but the feedback on Komatsu machines is good. It is replacing our Novotny LVS 520, which is a machine that we have had a number of issues with, including two cracks in the bogie. This required it going to the Czech Republic for repairs.”

Forestry Journal: The JCB excavator operating with Kesla timber grab.The JCB excavator operating with Kesla timber grab.

Renwick was quick to agree with Kieran’s assessment of both the old and new machines.

“The work Kieran and his team have done in building on both the existing forestry jobs and developing others has helped to build the case to support our forestry operation with newer and more productive machinery, like the Komatsu,” he said. “We can see in the figures that the forestry side is moving in the right direction and kit like this will help with efficiencies while maximising returns for our clients.”

The Komatsu will complement the company’s Doosan 140 LCR-3 harvester, which operates with a Kesla 25 RH harvesting head. Kieran reckons the Doosan is a good machine to use on thinning jobs and the Kesla head is very productive and reliable, with no major issues, along with a good backup from GTW Forestry services if there is anything that Kieran and his team cannot deal with. Both machines are planned to help meet the increasing demand for low-impact forestry work.

Other kit includes a Valtra N174 forestry specification tractor with a 13-tonne drive trailer and crane, which can be used for secondary extraction. This tractor can also operate a power-take-off (PTO) winch if needed, as well as having an 8-tonne hydraulic winch on the front. A 14-tonne JCB excavator with buckets and a Kesla timber grab offers another option for dealing with large timber, alongside a smaller 8-tonne JCB. A Timberwolf 280 tracked chipper is used for both forestry as well as arb jobs. Another important bit of kit is a low-loading trailer, which can be used to move the machinery from job to job in their local area.

KF Forestry operates throughout Central Scotland and Fife in particular, but is able to carry out jobs elsewhere, having worked in the Borders and Perthshire. It also consults across the UK. Clients include sporting and private estates, golf clubs, farms and commercial companies. 

Kieran said: “One of our main arb clients is the National Trust for Scotland, working mainly at Falkland Palace and Hill of Tarvit House. The work is enjoyable given the varied nature, species, and age of the trees they have on site. Recent jobs have included deadwood removal from very large veteran sycamores, a mature walnut dismantle and the installation of a bracing system on a mature beech. This is something we do not do that often these days. 

“While on the Leckie Estate, at Gargunnock, Stirlingshire, we recently carried out the thinning of a mature mixed conifer stand. It was one of those jobs that just goes well; nice big trees in a lovely situation, felled by hand and winched uphill to the harvester. One cutter working across the hillside, laying them out for the winching crew to haul up the hill to the harvester for processing. However, to balance this out we also carried out a large area of rhododendron clearance for the same client, cutting and chipping to site, which was not so pleasant.”

Forestry Journal: Thinning larch on the Leckie Estate.Thinning larch on the Leckie Estate.

While KF Forestry has the capability, in terms of manpower and machinery, to tackle most jobs, Kieran will call on other forestry contacts to help out on a subcontract basis, if needed.

“People appreciate when we give them different options for their woodlands, perhaps by utilising others and their abilities alongside our own to help maximise their returns,” he said. While KTC had a 50/50 split of commercial and domestic clients it is very much commercial arboriculture work that KF Forestry deals with. Kieran reckons these clients account for around 80 per cent of the work they carry out. The domestic clients are long-standing customers of Kieran’s, while the commercial side is a mixture of one-off jobs and regular works for long-established clients such as RTS Forestry.

Kieran said: “We have been engaged by RTS Forestry to carry out a number of large arb jobs, as well as commercial forestry operations. One job that sticks out over the last couple of years would be the dismantle of a very large Douglas fir in Blairgowrie. Given its position, it had to be rigged down above the neighbouring property. Once on the deck it was handy enough, as all the branch wood was chipped to site and all the heavy timber could be lifted from the base of the tree by a timber lorry.

“We were once again hired by RTS Forestry to carry out urgent remedial pruning works and dismantles as part of a tree safety survey on behalf of West Lothian Council, at Almondell Country Park, East Calder. The works included the removal of deadwood and dangerous limbs, to some large dismantles. Given the nature of the site and the need for a low footprint, this was an ideal job for the Novotny to carry out the timber extraction on the already existing path network without causing any excess ground damage.”

Kieran and his colleagues have the experience to switch between the smaller domestic jobs and larger-scale commercial ones as needed. The team includes: Raf, the main harvester operator and go-to machine man; Kirsty, who has been with the team for a couple of years now, and is coming on as a cutter/climber, but is also the main operator for the small forwarder; Kev, another experienced cutter/climber who also carries out our arb survey work; and trainee Finlay, who joined in the last few months and is progressing well.  

Forestry Journal: Foundations of the new nursery.Foundations of the new nursery.

The kit on the Arb side includes a tracked Timberwolf 280 chipper and two L200 4x4 pickups. Husqvarna is the saw brand of choice for Kieran, dating back to the beginning. He said: “My first saw was a Husky 242. Currently we use 562XPs as our main ground saws, and they are great for power. We run 540XPs as our climbing saws and 572XPs as our mid-size. For the bigger stuff, we still rely on the 395XP, and on the odd occasion the old Stihl 88 gets an outing.”

From my first meeting with Kieran, I remembered he was the main climber with KTC. Today, he still retains his love of climbing and does it for KF Forestry, but has changed from using the double-rope to single-rope technique. I was interested to find out why and Kieran explained.

“I’ve been climbing for 27 years now and the vast majority of that time has been on a double-rope system, having always embraced new techniques and devices, from knots and pulleys through to the early lock jack and rope guide. I have always found this system to be fast and efficient and was cynical of single rope technique (SRT) for a while. Now having been climbing SRT for a couple of years, I do not think I will be going back. I find it to be very ergonomic, bringing your legs into the equation a lot more, and to be honest I am enjoying the change.”

The third strand to the KF Forestry business is a new venture, Kilrie Trees (KT). The aim of this is to produce trees and offer a consultancy service to allow landowners, business, and investors to benefit from the carbon market. KT can help landowners understand how carbon can benefit them. Analysis can be done of potential yields for land areas and planting plans suggested, offering comparisons to native or commercial tree species.

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Then advice can be offered on how to register and promote carbon to buyers. KT uses Kieran and the team to collect seed from estates that are looking to do large-scale planting plans. These will be propagated at their tree nursery in Fife.

For businesses, KT is able to offer possible solutions to how to meet carbon targets. This can be through acting as agents between landowners and businesses, along with helping them to communicate their carbon strategy and the benefits it brings. Finally, for investors, it can suggest proposals, source off-market opportunities, manage these, support them with carbon registration, and then manage forest investments they make for both timber and carbon.

Renwick explained part of the reason for getting this new business stream up and running three years ago was because of the lack of expertise KF found when trying to manage and register its own woodlands 
for carbon.

Forestry Journal: Kieran (left) and Renwick (right).Kieran (left) and Renwick (right).

“We found it hard to get advice on the subject and, in our experience, rural land and estate agents had little knowledge about carbon registration,” he said. “It seems to us there has been a slow reaction by established companies and therefore we think there is an opportunity to provide the full range of services that we now offer to clients. In effect, after we managed carbon for ourselves, we set about doing it for others.”

Indirectly, KT has led Renwick and John to start the development of their own tree nursery on their Kilrie Farm site. “Tree and seed supply are the main bottlenecks to project development,” said Renwick. “We are advising landowners on the best use of their land, what trees to plant, whether to harvest or to maintain as a woodland. We can identify the right tree species and, with that in mind, it seems sensible to be able to supply the trees that our clients need, where we can control the quality and the provenance of the seeds used. KT will be the world’s first carbon-negative tree nursery, using LED lighting and state-of-the-art equipment to improve the efficiency and quality of cell-grown tree seedlings.”

To support this development, KT is seeking to recruit a forestry operations manager and nursery staff to deliver on their plans to grow 2 million trees by the end of year one, with a plan to raise this to 8 million. It is seen as a logical development, with the opportunity to work with the company’s existing client base in harvesting seeds from woodlands it manages which can then return to them in the form of new trees to be planted.

“We have been seeking advice and guidance on setting up the nursery from Rodney Shearer, who spent a lifetime managing Alba Trees,” said Renwick. “We have also consulted with Forestry England, Scottish Forestry, and the Scottish Agricultural College. Sourcing trees to plant as part of the plans we work on with clients can sometimes be one of the biggest problems and bottlenecks can sometimes occur in projects. If we have our own trees, we can circumvent this. Given that we are operating and have a lot of experience and expertise in the sector, we are confident of making this a success.”

KT recently announced the acquisition of Ralia Estate on behalf of Abrdn’s Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust (SLIPIT) Fund. “We have been working closely with key stakeholders for over a year to design our science-based native woodland and peatland restoration plan,” said Renwick. “We see this as a landmark step for the use of private capital in enhancing and regenerating the landscape. If we are to deal with the twin threats of climate change and biodiversity loss, while improving the landscape, we need business and government working together with local communities and experts to deliver meaningful and ecologically sensitive change. 

“We are delighted to be working with Jason, Stuart and the rest of the SLIPIT team on this project to restore up to 950 hectares of woodland and 200 hectares of peatland.”

In addition to this, KT is managing Leckie Estate outside Stirling. Renwick said: “At Leckie, KF Forestry and KT work together to manage the existing 70 hectares of woodland and deliver the 160 hectares of native broadleaf woodland creation. This includes seed collections, project management, monitoring and evaluation, tree supply and carbon registration. Leckie is a pioneering project that shows how capital flowing into the space can be used for ecological restoration while providing a financial return to the landowner.”

It was clear from my visit that KF Forestry has a lot going on, with some exciting new ventures planned. The groundworks for the nursery complex have started and I look forward to returning to the site at Kirkcaldy in 2022 to see the nursery once it is up and running, and to hear more from Renwick and Kieran about how things are shaping up for the business.