In the latest in our A Voice from the Woods series, our insider looks at the incoming ban on red diesel. 

OVER the last couple of years it’s fair to say our energy costs have doubled and so efficiency has become paramount in my thoughts. This will be further compounded in April when red diesel is banned along with rebates on biofuels. 

The latter, to me, destroys any notion that it’s a green tax. To me it’s simply dishonest and now becomes a tax that will cost me approximately £100 per day. Bearing in mind as a business we produce enough residues for biomass to be carbon neutral and probably considerably more! 

Unfortunately, we don’t have the infrastructure for our own ‘power station’ and send most of our residues to someone who can. Believe me if there was any feasible way of meeting our own energy costs I would be on the case, so if anyone out there knows of an old steam engine then please get in touch. 

It’s unbelievable that a mill established in the age of steam should consider returning to 19th-century technology. Is this really the way forward, to turn the clock back 150 years?

Western governments seem to be gambling on technology yet to be developed and are rushing to scrap tried-and-tested technologies before alternatives are available. How can you ban diesel before a biofuel refinery is built? And then you ban rebated fuel making it 25p per litre dearer than white diesel and expect everyone to invest in a product so expensive no one will want to buy it. What’s the option? You find even further savings somehow or quit!

In 2004 the government banned CCA and we now have a situation where most farmers are using imported creosoted posts or galvanised metal ones. In both instances huge amounts of energy have been used in the production, manufacture and transporting of these products. Basically, all we’ve done is export the jobs, add to the nation’s debt and cause additional untold pollution. To me words like fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, shambles, farce and joke don’t come close to describing the situation.

Forestry Journal:

The general public have no idea how such policies affect the likes of small mills. They just shrug their shoulders in the belief we’re all heading for this green and pleasant utopia when in reality many small and medium-sized mills are going out of business.

With the recent storms there’s no market for small parcels of timber and it looks as though several million tonnes of timber will either rot where it fell or find its way into biomass once it’s turned very dry and has very little value.

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods: January 2022

However, for those of us who manage to dodge all of the bullets there are definitely opportunities to be had. With what looks like an oversupply of raw materials and plenty of demand, then, provided we can cope with the stealth taxes and improve efficiencies, a future is possible.

Speaking of efficiencies, this brings me nicely onto my current project, which is to install side cutters to the sawmill. The process, I’m pleased to say, is nearing completion. The original plan was to automate some of the re-sawing, which would ease a bottleneck and would mean I could redeploy one of the workers to keep the mill tidier and more organised. Achieving this has been mentally draining. Most of the adaptations have been made in-house, which is very time consuming and detracts from the day-to-day business. If you’re a company like Dyson, you might have 300 people dedicated to this type of R&D process. I’m sitting there designing something in my head while operating the saw and worrying about deliveries. I then have to hunt down the necessary parts, and with the help of a retired car mechanic, do everything on a Saturday.

What could possibly go wrong, especially as I’m terrible at technical drawing and suddenly wonder whether attending school might have helped?! I am, however, very practical and we’ve built the gang saws a bit at a time as we’ve managed to source the parts. This wasn’t ideal because it’s taken a long time. However, in hindsight it’s probably worked out quite well as we had to adapt the design depending on what parts we could acquire. 

Thankfully, I have come up with what I consider to be an ingenious design, whereby all the parts fitted onto one central component, which was also the central hub. This meant that we could mix and match the parts without changing the overall design. This turned out to be very handy. 

The finished units have turned out well and are running smoothly. On a previous development we fitted the motors to the ends of shafts with rubber drives, but this turned out to be a mistake as they are a little noisy. We have also used bigger blades and slower motors, which has also made the new saws very smooth and quiet. Even the old electric motors, which nearly ended up as scrap, have proved their worth. They operate quietly and smoothly with lots of power, which considering their age is quite remarkable.

Moving on: I feel like I did in 2008 before the economy collapsed. If we look at our balance of trade deficit, we have been paying for the deficit by asset-stripping the country. Just look at the number of foreign-owned football clubs and the impact of selling off our major utility companies. It seemed to me that anyone with a modicum of common sense could see there would be a day of reckoning. I wonder if that day has arrived and it’s accompanied by a collapse in the housing market or a recession generally. So, being mean and lean as a business and factoring in a possible downturn seems to be a wise strategy.

On a personal level I seem to be heading down the fabled road to self-sufficiency. I want to build my own log cabin and be completely off grid. 

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods February 2022: Red diesel, loaders and sawmills

It would have its own water supply, bespoke heating system and electrical supply and be carbon neutral. As I wouldn’t have to travel to work it would reduce my dependence on a car, especially with the cost of fuel and my developing sciatica, which makes driving even a short distance very painful. Naturally, I shall attempt to do everything through the planning department, which in spite of its green credentials you just know deep down that they’ll make it as awkward as possible. Let’s hope they see sense and cooperate with a concept, which I think is quite forward-thinking. Besides, I have a yard with oak, western red cedar and Douglas fir, which should certainly get the creative juices flowing!

If I can build my own saw, then surely a log cabin can’t be that difficult? 

Talking of self-sufficiency I have also decided that this will be the year when I grow some of my own vegetables, and I’ve also decided to get a few young bullocks to raise and fatten. We have some rented land, which has far more grass than is needed for the few horses currently resident. However, none of this can really take place until we get the site cleared up after storm Arwen. 

Arwen blew down some huge old trees and I’ve been trying to tidy them up before we sort out the fences and get the stirks delivered. The sciatica hasn’t helped but it seems to be linked to some hip problem.

To aid me in the clean-up operation I got out the old Husky 395 with a 3’ bar to tackle a big old oak. After releasing the stump, which has about a 6’ diameter, we found a rotten hole up the centre. This isn’t as big of a disaster as it sounds. When the centre is rotten, it releases the pressure in the wood and we may be able to cut round discs off the log to sell as table tops. There are people out there today who know how to dry such timber and use coloured resins to improve their look. I feel this would give respect to the old tree, rather than just chopping it up for firewood, and besides there’s enough in the limbs for that purpose.

Forestry Journal:

After a lengthy session on the 395 on the trunk I decided to downsize to a 365 for the limbs. This is what I call a farmer’s saw and one I hadn’t used for years. Everyone nowadays seems to use these little saws, which scream at 20 million rpm and to me don’t seem to cut particularly well. With the 365 I’d managed to find a new but very old Oregon 13” bar, which I must have bought 25 years ago and never used. I also found a short length of chain, which had been left over from a roll and too short to get a 26” bar but enough for a 13”. So, I had an old saw and a bar and chain from 25 years ago and after problems with the new E10 petrol I opted for the old high-octane juice – and what a revelation. The saw was torquey and powerful and I really enjoyed using it, further reinforcing my belief that most new saws are supplied with absolute rubbish bars. In fact the mill is littered with useless modern bars that won’t cut straight. So, I now have an old three-foot bar, which I found on a road and a small 13” Oregon bar. 

If you think of the 365 and its many forms over the years, 162, 266, 61, 368, 372 and probably several others, then the basic design hasn’t really changed and it just goes to prove how good the original design was. I doubt it will ever be bettered.

In the mill we are now bringing the bespoke gang cutters into action and the results so far are very encouraging, although production isn’t going to increase on any particular day with more wood coming off the first saw as a finished size. Staff absentees are not now as critical and production is much more fluid. Slow and steady wins the race!