Our young, travelling forester reports on his latest expedition, tackling ash trees for the council in Wiltshire.

IN case you didn’t know, hurling is a popular Irish sport. Its true origins are somewhat hazy, but it’s basically an outdoor team game of ancient Gaelic origin, played by men. If you research its origins, the reference simply says: ‘Prehistoric’. The female or mixed-gender version is called camogie. It’s a full-contact sport played with a hurling stick made from ash, which looks something like the clavicle bone from some prehistoric reptile. The stick, called a hurley, is used to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponents’ goalposts. As well as hitting the ball with the hurley, players can catch the ball in the hand and carry it, but not for more than four steps. If you want to carry it for more than four steps then you have to balance it on the hurley. Simple? You need to know this!

A headline in the local Wiltshire journal went something like this: ‘Englishman, Scotsman, Welshman and half-German head to the woods for Irish hurley sticks.’ Possibly not the attention-grabber you were anticipating, but interesting nevertheless.

January found me in Wiltshire for four weeks on a Woodland Trust site. The task was to remove overhanging ash trees from public footpaths and boundaries before the inevitable onslaught of ash dieback and the threat to public safety it may provide. I still don’t think the general public at large has any idea how much our landscape is going to change as a consequence of this disease. However, to the general public of Wiltshire this seemed like the death and destruction of nature by the devil’s assistants.

The job was difficult in that there was a high public presence on the site and interaction with them was fairly constant. This was a wooded area where the public had full access and had done for time immemorial and the council, in its wisdom, had decided the operation could commence in the presence of the public. It was stated quite clearly by the trust’s head forester at the start of the job that “money isn’t an issue here” and high production output wasn’t the biggest concern. Health and safety were paramount and what was also important was how we dealt with the public. It was as important to inform them what was being done and why.

Forestry Journal:

Everyone working on the site received a generous daily rate of pay. This was a first for me! Working in a forestry environment where maximising output wasn’t the main focus? At first I was a bit lost trying to adapt to this arrangement and even by the end of the contract I have to say I struggled to find the motivation to get out of bed. In hindsight, it’s not the kind of working environment I favour and I doubt I’d ever rush back to it.

So, although ‘high volume’ wasn’t the order of the day, we had some very experienced operatives. There were six in total: one from Devon, one from Swansea, one from Lancashire, one from Northumberland (me) and two from Inverness. I surmised it probably required a bowser full of diesel just to get everyone to Wiltshire. Before we assembled, a WhatsApp group was established through which we would all communicate.

At one point I felt sorry for the organiser, as foresters are notoriously difficult to contact. Unlike many ‘workers’ they spend long periods in areas with poor or no signal and go ages without checking their phones. It seemed like he was trying to get a group of wild animals into an orderly queue.

The common denominator between us all was we were all used to a healthy diet of production cutting – and this was totally different. I suspected it was like working for the council, which explains why so many of their employees seem to spend all their working day sitting in vans, eating pies and reading The Sun. We agreed between us that, morally, we had to achieve a respectable amount of production. Despite our gentlemen’s agreement, I wasn’t going to let anyone beat me. The unknown factor in all of this was the public.

Forestry Journal:

I quickly discovered it was much better to be verbally abused than engaged. The ranters were visible from a distance. Stereotypically, the men invariably wore caps and were accompanied by small yappy dogs. These dogs were usually small fluffy objects with bulging eyes, dressed in coats. Insults were short and sweet and usually delivered while leaving the scene. What you didn’t want to encounter were the ‘lonely regulars’. These, as it became apparent, you could set your watch by. They’d been walking the same route for the last hundred years or, sadly, since their wife had died. Some cutters made the error of becoming friendly with these men, who subjected them to the full history of their lives and up to an hour of conversation. The last thing you wanted was for your saw to run out of fuel just as they came around the corner as they imagined you’d done it deliberately out of an act of friendliness. Such was the length of the pause you’d almost certainly have to use the choke to restart!

I discovered a simple antidote to any contact with the public – find the biggest, hairiest conifer in the immediate vicinity, whether or not it was on the spec sheet. Drop it and then begin snedding, making as much noise as possible, until they’ve given up on the idea of conversation and disappeared into the distance. If they’re still there after all that then you’re doomed!

READ MORE: Antiques Roadshow, tree planting and Kevin: Danny, Champion of the Woods (March 2022)

While mostly cut to 3-metre lengths for firewood, the trees also had the perfect growing conditions for producing hurling sticks. Flat, dry ground produces the big toes and steady growth rate the trees require to qualify for this purpose. It seemed like a bit of a novelty at first, but the reality of felling trees at 1.5 metres isn’t great. A face full of sawdust to start with and then, if it gets hung up, you have a chin-height problem with limited solutions. Even the Unstoppable German found himself stopped once or twice while trying to navigate his Vimek forwarder around the obstacle course we’d created for him. 

To add insult to our efforts, after cutting 160 butts at 1.5 metres, three Irish contractors appeared to cut the butts off at ground level. Prior to severing the butts, they went round cutting a foot off the top of each. When I questioned them about it, they told me they were very difficult to handle at 1.5 metres. Dean Ryan explained, in a very southern Irish accent, that in the past they’d had trouble with cutters cutting them too low and so, as a precaution, they now told them to cut at 1.5 metres. He explained they only needed to be 1.2 metres but added, “You’ve done a cracking job!”

The Irish lads were very much characters in their own right. They first appeared at dawn one Tuesday morning in a white, brand new, rented Audi A4 – a very flash car and one not regularly seen on forestry tracks. A random selection of old, leaking saws and cans filled the boot, which I’m sure the hire company would be delighted with. Two small, wiry characters armed with spades then began to prepare the butts. They dug the soil away from around the base of each tree and then debarked them in preparation for a monster of a man to remove them. Had he been a rugby player he certainly wouldn’t have played on the wing! As soon as a butt was prepared, he plunged what seemed a very blunt Husqvarna 365 into its roots and detached it. There was not a shred of PPE to be seen, not even ear muffs, and by nightfall the hundred or so butts lay slain and he emerged, black with dirt and – presumably – deaf.

The public car park next to the wood was very busy during the day with dog walkers and very popular at night with other ‘dog-related’ activities. At night, when we returned to our caravans, we saw the car park was in full use and soon learned it is infamous as one of the top ‘dogging’ sites in Wiltshire. Sometimes up to six lots of doggers could be seen at any one time and, after four weeks, I even began to recognise certain cars. I think the council’s missing a trick with its parking tariffs!

Forestry Journal:

January turned out to be one of the driest months I’ve experienced in the forestry industry. Not a single drop of rain fell the whole time I was there. It was very cold though, and I had real problems trying to get gas to keep warm. For five nights the temperature dropped to -4, which coincided with a gas bottle shortage in Wiltshire. If I wanted to run a gas BBQ then that was fine, but the cylinders I needed to keep warm were unavailable. I was able to overcome the situation by watching a documentary about the Siege of Bastogne in which the Americans were freezing to death while being shelled remorselessly by the Germans. I concluded things could be worse.

It was great to work on a job with such experienced cutters. In the hand-cutting sector it’s quite rare now to be able to share time with like-minded individuals and share our experiences. Even at the relatively young age of 28 I now find myself the most experienced cutter on a job. More often than not I’m paired up with some newbie who’s only there because they have a valid forestry first aid certificate. I invariably end up having to correct what they’ve done: poorly snedded, miss-measured, plucked, high-stumped catastrophe!

It’s been a real pleasure to work with people more experienced and skilled than myself.

Coming from different areas of the UK meant some language and procedural variations.

At midday, for instance, no one was ever sure of the time and so some would have coffee, some would have a brew, some would have their bait, some their piece and others their scran. Being a little more travelled, I just went for my lunch!