I HAVE no doubt that over the last few years it’s been a very good time to own a sawmill.

Although my own mill is relatively small, by using skill, knowledge and experience I can still compete with the bigger operators. While I can’t speak for everyone, one of the biggest lessons of running a small business is not to be frightened to try out new ideas and to innovate whenever possible.

Over the years, some of these innovations have been terrible and have fallen flat on their faces, whereas some have been a resounding success. This is where running your own business can be at its most rewarding, because you have the freedom to try new things and be the beneficiary if they come off.

Now in my mid-50s, I’m fortunate that I’m relatively fit and strong, yet recurring pains in my back and hips are a permanent reminder of a youth spent working in forestry doing thinning. At the time, a great deal of the woodland planted just after the war was in desperate need of management. Most forestry contractors appeared to be involved to some degree and, as a young 16-year-old, I thought the methods being used were barbaric and brutal on the body. I still do! Now and again I bump into people from the past with whom I used to work and none of us seems to have avoided lasting skeletal damage. I commonly bump into people in the course of the week who might be driving a wagon or a forwarder or who are knocking posts in with a post knocker, and they all say the same thing: “Thank god I’m off the saw. My back’s wrecked!” 

Personally, I had to stop working on Forestry Commission land in my early 20s due to the intense pain I experienced trying to walk in safety trousers over rough terrain. I could work fine in jeans, but there’s no money in the world which would get me to wear PPC.

However, not wishing to become distracted by bygone safety rules, the big problem back in the day, when most of us were motor-manually thinning woodland, was getting the trees on the ground. If you look at a typical Sitka plantation, the trees will be planted in nice straight rows and cutting rows of trees down for a skidder is fairly straight-forward.

It’s a little inefficient for the skidder as it’s difficult to get enough trees together to make a decent load. A good cutter would leave the tree tops sticking out of the brash where you could see them and leave a couple of snags on the end so the skidder chains didn’t slide off. A bad cutter would bury his trees and I’ve even had the misfortune to try skidding wood which was still connected to the stump where the cutter hadn’t cut off his hinges. However, the biggest downfall to thinning with a chainsaw and skidder is selective thinning. Here, you are taking trees out of the standing rows which, due to the geometry of the planting, always want to cross over the extraction routes and are impossible to skid out. 

When I first started in the woods, tractor drivers and cutters always seemed to be arguing over a system which just didn’t work. Some cutters went to extraordinary lengths to get the trees on the ground, myself included! It wasn’t unusual to see someone running around with a butt end of a smallish tree (still weighing a quarter of a tonne) on his shoulders, to (a) get the tree down and (b) get it at the right angle so it could be extracted by the skidder. In my view, it was inhumane and one of the most brutal jobs I ever experienced. Thinning this way was inefficient and slow and so most people ‘progressed’ to short-wooding. This was where trees are sawn into short lengths for the forwarder. This was good for the tractor driver, but not so good for the cutter who had to manually stack the lengths in piles on the sides of the extraction tracks. This was a nightmare when the produce was sawlogs or big pallet wood. Another problem was that the forwarders were getting bigger than the skidders and two rows of trees were removed, creating big gaps in the wood, allowing the wind in.

Looking back it was absolute madness what was expected of the average wood cutter.

What was even more frustrating at the time was that any suggestion of doing things differently was met with hostility. At one stage I calculated that in a densely planted wood, instead of following the rows of trees when making an extraction route, you followed a row for about six trees. You then went into the next row for a similar amount and then the same again.

Doing this, you would make an extraction route of roughly 30 degrees to the lines in the crop. You then did your selective thinning by cutting small lines in the crop; normally little rows of three or four trees. These trees will fall in a straight line and will fall easily without the brutal interference of a cant hook. Skidding out would be quite easy as the skidder (back then usually a County with a double-drum winch) can pick up trees both from the extraction lines and the selective thinning, thus making both cutting and extraction more efficient.

To me it seemed so much more efficient than following lines and so much easier on the backs of the cutters. I’m sure some of the smaller estates, with their own tractors, would find this system beneficial when carrying out thinning without making big holes or straight lines. Another advantage of thinning this way is the produce is left in fairly big piles, ready for the forwarder or even to be lifted straight onto the wagon.

So, having bored everyone rigid about thinning, let me get to my pint. Recently, I was driving our little wagon with a load of offcuts. The offcuts consisted largely of post points and the load was well netted, though once I got moving I heard the faint rattle of a scrap on the cab roof. I should have stopped and removed the offending scrap, but I didn’t and soon after I noticed it blow off. I thought nothing more about it, but a minute later a lady in a Mini waved me down, so I pulled in, expecting to see a fault with the wagon.

A quick check revealed no such problem, but not before the lady, who had been following me, started screaming in my ear that I’d destroyed her vehicle. Unless I immediately handed over my insurance details, she said, she would ring the police. Looking at her car, it appeared to have no visible signs of damage, so I suggested she contact the police and I would retreat to the cab (play Sudoku on my phone) and await their arrival. About 20 minutes later, just as I was starting to struggle with the Sudoku, an attractive young police officer arrived. Realising I was now in a quite vulnerable situation (two women against one man) I decided the best course of action was to say nothing, so I stood there patiently while the two women discussed what was supposed to have happened.

After a while, the young officer turned to me and asked if I’d cleared the carriageway.

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods May 2022: Rising fuel costs and Storm Arwen wasted timber

There was nothing to clear, I said, and the one piece of wood that fell off was about the size of a teabag. Amazingly, the woman in the Mini agreed with my version of events, but claimed the piece of wood had ‘wrecked’ the front plastic panel of the car. The policewoman informed us she’d been looking for debris on the carriageway but had seen none. To my surprise, she got down on the road and crawled around, under the vehicle, to inspect the supposed damage. 

All the while, I stayed back so as not to get involved and was amazed when the officer declared the only damage she could see was historic and unlikely to have been caused by a small piece of wood. The officer advised the motorist against an insurance claim and sent her on her way. Turning to me, she said that she could prosecute me as I’d admitted the wood had fallen from the vehicle, but she would use discretion in this case – however, the DSA wouldn’t be so forgiving! As I drove off, I gave a sigh of relief and vowed that from now on I’d use only minor roads as one can never guard against everything.

After spending a year living in a town, I’m desperate to get back to the country – once a country bumpkin, always a country bumpkin. Not only has Northumberland become very popular with southern investors, but houses in the countryside don’t become available very often as most belong to large landowners who don’t need to sell them. For this reason, to live in the country often means renting. However, fortunately for me, a local landowner is currently selling off a few properties and we’ve been lucky enough to bag one which is perfect for us. It’s detached, has a nice big garden, great parking, sheds, fabulous views and an adjacent bridleway leading to the local woods and ponds.

Here I must thank the Mini driver who tried to scam me and the policewoman who sent her packing. It was only as a result of this incident that I started taking the back lanes and eventually saw the ‘For Sale’ sign and secured the property. Travelling these lanes has also given me a bit of a scare as just about every wood I pass contains a harvester.

Following the damage wrought by Storm Arwen, an army of big green and orange harvesters has descended on the region. I don’t know where they’ve all come from, but there’s clearly going to be an abundance of timber for the mills over the next couple of years. It’s what happens next that worries me, as supply is likely to fall off a cliff. Unless we start thinning woods again – and I don’t mean how we used to – there’s going to be a major shortage. Neither do I mean just the small stuff, but the semi-mature trees also. A wood when thinned will normally regrow the tonnage removed in about five years.

A newly planted wood takes about 40 years. Just a thought!