JUNE’S a funny month for me. I wake up feeling not quite sure which hat to wear. Having not long returned from my forestry adventures in south-west England to lambing, heather cutting and now to shearing, I feel like I’m in a giant tumble drier of activities.

Everywhere I travel in Northumberland, huge tracts of plantation are being clear-felled.

These are mainly young conifers with a shallow root base, but in between are hundreds of mature beech, ash and oak strung across the fields. As I know many of the farmers, I make a mental note of their location in the knowledge I’ll almost certainly return to them at some point in the future. And I don’t suppose people have really thought of the impact of ash dieback. Ash trees form the field boundaries throughout the region and most are now infected. I’m worried it’s going to look like a tree cemetery in a few years’ time.

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Back in November, three days after Storm Arwen hit, I was already pre-booked to begin a planting job on the south coast. The young saplings had been lifted in the nursery in anticipation of my arrival and so I felt a moral obligation to go. As someone who has worked hard to establish a good reputation in the industry as a reliable and capable chainsaw operator, it might have seemed like I was fleeing the battlefield. I wasn’t, but I did feel guilty to be leaving the area in a state of utter destruction and despair. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing and in a strange kind of way I was glad to be getting away from it all. 

Those days following the storm were a chaotic whirlwind of farmers with blunt chainsaws and hydraulics mixed with supposed ‘tree surgeons’, all buzzing around like angry wasps trying to exploit the situation for all it was worth. I was glad I wasn’t part of it. Perhaps the most galling headline to me appeared in the local paper, praising tree surgeons for their heroics. The article went on to describe how, armed with only head torches and chainsaws, they had worked through the night of the storm, with trees crashing all around them, to keep the main roads open. One of the arborists interviewed declared he wasn’t scared in the slightest, but was driven by a sense of community and adrenalin. As

I read the article only one word sprang to mind: clowns!

Having recently renewed my injury protection insurance, I noticed that upon mentioning the use of a chainsaw the premium increased by 35 per cent. This group of circus performers is the very reason why. In my experience, the best self-preservation technique when working in the woods is to have (as best as one can) a detailed and current awareness of the hazards and to try and make precautions for what may unfold.

READ MORE: Non-native species removal has our young forester thinking of the future: Danny, Champion of the Woods (June 2022)

To this I might add I have some experience of cutting wood with a head torch. I was close to completing a contract firewood processing job and, as I didn’t want to have to return the following day, I worked into the night. They say train drivers often become mesmerised when driving through snow and this wasn’t dissimilar. The particles of sawdust glisten in the light of the torch and mixed with the exhaust to form a strange fog. Not a sensible situation in the dark, and all this is before you include the possibility of being hit by a falling tree or branch. The article sounded heroic and good for public consumption but, in my mind, ‘clowns’ was the best description.

When emergencies strike, it’s interesting just how quickly the rule book can be selectively ignored. In order to work for any forestry contractor today in the UK, your PPE must be of the highest standard. Any helmet must not exceed three years of age, there must be no rips or tears in any chainsaw trousers and all ‘high vis’ must actually be high vis! This doesn’t begin to include the updated tickets and refreshers required to pacify the insurance companies. Shortly after Storm Arwen, Northumberland County Council put out an urgent request for chainsaw operators to help clear the streets and roads of fallen timber. The response was massive, as was the cost, as suddenly it seemed that every man, woman and child in the area owned a saw. As well as billing the council for huge amounts of money, this ‘dads’ army’ combed the area in a completely disorganised fashion with a blatant disregard for PPE requirements. I’m reliably informed that ear muffs and trainers were the PPE of choice!

A local chainsaw dealer was delighted, as he’d managed to sell 23 Efco Chinese chainsaws in a single day. I asked him if he’d also managed to sell 23 pairs of chainsaw pants. “Sadly not,” he replied, as “no one appeared to want any.” I dismissed him as not only a poor salesman but also an irresponsible one.

So, six months on from the event and here I am back in Northumberland. The council operators and volunteers have now returned to their day jobs and left the rate-payers to pick up the bill. As soon as I’ve finished with the shearing I’ll begin my own clean-up operation, as there’s more than enough for several years. This will be a more measured and logical approach, particularly to windblow, where thinning will take precedent over clearfelling, where possible.

The work will consist of small blown shelter belts, large downed hardwoods on agricultural ground, contract firewood processing and replanting the blown areas come the autumn. Several of the jobs I’ve already surveyed seem to have a common theme; someone’s already had a go, and usually badly! People’s attempts often have a slightly comedic side to them. One case involved a huge beech tree with a large-diameter trunk.

Someone had begun to dress the crown out and as they’d moved further down the stem the tree lifted itself back into position, taking the operator’s bait bag and car keys back up into the canopy. His Efco saw clearly couldn’t handle the four-foot-wide trunk and I presume his wife came to collect him, although how she found him I don’t know, as I’m sure I could hear the ever-so-distant ping of a mobile up in the canopy.

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In another example, a landowner clearly got into a panic and managed to persuade a neighbouring farmer to start clearing a shelter belt. He had obviously spent some time in the plantation, working his way down the wood and severing every edge tree, but at between 3–5 ft from the root plate. When I arrived, the wood resembled some kind of WWII tank defence and was almost impossible to access with machinery.

A tool which I’ve recently added to my repertoire when felling is a counter. First and foremost, I wanted to get an idea of what tonnage/volume I was cutting in a day on hand-cut clearfells. A harvester gets to know on his little screen, so why shouldn’t I? I calculate the average volume m3 of the average tree in the block ( x 0.8 for green softwood tonnage / x 0.9 green hardwood tonnage). Over the course of a refill, I count each tree in my head as I refuel. I don’t count anything you can’t get a couple of lengths off and I double click the odd monster. Over the course of the past couple of months, it’s proven to be quite an accurate system when weighed against forwarder loads extracted, volume in stacks and weights of lorry loads.

I’ve also found other advantages. Quite often as a hand cutter you’re asked, “How are you getting on?” or “How much do you think you have cut?” The reply is often a rather vague stab in the dark, but now I can give an exact quantity.

Hand cutting, to me, is very much about trying to maintain a steady and sustainable pace over the course of a day, a week or month; more wood cut, then greater remuneration. For anyone who struggles to pace themselves and finds that by 3pm they’re struggling I highly recommend using a counter.

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Trying to gauge what you’ve achieved by simply working to the clock or by your fuel consumption only offers vague feedback and makes for a long day. Working to the counter tells you exactly where you are and what you’ve done. After a few days in the same block you should know exactly how many you’re doing per day or per session.

What I’ve found is that some days I feel full of energy and the saw feels 2 kg lighter and I’m smashing them out, but then I look at the counter and it’s telling me my pace is exactly the same as the day before. Therefore, I should stop bouncing around as though I was on steroids! However, on days when it feels like I’m wading through mozzarella cheese with a blunt saw and a ticket to nowhere, the counter tells me I’m only actually a few trees behind the steroidal day and things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Using this method you can set yourself whatever goals you wish. For instance, you might want to do a set number before you have a brew or by lunchtime, which I personally find much more motivating and structured than working to the clock. 

Give it a try!