Based in Falkirk, Scotland,  O’Neill Trees & Timber is a young company offering a wide range of services to meet the goals of land owners and land managers. Forestry Journal’s James Hendrie met up with owner Andy O’Neill to uncover its story.

ANDY O’Neill is a man who is now, in his own words, ‘achieving a lifetime ambition’ to combine his honours degree in adventure recreation management with his passion and expertise in working in woodlands and the countryside. Redundancy offered both the catalyst and opportunity to set up in business for himself. Its name, O’Neill Terrain Services (OTS), was carefully chosen to reflect the range of services offered to clients. As that range became more focussed, the firm rebranded to O’Neill Trees & Timber.

The firm operates in and around the Falkirk area, with clients including estates, local authorities and smallholders, and with other local contractors contributing to bigger jobs to allow the pooling of equipment and expertise. For Andy, three fundamentals underpin his business, which are displayed on the company website: being environmentally aware, committed to health and safety, and quality driven.

It was back in 2014 that I first met up with Andy, when he was the only paid employee of the Bespoke Community Development Company. Its aim was to offer a new, socially minded way of operating in a forest setting. Callendar Estate, Falkirk Council, various grant providers, and, importantly, volunteers were all key stakeholders. A large part of the workload was maintaining and developing the paths, tracks, and trails on Callendar Estate and dealing with the impact of trees.

READ MORE: Forester's Diary February 2022: Woodland Creation Offer won't solve UK's timber issues

Sadly, challenges with funding meant Andy’s role was made redundant. This then saw him take the plunge and set up as a sole trader. Andy was able to contract for Callendar Estate, and, in addition, was given first refusal to purchase Bespoke’s now redundant equipment. Probably the biggest challenge Andy found, as he explained, was picking up the administration side of the business.

“Operating the equipment and doing the day-to-day jobs were things that I had been doing with Bespoke and were straight-forward, but having to employ staff, sort out insurance, run an office and still have time to visit and price for new work was difficult to manage at first,” he said. 

“I was lucky that my last two trainees on the Bespoke project came and worked for me so I knew them, and they knew the way I operated, which helped a lot. One of the two, Steven Wallace, is still with me.”

What soon became clear to Andy was that more work would be required if he was to have a successful business. Andy worked with Falkirk Council on maintaining one of their cycle trails built for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games Legacy, from his Bespoke days, and this continued, which was helpful in getting started. 

Forestry Journal: Andy felling a windblown Sitka, with a winch restrained root plate, on a private estate with his favourite saw the Husky 385XP with Sugihara bar.Andy felling a windblown Sitka, with a winch restrained root plate, on a private estate with his favourite saw the Husky 385XP with Sugihara bar.

Work followed for the White Lady Mountain Biking CIC, in partnership with Falkirk Community Trust, and in conjunction with Bo’ness Community Trust, Falkirk Council, and funding providers on their cycle trail at Kinneil Estate in Bo’ness. This job involved the felling and clearing of a number of trees as well as work on the cycle trail itself.

Andy said: “It was a pine and spruce plantation where the Trust was looking to ensure there was minimal ground disturbance and we had to be aware that this location had a lot of public access, historic features, and very sensitive environmental considerations.”

The 2018/2019 trading year was certainly a steep learning curve for Andy, with a need to hit the ground running. There were challenges and the odd mistake made along the way, but there was a great feeling of confidence by the end of it that  OTT had shown it could tackle a wide range of different jobs.

Andy was quick to forge links with other local contractors to enable larger-scale jobs to be completed for his clients.

“One early job that we tackled was a five-day roadside project at Torwood near Stirling, which required the felling and removal of numerous birch and six 100-ft spruce trees, with the village phone line being strung through 500 m of them,” he said. “There was also the challenge of the road below and nearby houses, as well as the need to close the road for the full five days.

Forestry Journal: Typical weather when working in Scottish winter when rigging up winch assists.Typical weather when working in Scottish winter when rigging up winch assists.

“For this, we employed a subcontractor to deal with the traffic management. We had to fell some challenging trees from the ground as well as doing pruning from a truck-mounted access platform. The works carried out were all covered by a 60-page health and safety document I compiled as the main contractor.

“We teamed up with a local arb contractor and worked our way slowly but surely through the five days to complete the job safely and to the client’s satisfaction. Along the way we learned how many motorists do not obey multiple layers of signage and will move cones just to avoid taking a five-minute detour.”

2019 saw Andy remain happy with the progress being made and the work streams his business was developing. The work they carried out on Callander Estate was a good example of his team’s different capabilities, covering maintenance of paths and cycle trails and tree works, as well as fencing.

He said: “We moved into agri-fencing as there was fencing work that needed to be carried out on Callander Estate and the estate needed a reliable contractor. I invested in a Protec P30 Contractor fence post driver and we got started on the estate fences with guidance from the head forester. The P30 is a high-quality machine and does just what we need it to.

“Fencing is another string to our bow and will help us to fill in quieter times. Also, because we use our Goldoni Euro 45 tractor and Nokka 106HD trailer to transport materials onto sites, we can offer a cost-effective and low-impact option.”  

COVID-19 affected the business in 2020, with Andy having to furlough the team and follow the stay-at-home call of the government. Given that his baby daughter Aila had been born in 2019, there were certain attractions to spending time with her and his wife Louise. However, he kept some maintenance contracts up, as much as H&S would allow for one person. He also rebranded the business.

He said: “I have been keen since we set up to ensure we don’t get pigeonholed into clients thinking we only provide certain services. I wanted to get across that we can perform a wide range of work, but all associated with woodland and countryside management.

“So, working with the help of others, I set about rebranding our logo, building a website, creating marketing literature and ensuring all our kit got branded up.”

After lockdown eased, the team was back together, working on a wide range of jobs, with Andy looking to invest in more equipment, such as a Valtra 6550 forestry-guarded loader tractor. 

Forestry Journal: Steven with the Stihl 881 and 42” bar, cutting some Cedar rounds, to be turned into side tables by a client in Edinburgh who had the tree dismantled by a tree surgeon and OTS milled slabs and saved a few decorative rounds.Steven with the Stihl 881 and 42” bar, cutting some Cedar rounds, to be turned into side tables by a client in Edinburgh who had the tree dismantled by a tree surgeon and OTS milled slabs and saved a few decorative rounds.

He said: “Uncharacteristically, I actually bought it ‘blind’ through a Facebook advert, which was quite a worrying experience until I saw it getting delivered into the yard on the back of a trailer and I was reassured that it actually looked okay. The Valtra was about scaling up the business to do bigger and more complex jobs.”

He also researched and purchased both an 8-tonne Rydam Universal hydraulic winch and an 8.5-tonne Kane drop-side trailer with additional high sides, floor extension, and flotation tyres. This allowed larger lengths of stem to be moved off site, along with woodchip and other residue tree materials. Andy also uses it to move other equipment, finding it a truly multipurpose piece of kit.

“This equipment offers us the flexibility to work on a variety of jobs,” he said. “The heavily guarded tractor ensures operator safety, the slow controllable hydraulic winch allows us to carry out assisted fells and recovery, the loader with log grab or bucket and a drop-side trailer are flexible enough to work in the various business areas. Also, I wanted a cab with a heater!”

On the saw front, Andy uses many of the main brands such as Echo, Stihl, Husqvarna and Makita, firmly believing all have something to offer. His first was a Makita DCS 5030 (still reliably in service now with a Tsumara bar), a close second to his favourite, which is a 20-year-old Husqvarna 385XP. 

Forestry Journal: Sam Anderson assisting with a chipper whose track had come off in the woods.Sam Anderson assisting with a chipper whose track had come off in the woods.

“We have found, for lots of our forestry tasks, a 50cc saw on a 15” bar is the way to go, especially if you are lugging it around all day, so the likes of our Husky 550XP and my Makita are our usual go-to saws. The 385, though, for me, is the chainsaw for dealing with hardwood and paired up with a 28” Sugihara Pro Solid bar and large double dogs is well balanced and a great torquey hardwood and oversized saw without any electronics to worry about.”

Andy also operates chainsaw-powered sawmills, using a Stihl 881, which came with a 42” bar, as the main saw on his double-powerhead 55” Panther mill, and a Husqvarna 661 on his Logosol mill. “The 881 is a powerful beast and you know when you have been running it, but I prefer to keep if for milling and use the 385 or 661 for accuracy in felling large trees.”

When we met up, he was also in the process of adding a bandsaw mill, a Hudson Oscar 36 with a 23 hp V-twin Briggs and Stratton engine, to his collection, believing the ability to offer sawmill services to clients was something he saw as a development area.      

“I have always believed in having the right tool to do the job. The Panther sawmill can mill 1,400 mm wide slabs, so I use that for dealing with the big hardwoods where the mill has to go to the log. The Logosol deals with up to 600 mm and I have transported it into the woods and found that I can mill on site with a good level of productivity that a road-tailored mill would struggle with, for logistical reasons. 

Forestry Journal:  Sam Anderson assisting with a chipper whose track had come off in the woods. Sam Anderson assisting with a chipper whose track had come off in the woods.

“Amazingly, the Hudson Oscar 36 bandsaw mill was rescued from a hedge! This will allow us to more efficiently mill up both hard- and softwoods even dimensionally, with much less wastage, a higher recovery rate and much less impact on the operator compared to a chainsaw mill, although with less cutting width capacity.”

The Panther sawmill was used in April of 2021 to mill a 1,200 mm piece of oak in the Falkirk area that had to be felled for safety reasons. Too large to be processed through the nearby static mill, Andy and his team used the Panther to mill it into slabs that can be used for furniture production, rather than just being cut up for firewood. In Andy’s mind, a much better outcome.

“The wood stays local and the carbon is locked up for generations and not burned,” he said. “I feel that too much hardwood is being lost to firewood when with a little thought and some hard work in milling it into slabs and dimensional timber it can become sought-after handcrafted low-carbon furniture.”

Later in the summer Andy tackled what he described as a ‘funky-shaped’ beech tree.

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“The job involved a tricky assisted fell using a winch to ensure damage was not caused to a prized stone dyke nearby, in full view of the estate house. The Panther sawmill was used again to mill slabs for potential use in furniture-making for the estate house. This tree maxed out our 1,400 mm mill at the crotch end and produced some lovely slabs that I was sad to return to the client as I wanted to keep them for myself.”

Andy is passionate about trying to publicise the alternative uses for such hardwood and oversized trees rather than cutting them up for firewood and has taken to social media, including Facebook and Instagram, to highlight these jobs. A post on a particularly stunning elm tree, which again was too big to be dealt with by the local sawmill, got 10,000 views, showing the interest in what he is doing.      

Forestry Journal: Steven, on the Whacker plate, repairing a section of worn mountain bike trail also demonstrating the Valtra’s flexibility as on this job it acts as a large wheelbarrow.Steven, on the Whacker plate, repairing a section of worn mountain bike trail also demonstrating the Valtra’s flexibility as on this job it acts as a large wheelbarrow.

These jobs have all had Andy and his team thinking hard about how to mill such big timber. He said: “It took a little out-of-the-box thinking to get a decent first cut and minimise any wastage, but we got there and produced some awesome live-edge slabs.

Other than the advantages of locking in the carbon and allowing a high-quality product to be produced, we are able to show the provenance of where the wood has come from when it is used to manufacture the finished products.”

Andy has begun to retain slabs of wood to allow the build-up of his own stock levels for potential future use and is keen to hear from anyone in Scotland’s Central Belt planning to fell large hardwoods who is looking for not only a labour-saving way of dealing with large stems but also an environmentally positive one.

“We recently had a call about an oak that was to be felled on an industrial estate due to its expansion which, in the end, saw us use our hardwood felling skills to minimise wastage from the likes of high stumps and inaccurate cuts. We brought home an enormous 2.7-tonne oak stem to mill which would have otherwise been rung up by the arb team clearing the site for ease of handling and disposal.

“There are long lead times required to allow the wood to dry out, anything up to a year per inch of thickness, before you can start working on it to produce a piece of furniture.

"It is a process you cannot speed up or change. Mother Nature needs to be able to be left to her own devices in this regard, unless you invest in very expensive kiln technology.

"For me it is worth the wait to stop the waste of such good pieces of timber.” 

2021 saw OTT working on Callander Estate on a thinning job for biodiversity. “The site was a mixture of native broadleaves including birch, alder, willow and oak. This particular type of work is super labour intensive and genuinely exhausting, taking its toll on the saw operators as almost every stem not only needs cut and wrestled to the ground, but then further cross cut to maximise its contact with the ground. It also requires lots of precision to minimise scarring and damage to the remaining trees. It’s super satisfying work once you step back and see the difference.”

Andy and the team also found themselves back at Bo’ness working on a site once more for the Falkirk Community Trust.  

“Here, we were dealing with a number of sycamore trees on steep terrain, involving some winch-assisted felling and skidding with our Eder 1800 Capstan winch, another piece of kit added in 2020. There was a bit of tidying up required on the site from previous tree works. For OTT, the job was extended beyond the initial scope of works, with the client being impressed by the quality of work and skill in technical tree felling and, most importantly, the improvement made to the appearance of the site compared to how it had been.”

So, after having had a great first year, then an 18-month COVID-19 pandemic to cope with, I wondered what Andy saw in the future for OTT moving into 2022.

He said: “Like most businesses our short-term aim has been to survive the impact of the pandemic sustainably and learn from what can only be described as a crazy 18 months. I aim to build on what we have achieved to date and look to engage with more clients and interesting jobs. I want to continue to build the business’s reputation for doing jobs to the highest standards and I want to emphasise to clients our ability to offer specialist machinery, which is professionally operated. I think the journey we have started, building relationships with both customers and other like-mined local contractors, is the way forward.

“I am keen to keep investing in kit to build our capability to do jobs safely and efficiently, as well as taking on board additional staff to deal with our increasing workload. There will always be a market for quality hardwoods, particularly now, with a broadening of environmental consciousness. Consumers are increasingly aware not only of where their food comes from, but also other items, like their furniture. This could mean that in the future, imported tropical hardwood use may decline in favour of locally sourced alternatives. These alternatives will be shown to be ethically produced from a ‘waste’ product with traceable provenance.

Forestry Journal: Steven behind the sticks of the Nokka on the clearfell.Steven behind the sticks of the Nokka on the clearfell.

“That, in my mind, extends right across the industry, from firewood to commercial saw-log production. Locally grown and harvested should be preferred and the default option to reduce the appeal of imports, which have led to the spread of tree diseases and declining rates for contractors. Our passion is, first and foremost, working with trees and timber in the woods and countryside. We aim to continue to build a robust and sustainable business – to provide our current and future clients with the woodland and countryside management services they require to the highest standard both locally and further afield, while being mindful of the environment and our impact on it.”