As he approaches the end of the sheep shearing season, our jobbing forester reflects on the advantages he’s gained from years of working in the woods.

IT’S now nearly nine weeks since I last strolled into the house wearing my wife’s favourite cologne, ‘Stihlfir’, a rare fragrance with a delicate balance of two-stroke fuel and tree sap. It forms naturally on the skin and has the added advantage of scattering a similar scented dust all over the carpets. For nine weeks only, these aromas are replaced with the heady aromas of sheep, sweat and lanolin, with a generous sprinkling of wool on the carpets.

The gang of shearers of which I am a member began shearing on the English east coast and now, as we come to the end of the season, we find ourselves hounded by horse flies and midges in the hills and glens of the Scottish Borders. We desperately wait for the weather to break and for the rain to stop and then it will be over for another year. I’ll be more than glad to put it all to bed and get back to snedding branches off trees rather than trying to control unruly sheep while frequently getting kicked.

READ MORE: Danny Graham: Our young forester finally has a place to call his own

I started professional hand cutting around five years before I began to learn how to shear. Physically, this prepared me well for shearing, as you need a strong left arm and an ability to hold onto things for a long time. I have a lot of friends my age who are now unable to shear without the use of a bungee back support – or a ‘baby bouncer’, as I call them. They regularly complain that shearing gives them a bad back and need frequent interventions from painkillers. And they are far from amused when I point out it’s because their backs are weak and they should try conducting a wide range of exercises.

Sitting on a tractor or quad bike for 10 months of the year does nothing to prepare you for the nine weeks of muscular contortion that is shearing. Farming was once a hard, physical job and still does require many physical elements, but the truth is it’s nowhere near as labour intensive as it used to be. No one’s mucking out sheds anymore or carrying sacks of grain up to the granary or walking miles a day over the moors with only a sheep-dog as a companion, and it’s a very long time since anyone’s seen a ditching spade that’s not pitted with rust.

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As a result, the level of fitness in agriculture generally is on the wane and I really think this is contributing to a growing weakness in the backbone of shearers. If I could advise a strengthening programme in preparation of shearing then a month of brashing out hairy Sitka with a harvester up your backside would be a good start. This would then be followed by a few days of hedge planting to get the hamstrings stretched. Let’s call it ‘the Graham Method’.

Being part of the shearing world has taught me a lot, and some of these skills and practices I have acquired are transferable to the forestry industry. My approach to some aspects of forestry has definitely been altered. An elasticated shearing belt on the chainsaw pants over a hard leather one was certainly a step in the right direction.

However, what I have probably gained the most is a skill for efficiency. The most efficient shearers shear the most sheep. The most efficient hand cutters process the most trees, and the most efficient planters plant the most trees, thereby gaining the greatest financial return.

You can’t cut wood if you’re bent over a stump hand filing. Change the chain and away you go again. You can easily lose half a day a week if you’re hand filing, and I know I can cut a lot of wood in half a day.

I’ve also learned to try to gauge the pace of how I work in a way that’s sustainable. I’ve worked with a number of cutters who end up burnt out by 2 PM. Push a little too hard in the morning and there’s nothing left in the tank for the afternoon. It’s the law of diminishing returns. You see it in shearing where one person begins to slow and the shearer next to them seems to speed up, ultimately ending the day with a greater financial return. If you apply the go-off-hard theory to hand cutting, then as you begin to slow in the afternoon you start to make mistakes or miss things. Hand cutting is a dangerous job and under these circumstances you’re far better going home and getting a fresh start the next morning.

As a very keen woodsman, the key difficulty with shearing for me is the full-on commitment which is every day throughout June and July. There’s no compromise or flexibility. I realise I’m missing out on certain timber opportunities which I know I’d enjoy, but you can’t just dip in and out of things as you please as you’d quickly be replaced by someone else trying to get a foot in the door. I was told by an old Aussie shearer some years ago, when I was new to the game and trying to get into the industry: “Danny, you’ll spend years trying to get into shearing and years trying to get out of it.”

A few weeks ago I had a bit of an epiphany when I reached what, for me, was a milestone. I suppose in the back of my mind it was a target I’d always aimed for which had formed from sibling rivalry. 345 probably doesn’t mean anything to most people, but to me it was like a hot iron branded on the hide of a steer. It was the number of sheep my eldest brother had sheared in a day and I finally blew it out of the water. I managed the grand total of 352 in a day and it’s no secret I took great pleasure in letting him know. Rather than congratulate me or demonstrate magnanimity, he chose not to speak to me, which is from my point of view a double victory.

Forestry Journal: Danny finally beat his brother's record Danny finally beat his brother's record (Image: Supplied)

It’s a strange thing when you achieve something you’ve been striving towards for a long time. You think to yourself, ‘OK what’s next?’ Nothing sheep related came to mind – purely timber-related operations. So for all the effort, investment, hard work and financial gain, maybe it’s time to move onto something new before I become the equivalent of an old wrinkled Aussie.

So the woods beckon and I have a mountain of work lined up for the foreseeable future.

More or less everyone who had firewood processed last year wants the same again this year with the addition of their friends. I’ve got some good professional staff lined up for the autumn and with the delivery of a new Fuelwood Splitta 400 expected in October I feel confident I can meet demand. The only issue really is they all want it done yesterday, which is normal for some things but I’m confident I can deal with the most urgent cases. This is always what I consider the ‘tricky zone’, when I’m coming to the end of one job but wanting to start the next. I’m still committed to several thousand more sheep but I don’t want to let those clients awaiting timber work down.

Despite this I have, albeit slowly, managed to keep the firewood processing ball rolling, or one man has. This is a chap who in the late ’70s was no stranger to Sitka thinnings, hand stacking or short wooding, and after a career of driving tanks and other military-related vehicles is now quite at home working alone, just Nigel versus 75 tonnes of oversized softwood. It’s quite a straightforward job where not a lot can go wrong and one I’d normally throw several people at for a week to get it done, but in this case it’s Nigel for a month. Armed with only fuel, chains and oil he begins at 8 AM and works steadily until 4.30 PM. You can set your watch by when he has his tea breaks, but he is utterly dependable – a quality which is becoming harder to find.

At the start of shearing I went out of my way to give a job to a pair of millennials who were keen for a week’s work. I needed 24 tonnes of clean, small discs to be split straight into a shed onto pallets. I provided a demonstration and left them to it. 

What followed was nothing but hassle, and while I wasn’t there in person, they were being monitored. Rather than put new pallets down as the stack increased, they spent hours carefully stacking the discs and then took it upon themselves to ‘service’ the log splitter. 

Realising they were running out of time, they then started to split the logs three times the size. In fact, they seemed to do everything bar what I asked them to do. I only hope they poured the fuel into their car rather than the bushes in an effort to match up the hours they claimed to have worked with fuel burned. They were paid for the wood they split as I agreed at the start and unsurprisingly they haven’t been back in touch for more work. I think they realised it wasn’t for them. Where is the next generation of Nigels?