Our young forester’s latest job finds him in death-defying circumstances among larch and ash on steep, steep ground.

I was all set to go. With the Hilux full of chainsaws, the Ifor Williams loaded to the gunnels with log splitters and an extra-large cup of coffee on the dashboard, I set off in the early hours of the morning for my favourite western county – Lancashire. After several toilet stops on the M6 I eventually arrived at the Hodder Valley where, to no-one’s surprise, it was raining. In fact it had been raining consistently for the last 30 days, so the ground was well and truly saturated.

The first task on my list was to help my friend Marc Riding finish off a felling job. I’ve known Marc for several years and what has become clear is he’s certainly never afraid to take on jobs most grown men would avoid. My first obstacle was trying to locate the site. You’d think, being so close to the M6, that finding the place would be easy and having ‘pin dropped’ the location on my phone it seemed straightforward – until I lost signal! I drove around for several miles until I began to wonder whether the Swaledales grazing on the roadside were the same ones I’d seen before. It seemed impossible to get a signal. You can scroll endlessly through your phone with amazing reception in the wilds of Canada, but try getting a signal just off the M6 in Lancashire!

Forestry Journal:

As the area is sparsely populated it occurred to me that, as in Northumberland, everyone knows everyone and instead of driving aimlessly around I should stop and ask. I happened upon an elderly lady hanging out her bloomers on a washing line. Just the kind of person I was after.
“Good morning,” I said. “Sorry to bother you, but do you know anyone around here cutting down trees with a big yellow digger and a red forwarder?” 

I hadn’t anticipated she probably hadn’t spoken to anyone for weeks and she quickly reeled off a series of names and locations I’d never heard of. Turned out she didn’t have a clue and was just trying to be helpful. Fortunately, at that moment, the postman arrived and sent me in the direction where he’d seen timber wagons loading.

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At least it was a start and after many more conversations with farmers, shepherds, sheep and collie dogs I eventually arrived at my destination. It was in an awkward location and to get to the opening of the block we had to drive through the middle of a narrow farmyard. This wasn’t a problem in itself, but the power-hungry farmhand seemed to make it his daily mission to block our access with a range of abandoned machinery. This petty and attention-seeking behaviour was very irritating and I could only conclude, with him being stuck out in this signal-free environment, that this was some desperate plea for friends.

The job, at first glance, looked an interesting one – a mix of overly mature larch intertwined with some ash dieback to add excitement. Before leaving home I’d been given a brief description of what remained in the block and so in my mind I was heading down to a leisurely little strip of larch to ease me back into hand cutting after two months off the saw. This image was shattered as I walked further into the wood and was confronted with what could only be described as the ‘bank of death’! Between Devon and Northumberland I’ve worked on several steep bank sides, but a few more degrees and this would have been vertical. Plus, with all the recent rain, there was clear evidence of landslides.

I approached the job with a quiet confidence, a sharp 500i in hand with wedges in the pocket, but I was quickly put on the back foot. I found it extremely hard to judge in which direction the trees were leaning, as well as just to be able to stand up in what seemed like tree felling for mountaineers. The larch was all tall, averaging about 110 feet in height, and good growing conditions had drawn the trees into tremendous poles, but there wasn’t a lot to work with at the base as some were just 15” in diameter. After cutting the gob I wasn’t left with a lot of room for a wedge behind the saw. The first two trees I cut sat back hard and required some serious hammering of my aluminium wedges to get them to lift.

By now I was seriously out of breath due to the steep ground and, rather than rush into making a mess of tree number three, I decided to take five minutes and have a rethink. The trees needed to fall in a consistent direction in order to be retrieved by the digger and I hadn’t got off to a flier. 

I was just regaining my poise when a young lad appeared. He was slight in stature and had long black hair and looked like most people’s impression of Jesus, but went by the name of Callum. Jesus had been felling on lower, flatter ground and as he’d been doing well he’d been sent up to the bank of death to work alongside me. We had a brief chat in which he insisted he’d done plenty of work, which was hard to believe considering his age and his pine-needle-type arms. However, I sent him to fell several nearby ash trees with an obvious lean which should have be fairly straightforward.

Jesus may have shown the way to the promised land, but his experience on a saw was quickly revealed as the first ash came down sideways, sending my combi can tumbling to the bottom of the bank and compressing my Greggs steak bake into a soily pulp. I wished he’d stopped there, but Jesus, having realised what he’d done, was on a mission to redeem himself, so moved quickly on to the next. I’d mentioned the heavy lean on a couple of them and that it would be worth sticking a letter box in and boring out the back, but in a panic he didn’t do so and instead left a 6” hinge. I stood there and watched it barber chain and kick him into the bank side, whipping off his helmet in the process. 

I immediately clicked into medical mode and set off huffing and puffing up the bank as quickly as I could. I had heard him squeal so I knew he wasn’t dead, so decided to slow down and conserve energy. When I finally got to him he was lying face down in the mud and groaning. I rolled him over, sat him up and began asking him some basic questions. His answers left me none the wiser as they were strange and confused and, as I’d only just met him, I couldn’t deduce whether he was genuinely concussed or just weird. He lay there claiming all kinds of injuries, but from my perspective there didn’t seem a lot wrong with him and, after a short while, I was able to walk him out of the wood and back to his mother. I doubt he’ll ever return to the woods and learned a short time later that he had no serious injuries other than torn underwear.

I returned to the bank of death the following day with a new plan. Older, more experienced cutters may mock me but it worked. Spirit levels don’t lie! I took a metre-long spirit level with me and, by placing it in the centre of the tree at eye level and looking up it like a shotgun barrel, I could remove all doubt about the tree’s intentions. Unfortunately, the majority of the trees weren’t going to co-operate even with the extensive use of wedges as the spindly larch poles had too much of a back lean to come up the hill, so I had no option but to use a winch. I’m not a big fan of winching as it’s slow and I’d much rather wedge, jack or push rather than run up and down a hill with wire rope all day. However, the bank of death played the tune and the next day we were winching.

Forestry Journal:

I’d worked with Ryan, the winch man, before, and got along well, so by doing things methodically and accurately we systematically hauled the larch off the bank and through the mud. My only regret is that I didn’t wear gloves, as the steel ropes cut my hands and left them pitted with small steel fibres which I’ve been removing ever since. I enjoyed felling the tall larch and, despite the fact they should have been felled 20 years previously, the dense outer growth rings amongst the sap wood provided great strength and control in the hinges.

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The ash, however, I approached with great caution. When it comes to felling and processing, I’m much more comfortable in a softwood block – the trees don’t have the unpredictability of hardwoods, which have large crowns and heavy branches prone to snapping and hurtling down like large, wooden darts. We’ve processed ash for centuries but now they’re terminally ill it seems they’re bent on revenge, trying to wound and take the lives of as many chainsaw operators as they can. I therefore try to spend as small an amount of time underneath them as I can.

With the winch at the ready we used a technique of attaching a rope, retreating to a safe distance and giving the tree a quick pull and shake to try to dislodge any loose limbs, before going in for the cut. Even the vibration of the saw in an ash tree now makes me feel uneasy. At school I was much more a long-distance runner than a sprinter, but placed in a woodland environment, clothed in PPE and with a running chainsaw, the mere hint of an unfamiliar sound from an ash tree can make me cover 20 metres at an Olympian speed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in this industry, injury can’t be avoided forever – so why do we do it? It’s a gamble and it seems only a matter of time before your number’s up. Yes, knowledge, technology and experience can all minimise the risk, but the moment you enter the wood the dice is rolling. I can only conclude it’s sawdust in the blood.