WITHOUT wishing to over-dramatise the situation, it’s rare for me to say that, sitting here now, I’m very lucky to be alive.

Much has been written about ash dieback; what causes the disease, its symptoms and the possible consequences on the landscape. I know that here, in Northumberland, ash is the main boundary tree on field perimeters and down the majority of country lanes, with much of it now being infected.

What hasn’t yet been considered is what we do with it all. Yes, ash, when seasoned correctly, is a very good fuel for log burners, and so one would think that across the UK there is almost a limitless supply of dead or dying ash trees for this purpose. However, there is a snag... cutting it down.

READ MORE: Simon Bowes examines the ongoing crisis of ash dieback in the UK

Last month I was called to fell one such ash tree not far from the sawmill. It was a nice day and so, in order to have a break from the saw, I arranged for one of my fellow workers to join me in the task. As he was busy at the time I agreed to head off and start the job and he would follow as soon as he was available. I made the journey in about 10 minutes and went about my usual preparations, putting fuel in the saw, sorting PPE and checking I had my flask of tea.

I have been in the forestry business all my life and couldn’t put a figure on the number of trees I’ve felled, but my approach has always been the same. One has to remember that every tree is different and has to be judged on its own merits. 

Every woodsman makes an assessment based on the type of wood, the angle of the tree, its location and, of course, the weather. The particular ash tree in question was no different and as I assessed the situation I considered all these factors. 

The tree was virtually straight with some huge upper limbs, so I decided upon a fairly tried-and-tested method as there was no room for error. Had it been leaning, then I would certainly have bored straight through the centre of the trunk with the head of the saw, but it being straight I decided a conventional gob and cut would suffice. I cut the gob and had just started on the cut when... thump!

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For a few seconds the lights went out as I temporarily lost consciousness. One of the huge upper limbs of the tree had sheared off and come down directly on top of and across me. At first, after those initial moments of darkness, I thought, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead’, but then the reality of the situation began to kick in.

I could hear the chainsaw still running and as I was pinned down I thought for a brief moment I might need it to cut myself out. Had I made a cock up? Had I assessed the situation incorrectly? In such a situation I’m the first to hold up my hands if I’ve made an error, but I couldn’t see how I might have done anything differently. I expected some of the smaller stuff to drop, but how could I anticipate such a large section just shearing off? What was increasingly clear was my critical underestimation of just how brittle these trees can be.

As well as the pounding in my head it was now obvious from the pain that I’d incurred a range of injuries. Fortunately I had been standing in a slight depression or indentation and, as the limb had fallen, my leg had taken some of the main force. However, this had driven my foot into the ground.

This act of selflessness by my leg, together withy my location in a slight depression, had basically saved my life. 

My knee was clearly dislocated and to extract myself I had to relocate the knee and crawl out. The leg had taken the bulk and was badly shattered. I slowly extracted myself from under the bough and hobbled across to the pickup where I managed to prop myself up against the cab. I called the sawmill and asked the secretary to call an ambulance. Because of the location it was suggested an air ambulance was needed, but as there was nothing available a road vehicle was summoned. I’ve never been in a helicopter and I was rather looking forward to it, but at this stage in proceedings I was just glad to see anything!

I don’t remember a lot of detail from that point on. It took about four days for the concussion to begin to recede. I do remember the ambulance taking a long time to arrive. Finding the location and gaining access across several fields clearly presented a challenge.

My first impression of the hospital was one of heat – an oppressive and intensive heat. I’m a man of the outdoors and it was still September and I couldn’t understand why the place was so hot. I’d been placed on my back but because one of my lungs had collapsed I couldn’t breathe, and so I took it upon myself to try and stand up as often as I could. I’d also been given liquid morphine which made me sick, so I stopped taking it.

Slowly but surely the extent of my injuries became clear – collapsed lung, severe concussion, a fractured leg and three torn ligaments (one detached), multiple rib fractures, multiple soft-tissue injuries and compression fractures of several vertebrae. During the X-ray phase they also detected a small brain lesion which will require further investigation. Initially, they seemed to have missed the extent of the knee injuries, until during one inspection I presented the leg and foot at an unusual angle, whereupon an alternative diagnosis was made. I was then fitted with a leg brace which will be critical for the next four weeks to enable the ligaments to reattach. If they don’t mend as anticipated then I could be wearing it for months, which I clearly wish to avoid. Despite my initial scepticism, the brace has proved to be excellent.

It was obvious to any of the staff in the hospital that I was a caged animal. Yes, I’d suffered some major injuries and yes, I needed to recover, but pouring a cocktail of drugs down my throat and locking me in what seemed like an oven wasn’t for me. I was so keen to demonstrate my progress (in order to escape) that I took it upon myself to head to the toilet independently – and was accompanied by a male nurse, who sat in the cubicle and chatted to me while I went about my business.

The broken ribs were proving a real impediment. Not only were they making breathing difficult, they also seemed to make me want to vomit. On one such occasion I managed to make it to a sink, whereupon I got a severe reprimand from a nurse for not vomiting in the correct place.

The biggest problem I had, apart from the heat, was the concussion. I can only describe it as like having a washing machine inside your head on full spin cycle. Anyone who is aware of Cramlington Hospital will know it’s on the flight path of Newcastle Airport. Every time a plane took off it was as though they were deliberately switching the spin cycle to max! However, the biggest single problem remained the heat. I felt as though I was literally in the process of being cooked alive. I cannot fault the staff for their professionalism, care or attention, but why so hot? Surely it can’t be healthy!

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By now I had only one intention and that was to escape. I had heard a whisper that I might be discharged and so I went about doing everything I could to cooperate. I walked up and down the ward corridors on crutches to demonstrate my ability to cope while continuing to pour the morphine down the sink. One nurse actually said to me I was quite unique in that most patients are usually clamouring for more drugs not less! Regardless, it worked as soon after I was discharged.

The journey home was very uncomfortable. The broken ribs appeared to be in synchronisation with the numerous potholes that blight the roads of rural Northumberland and we had stop frequently to allow me to vomit. The sheer joy of inhaling vast lungfuls of beautiful, clean, northern air far outweighed the discomfort.

The brace on my leg has to remain in place for four weeks and while I have returned to work I have strict instructions to delegate (I’m not very good at this) and to undertake ‘light’ duties. 

I should take this opportunity to thank the hospital staff for their work and all the people who’ve passed on their good wishes and support. A massive thank-you to you all. 

Are there any lessons to be learned? Over the course of my life I’ve cut down hundreds of dead ash trees. Many have had hollow centres and a multitude of dead branches. Trees suffering from ash dieback look similar but are totally different.

I remember some years ago Simon Bowes writing in Forestry Journal about this very subject. Be warned! These trees can just shatter without warning. In fact it’s like cutting down a tree made from icicles. Having spent five days in hospital and being lucky to be alive, this is one woodsman who’ll be going nowhere near such diseased trees in future. 

I do have a solution to offer – dynamite!