Our jobbing forester finds himself in an educational role, having taken on some new recruits for hedge planting, while a firewood processing job finds him a man down.

HAVING now been around the sun 30 times, I can honestly say that during all those years I have never once considered a job in teaching. I didn’t enjoy school, having little in common with my urban peers or the narrow-minded teaching staff who seemed hell-bent on trying to brainwash me about subjects in which I had no interest.

I was in no way slow, leaving with results way in excess of the effort I made. I even embarked on A levels, but dropped out after realising that £60,000-worth of debt for a three-year jolly was a price too far. I joined the farming community and found plenty of parties to attend with only a hangover to pay for.

So, despite my reluctance to head in the teaching direction, this month has found me very much in that role. On this occasion my usual ‘experienced’ helpers were pursuing their own lines of interest and so, to keep the plates spinning, I employed some new recruits. I was completely unprepared for the physical and mental demand it’s placed on me, but it has been rewarding to see all the sweat and swear words begin to bear fruit.


Storm Arwen (remember that?) didn’t do many people any favours in the North, hammering insurance companies and flattening forestry blocks and shelter belts.

Unless you’re a bit of a maverick, a harvester driver or a chainsaw operator processing windblow for the last two years, it probably hasn’t done wonders for your mood. However, there has been one silver lining and that is the huge uptake of rural workers obtaining chainsaw tickets. Without a ticket your employer is culpable and has no eligible cover – and rightly so. So, with my rookie squad I’ve been captaining what looks like a motley crew in the art of timber processing and tree planting. From the sidelines it probably looks like a scene from Last of the Summer Wine or Dad’s Army. Don’t panic!

Just three days prior to the (now third) annual Northumberland processing tour of Lancashire I received a devastating blow. Accommodation was booked, chains were sharpened and everything was organised. As I waited at the appointed location to head off, my main hand cutter failed to turn up. Eventually I received a phone call in which he gingerly explained that the previous evening he’d had one too many pints and he was calling me from a prison cell and that for the foreseeable future he’d need collecting for work. It had been going so well for him – a new Swedish girlfriend, a pay rise and just enough good fortune, it seems, for some envious person to secretly alert the police to the fact he had driven home over the limit.

Forestry Journal:

As he was otherwise engaged in finding a solicitor, I was a key man down and headed west. A team of four is what it takes to keep a Splitta 400 fed with arb waste and as long as two of the team are competent on the saw and the other two are mechanically able, the job is right. I now had a team of three and only half the equipment. I took the trailer that does the splitting but the trailer with the conveyer, which generally makes life much easier, had to sit this one out. Nevertheless, understaffed and underequipped, we headed off to the Western Front and the boggy hole of Moss Lane, where a 20-tonne pile of ill-cut timber awaited our arrival.

Our first port of call was Will Dodd’s Yard. In these parts they call him ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ Will Dodd, on account of his generosity of spirit. Tree surgeon by name and grumpy by nature, he hates nothing more than climbing trees and prefers instead to be operating a 10-tonne Cat digger, snipping away with his shear grab. After a night of cloudy Stella and cards and no mention of tree surgery, Ebenezer, with the aid of his shear grab, quickly converts his arb waste into valuable firewood.

Forestry Journal:

Although we weren’t working as quickly and efficiently as usual, I was fortunate in having a hugely talented and experienced machine operator with me who ensures that the empty crates flow in and full crates flow out, as well as laying out the timber in such a way it makes it easy for the chainsaw operator. He does this while chain smoking and watching things on TikTok, while in the evening he maintains his physical prowess with vast quantities of lager. However, be it a digger, forklift or any other kind of hydraulic machine, he carries out his duties to the highest standard and is far superior to anyone else I have in my ranks. I just have to make sure I don’t shout at him too much for playing on his phone.

On this occasion, as I was short a chainsaw operator, he had to climb out of his heated cab and join me for spells of cutting in the pouring rain. Visor down, tab in mouth, red faced and sweating from the previous evening’s lager intake, he did remarkably well under the circumstances.

Whenever possible, I now lay out timber which is to be cut on a thick bed of woodchip. It keeps you out of the mud and is slightly easier on the knees, but most importantly it keeps you away from the hardcore. Hardcore is what ‘learners’ seem to enjoy digging into the moment you’ve set them up with a new chain. This saves a lot of time, particularly with small-diameter timber, as you can cut straight through the log and into the woodchip rather than having to constantly hand-turn the log. I left Matt (the machine operator) to do the straight stuff, while I concentrated on the bent and twisted stuff to keep the show on the road.

Without the conveyor we were faced with having to fill the crates from where I had the Splitta 400 mounted on the trailer, as the outlet spout is a good foot lower than the top of the cage. We initially had one of Ebenezer’s staff (Martin) standing at the spout, catching the logs and placing them in the crates, but after several hours we could tell by the expression on his face this was unsustainable. He’d done a great job, but in his absence either the trailer had to be elevated or the crates somehow had to go down. As it was pouring with rain we realised that if we dug a hole for the crates it would quickly fill with water, so the trailer went up.

We found a few rails and I cut a few logs to size, made a foot-high ramp and Martin was replaced with a bit of tin sheeting and a ratchet strap to create a slide. A few palettes were provided for the processer operator to stand on and, with the trailer handbrake firmly engaged and extra chocks in place, it passed my rigorous health-and-safety standards and the show continued.

With the job successfully completed, I headed back to Northumberland where, with so many hedge-planting grants jingling in the winter air, I couldn’t help but put a shine back on my faithful spade. After a few phone calls I quickly acquired the challenge of planting 4 km of hedging before Christmas. Coming from a farming background means one acquires skills like hedge planting. There aren’t many planters and as I know most of them I know that they’re not that keen on doing large stretches. The young ones coming in think they’ll make their fortune very quickly and either baulk at the strenuousness of the job or annoy others with the poor quality of their work.

Forestry Journal:

My planting team usually consists of novices, but from the off the emphasis is on quality. I generally do all the planting myself, but if I do have someone else on the spade then they’ll be following a marked rope to ensure the correct spacing. If trees aren’t planted correctly then I point this out and the tree is replanted. I plant all the poor ground myself. The hardest point to get across is to get the canes in deep enough. People get tired towards the end of the session and the quality of the work begins to decline, so if the cane is more than an inch above the tube it has to be tapped down.

While my team have been learning quickly they haven’t been helped by the poor quality of the canes. Canes shouldn’t bend when you push them into the ground.

They should be rigid and strong, and some of the bundles delivered this year had to be returned on account of their poor quality. Bundles of tooth picks are no good to anyone and I doubt some would go into custard let alone the heavy, rocky clays that predominate in the region. I don’t know for certain, but I assume that with such a huge rise in demand for tree stakes the graders in China let anything through. In one instance, on very heavy ground, over half the bundle were unfit for purpose.

We certainly weren’t breaking any records at the start. However, by the second week we were pushing 300 metres a day on a good stretch of ground. It’s both satisfying and reassuring to see learners getting the hang of things and receiving financial reward for a job well done.