A year of switching from one felling job to another to another can certainly keep you busy – but is it profitable?

IT was one of my father’s favourite sayings, particularly when he was watching me fitting some new accessory to my motorbike. He was shocked when I bought a brand new bike. I don’t think he’d owned a new vehicle, but the struggles he witnessed when I was trying to maintain what were essentially scrap motorcycles did soften his attitude.

Anyone who has followed my writing over the last 20 or so years will be aware that for most of that time I worked on a particular estate. They will also be aware that the volume of articles I have produced lately has diminished markedly. The two are not unconnected.

On this particular estate I worked with the same head forester for many years. When I started there, the first project was to fell a stand of Douglas that still, to this day, is the best Douglas fir I have ever felled. I didn’t go back to the estate for a few years, but then the forester contacted me to ask if I would look at some windblow he wanted tidying up. He didn’t tell me at the outset that the job would run to almost 500 acres (about 200 ha) and would take several years to complete. While we were doing this tidy-up he added a few hardwood thinning jobs into the mix, and from that we – and I emphasise the ‘we’ – started a firewood business to maximise the profit from what was a not-so-valuable asset at the time.


I got the harvesting work and the estate built up a high-quality firewood business that secured a number of jobs on the estate. Infrastructure was put in place with a dedicated firewood processor building, a couple of drying sheds and several pieces of equipment, including a new Posch firewood processor. It was a wonderful fit for everyone involved, allowing maintenance of the estate woods to be continual and profitable, and it gave me steady work from April to November each year.

We spent 17 summers on the estate, until the forester announced he was to retire and, in the last two years as he ran down his time, I noticed a malign influence begin to creep in. The relationship we had always relied on mutual respect and a shared willingness to be fair. I’d do a horrible little job somewhere wet and inaccessible in the sure knowledge that the next job would offset the struggle, and I wouldn’t get a promise that would simply be forgotten when the time came. This promise of a better job next time is something all contractors will understand, and a few managers will recognise.

In a brief conversation with the forester, who I have long regarded as a friend, he explained he had stressed to the estate management that it was essential I be retained to do the future work on the estate. I felt a little awkward when I told him I wouldn’t be doing any more work on the estate once he left. I remember saying to the low-loader driver as he chained the harvester down that Christmas that it was the end of an era and I didn’t expect he would be bringing my machines back in the spring.

I was right. I had to chase up the last invoice I’d submitted and my enquiry turned into a quite angry phone call with the estate manager. He began by spelling out all the changes that were going to be made now a new forester was about to take over. I stopped the conversation by simply stating none of it would affect me as I had no intention of working on the estate again. I had to repeat this simple fact several times before he understood.

I knew my instincts had been right when a few weeks later I received a letter effectively sacking me, but at least it was accompanied by a cheque for the last invoice I’d submitted.

Since then I have watched from a distance as the estate I felt such an affiliation with has gone through a process I consider a painful example of change for change’s sake.

Have I had trouble filling the hole left by losing six months of steady work each summer? Hell no! I quickly found there’s work in abundance if you have a decent reputation – and enough even if you don’t.

We moved from our winter work onto a new estate where we did two clearfells – one of ash and one of softwood – and a thinning. From there we moved into something not unfamiliar, a whole-tree harvesting job. This was extremely challenging due to the ridiculous ploughing, and difficult because leaving the ground bare in the rows (this was a line thin) made it incredibly rough. It didn’t help that the volume was estimated at 600 m3 or about 500 tonnes. The final figure was just a tad over 1,800 tonnes, every one hard gotten but every one profitable. I did consider maybe we’d have some major breakdowns given the job was so rough, but the only real casualty was me having a suspected case of Lyme’s disease.

Forestry Journal:  That’s it, park up until a week after it thaws out. That’s it, park up until a week after it thaws out. (Image: SB)

All the product was chipped at roadside and I managed to sneak off and do two brash-recovery contracts in between. All the work was on FE ground and the three contracts were close enough to drive between them. It was the first time we’d worked on FE ground for several years, but it all worked pretty smoothly, to my surprise.

In a strange twist of fate, a small clearfell I priced just along the road was secured in the late summer tender and we moved there straight after the whole-tree job. This was where things reverted to type. We had done all the paperwork and were ready to roll when suddenly someone discovered a badger sett on the far edge of the site. It was duly marked off and I thought no more about it until a few days later when the question was asked: “When are you going to fell the badger sett?” I replied: “When somebody pays me to do it.” I hadn’t priced the job to fell a badger sett by hand and the buyer hadn’t priced felling a badger sett by hand into his offer when they had bid for the standing sale because there was no mention of any badger sett in the sale documents.

It was a 1,000-tonne job, the badger sett would require a hand cutter for at least four days (mainly because it was deep ploughed, scattered with old windblow and thick with regen, some of it five metres tall) and the trees would have to be dragged onto the fell to process. None of this was helped by the fact that the entire site was a swamp, exacerbated by the policy of deliberately blocking the drains carried out previously. I estimated it would add around £1,500 to my costs or £1.50/tonne on the rate had it been included in the sale documents.

It snowed for a few days just coming up to Christmas, which froze the ground and allowed me to fill the very restricted stacking area with timber. However, because the rule in the district is no haulage when the roads are ‘in winter condition’, we had to suspend all timber uplift, and as we couldn’t fit any more wood on the landing the job came to a halt. The site was all harvested except for the badger sett, so we moved on to the next job.

I went back in June to clear the remaining harvested timber from the site. I won’t go into details, but we felled the badger sett and it didn’t cost me anything. However, sitting down and doing the figures I soon saw that having to pay for moving the forwarder back to finish the job and including the hypothetical cost of felling that badger sett, plus lost days when they stopped us working because of wet conditions,

I could see little or no profit for me other than my own wages. Without delays for wet ground, with a bigger landing for stacking timber, without the badger sett, a more coherent policy on frozen roads and not having timber lying on the ground for six months drying out, it would have been a good little earner.

In the six months between finishing harvesting and lifting the last bit of timber, we completed a relatively large (for north Yorkshire) clearfell and recovered the brash.

We then completed a clearfell of small ash which we had started to do a year before.

This ash was totally dead and thinning it was pointless. The estate asked the Forestry Commission to send someone out to look at it with a view to us felling it all. Yes we could fell it, once the estate had applied for a clearfell licence. I didn’t even move the forwarder to site. We just pulled the harvester out and left a day and a half’s cutting on the floor.

Forestry Journal: Found this in the whole-tree chipping job. Hand cutters who have grey hair will know what this is.Found this in the whole-tree chipping job. Hand cutters who have grey hair will know what this is. (Image: SB)

We cleared that ash in a few days. It was so light and so brittle I worked out it had lost more than half its value in the 12 months it had taken to get the licence.
Are you seeing a theme here? I seem to have spent the last year bouncing from place to place, from minor crisis to minor crisis, because of other people’s actions.

In the spring of last year we did a small job in a farm woodland. It was too small to interest anyone with big finance payments, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. It was an old estate woodland that had gone with the farm when it had been sold off and was the epitome of undermanaged. In a few weeks we turned it into a reasonably tidy-looking woodland and the farmer was ecstatic. He’d despaired of it ever being anything other than a liability, but now he was full of enthusiasm and talked about underplanting some small bits that had been mainly scrub birch with old windblow, making it hard to even walk through.

I sat down and did the figures and despite it being a small job and being 50 miles from home, it had made more money than the badger sett job, even though the planning and execution had been done by a selling agent, the company FWM and myself.

As I write this we’re just finishing another small, private job from the same selling agent, a job with some extremely fine oak in it. It’s another woodland attached to a farm that was sold off by a local estate and it’s dated by the fact the wood has a large number of hornbeam scattered through it, which might well be what remains of the original mix. It was quite common to plant oak and hornbeam together at one time and of the three woods on this farm one of them is worthy of an article in itself. It is one of the best undiscovered woods I’ve worked in for many years.

Forestry Journal:  Whole-tree harvesting. Is this the future? Whole-tree harvesting. Is this the future? (Image: SB)

In contrast, we have another FE job ongoing, clearfelling lodgepole pine that might have had one thinning 30 years ago, and strip-felling Scots pine that’s maybe 20 years old. The strips we are taking out are 10 m wide with 20 m of standing left in between each strip. We cut chip down to 6.5 cm and recover everything else as biomass for chipping on site. We spent around five weeks doing this before we moved to the farm woodland and now we’re about to move back. I don’t think the transition back will be as happy as the one the other way was, but that’s the lot of a modern harvesting contractor, going from high-quality work on good rates with people involved who value the work we do to a fight to put as much produce to roadside as quickly as possible while avoiding the multiple pitfalls generated by an organisation that seems bent on creating its own problems.

Sometimes it’s not so much change for change’s sake as awkward for awkward’s sake. If this change for necessity’s sake that I’ve had to make has taught me anything, it’s that on a personal level I’m a man from a different time and that there needs to be a reality check in forestry before we follow candlemakers and wheelwrights into a corner of the local folk museum.