Investing in the right kind of versatile harvesting machinery has helped Matthew Biddle’s business to evolve, keep up with demand and stay ahead of competition. We spoke to him to find out more.

SINCE adopting harvesting mechanisation 12 years ago, woodland contractor Matthew Biddle has used Kesla (formerly Patu) equipment. In all, his company Aspect Forestry has owned four Patu/Kesla forwarding trailers and three harvesting heads, the latest investment being a stroke-feed Kesla 25SH Mk II.

We speak on a Saturday morning, following a busy week in which a low-loader company (WS Transportation) moved Aspect Forestry’s harvesting and forwarding machinery from Northamptonshire to Suffolk. In Northamptonshire, the 25SH Mk II head performed well, thinning mixed-species broadleaf compartments of ash and sycamore, with a large softwood larch component. The Suffolk contract contains large amounts of softwood to thin, a smaller broadleaf thinning and a regenerative broadleaf clearfell.

Matthew explains his choice of harvesting head. “The majority of our work is thinning and harvesting broadleaf woodlands. Using a stroke-feed head allows me to do jobs that other contractors would say are ‘too rough’ or ‘need hand-felling’,” such as working undermanaged woodlands with poorly formed, heavily branched trees and overstood multi-stemmed coppice. If necessary, the head can perform tasks similar to those done with tree shears, cutting unproductive understorey or hedge coppicing, if a client needs that kind of work.”


The stroke-feed 25SH Mk II is the largest stroke head in the Kesla range. Supplied through dealers Chandlers Farm Machinery, this head can cut and delimb stems up to 75 cm in diameter, using what Matthew describes as a ‘grip-and-stroke’ method.

“A stroke head has more delimbing power (a feed force of 65 kN as opposed to 24 kN on the same sized roller head), taking far bigger limbs from the main stem than a traditional roller harvester head. The disadvantage is that it is slower. You can’t fire the tree through the head at a rapid rate. My overall daily production is a lot less than a roller head.”

Forestry Journal: Matthew Biddle of Aspect Forestry.Matthew Biddle of Aspect Forestry. (Image: Supplied)

In hardwood broadleaf thinnings, Matthew’s production rate is approximately 20–25 m3 a day. He said: “I don’t run the head any more than five years, trading in while there is still value and work left in it. Downtime costs far more than the repair, and we can’t afford downtime.”

Aspect Forestry runs the Kesla head on a converted Doosan 140 LCV excavator. An excavator is more adaptable than a purpose-built harvester. “It suits the needs of our estate-based clients who often require a range of services during one visit. For example, we run a TMC Cancela TMB 100 forestry mulcher and a range of buckets for carrying out jobs such as loading bay construction and forestry ditching. Further advantages of using a digger-based harvester include having tracks when working wet sites and repairs are generally more straightforward, the machines being more basic than a purpose-built harvester.”

Before its woodland debut, the Doosan was converted with full forestry guarding and a Marguard windscreen installed for vehicle and operator safety. In order to run the various attachments, the base machine required a lot of work on the electrics and hydraulics, all of which were carried out by Aspect Forestry’s service mechanic Sean Phillips.

Machinery flexibility proved useful in Northamptonshire where, for a long-term client, Matthew spent a month and half thinning two compartments (6 ha) of P1950 mixed-species hardwoods (ash and sycamore) and softwoods (larch) last worked in 1970. He says: “It was a hilly site, fine to work when the weather was dry and ground conditions were good. It was a real challenge extracting timber if we had rain, especially with this summer’s weather being so changeable. But, we finally got it done.”

The timber was forwarded out on Aspect Forestry’s Kesla 144 forwarding trailer with 326T crane (nine-metre double extension reach) pulled by a Valtra N143 tractor with full forestry guarding, again converted by Sean and a local fabrication company. The Kesla crane is equipped with a Tamtron weigher and Cranab grab.

Forestry Journal: Oak timber lengths presented for tender sale.Oak timber lengths presented for tender sale. (Image: FJ)

Matthew says: “The weigher enables us to keep accurate records of the timber extracted on a daily basis. If we need to load flat artic lorries, we can do so without overloading.”

Aspect Forestry marketed and sold the Northamptonshire timber: Larch sawlogs to a timber merchant; softwood chipwood to a neighbouring estate, who chipped and sold it through their biomass business; some hardwood went to a local family-run sawmill, the rest went to local firewood merchants or to Fuelsell (Norfolk), a company Matthew has worked with since 2004.

In Suffolk, this is Aspect Forestry’s second contract for the National Trust at Ickworth House near Bury St Edmunds. Last year, Matthew thinned a softwood compartment and widened two rides. This year, he is fourth-thinning 5 ha of sizable Norway spruce and Douglas fir stems, thinning though 2 ha of broadleaves, performing a 0.5 ha regenerative clearfell where 85–90 per cent of the tree stock is ADB-infected ash, and mulching two rows of Norway spruce stumps left from last year’s ride widening.

“This site is flat and relatively dry,” he says. “Being August, there is a lot of public access. All footpaths around the compartments have been closed and diversions set up. The public still have access along the extraction route, a hard road leading to the lorry-loading bay. We still need to be vigilant, for walkers, cyclists, and e-skateboarders. A battery-powered skateboard is not something I’ve seen before.”

Quoting in May for this contract, Matthew estimated the release of 500–600 m³ of timber, 200 m³ being hardwood ash firewood. The chipwood is to be retained by the estate to fuel a biomass boiler that heats the main house, a hotel and other estate properties. “I bought the spruce and Douglas standing and will market the sawlogs directly to potential buyers.”

Forestry Journal:  Doosan 140 LCV, Forestry converted excavator with 25SH Mk II harvester head. Doosan 140 LCV, Forestry converted excavator with 25SH Mk II harvester head. (Image: FJ)

Of organising the works Matthew says: “The National Trust is genuinely interested in doing things for the right reasons: for nature conservation and to produce a good-quality timber crop. There is a lot of paperwork and it has to be spot on. I like that. So it should be. Once they have established that you want to do the job correctly, they trust you and leave you to get on with it.”

Onsite until mid-October, Matthew operates both the harvester and forwarder himself. It was not always this way. “Before mechanisation, at times we had up to five hand-cutters. Nowadays, it is difficult to get the people and then to do the job to standard required. Unless it is really big timber, hand-cutting doesn’t pay. Anything oversized, I cut myself.”

Matthew, now 42, always knew he wanted a career working outdoors. He spent weekends and school holidays working on a local farm in Leicestershire. When BSE threw a potential career in dairy farming into doubt, he accepted a few days forestry labouring with Cameron Forest and Garden.

A few days became a year. “I really liked it. It gave me a foundation in forestry and the company owner put me through my chainsaw tickets. During bird-nesting season, we were seconded to the landscaping team for private clients.”

Attending Aberystwyth University, he graduated with an honours degree in Countryside Management. In 2004, he started his own business. “Had I left it any longer, I may have had commitments and the decision would not have been as easy. If it went wrong, I thought I could probably get another job.”

Matthew launched Aspect Forestry, a forestry and rural management business, with two chainsaws, a Land Rover and a springer spaniel. A feature in FJ in 2006 shows Matthew sitting in the cab of his Land Rover.

Initially, he subcontracted as a hand cutter. When one contractor was looking to sell an old County 1164 tractor and Patu trailer, Matthew borrowed £6,500 and bought the lot. “With that, I was able to hand-fell and extract my timber.”   

The business expanded to the point where Matthew was employing up to five other hand cutters, one on-and-off for 11 years. “David had an engineering background and taught me about repairing machines. He joined me when he was 61. He retired from forestry when he was 72 and went to work part-time on a family farm in New South Wales, Australia.”

Moving to north Suffolk and working across East Anglia, Aspect Forestry’s move to mechanise harvesting operations was thought through long and hard by Matthew and his partner Nicole Ball. They met when Nicole worked for the Forestry Contracting Association and she now runs Aspect Forestry’s office. Matthew says: “We have work pencilled in 12–18 months in advance. It sounds impressive, but considering it’s only me working on site, you don’t need many clients to fill up the diary.”  

On site at Ickworth, Matthew has been putting the Kesla head through its paces, thinning through softwood stems, cutting (on average) 40–50 m³ a day. “This head can cut softwood, as long as the client understands the output is lower than a conventional roller head.”  

Forestry Journal:  Kesla 25SH Mk II harvester head. Kesla 25SH Mk II harvester head. (Image: FJ)

Larger spruce and Douglas fir stems will be hand-felled by Matthew using a Stihl 361 chainsaw with a 20-inch bar. There is no point in having a smaller chainsaw, because the Kesla head cuts everything else.

Suffolk has yet to experience outbreaks of Phytophthora or spruce bark beetle. “We have to be aware of both, but around here the biggest problem (or opportunity) is ash dieback. Ash is a dominant species in East Anglia and dieback is causing some major management decisions.” 

Aspect Forestry offers different types of service to different types of clientele. Some Matthew contracts for. For others, he provides woodland consultancy. “For ‘whole estate’ clients, we provide consultancy and contracting services. We liaise with the FC and Natural England and draw up the felling licence applications, the budgets and work programmes. Then we do the work. Jobs generally go better and more efficiently when I am also the contractor, because I know the woods and if we need to be flexible and alter the programme, having a working relationship with the estate (and knowing what works are coming in the future) enables that to go ahead.”

For Thurlow Estate, Aspect Forestry has undertaken both advisory and contracting works during the last 12 years. One relatively recent contract, widening and reinstating rides within their SSSI woodlands, took place over five years. “The rides were so overgrown, we could not get a vehicle up them in places. The working periods had to accommodate bird-nesting restrictions and a dry-weather window, so most years we were restricted to working from late summer into early autumn. In consultation with Natural England, we opened up some areas to 15 metres, others to 20 metres. Long-term, they will have a nice graded edge. After five years, we had a wild flower covering, with brilliant butterflies – commas and white admirals.”

Forestry Journal: Harvester being transferred to a new site by WS Transportation.Harvester being transferred to a new site by WS Transportation. (Image: FJ)

Ride widening finished in March 2021. The machine-coppiced hazel and ash firewood was extracted in the summer. As part of the works, Matthew felled oak timbers for the estate to market themselves via a tendering process.
While working at Thurlow Estate, Matthew took part in an annual ‘Schools Demonstration Day’, offering local primary school children the opportunity to see and experience a variety of rural management works.

To increase his own knowledge, Matthew is a long-standing member of the Royal Forestry Society, as he explains: “Forestry can be solitary. You can become blinkered in your thoughts and approach. At university, I mixed with people from different rural backgrounds. The RFS offers similar opportunities. Each year, the East Anglia division holds three outdoor site meetings and a winter lecture on a forestry-related topic. It is a chance to meet and mix with estate owners, land-owners, agents, representatives from the FC, the Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust, and to hear opinions other than your own.” On occasion, Aspect Forestry has picked up work through such events.

Forestry Journal: Ickworth Estate, National Trust. Valtra N143 tractor and Kesla 144 trailer with 326T crane. Transporting 4 m spruce chipwood to the estate storage yard.Ickworth Estate, National Trust. Valtra N143 tractor and Kesla 144 trailer with 326T crane. Transporting 4 m spruce chipwood to the estate storage yard. (Image: FJ)

Matthew uses Twitter, now X, to promote forestry and the business. Contacts made could lead to future contracting work. But he sees a lot of negativity “about forestry and woodland management, even around planting trees, on social media. With so much disinformation out there, you wonder how this influences the wider general public. Will it lead to increasingly extreme views and actions, where people may damage machinery on site because they don’t understand the reasons behind the work? On one occasion, on a site with public access, someone filmed me working.

"Were they filming to post something negative on social media, or were they are interested in the machine? Even now, forestry does not have a powerful voice. Contracting needs a body as vocal as the Arboricultural Association.”

Forestry Journal: Extraction of oak timber with a Valtra N143 and Igland remote-control winch. Extraction of oak timber with a Valtra N143 and Igland remote-control winch. (Image: FJ)

Next, pending FC sign-off on a felling licence, Aspect Forestry will be thinning an area of over-mature SSSI broadleaf coppice (ash, elm, field maple and hazel), managed jointly by an estate client and the Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. The chipwood will be retained in-house to fuel a biomass boiler. “Unworked since the 1950s, these coppice stems are 12–18 inches in diameter. Since WWII, a reduction in estate labour has left a lot of coppice-with-standards woodland unmanaged, and markets for the coppice material have diminished. The installation of estate woodfuel heating systems now provides a market for this material and a renewed opportunity to place these woodlands back into a more favourable coppice management system.”

Could it also be said that this is creating renewed opportunities for a woodland contractor with over 20 years’ experience who, 12 years ago, invested in the right kind of versatile harvesting machinery?
X: @AspectForest