Forestry is resilient in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. It has to be, since the supply of wood products must keep coming. That doesn’t mean recent weeks have been business as usual for those who have kept working, with businesses across the forestry and timber sector affected in a variety of different ways. At the start of the initial lockdown, James Hendrie caught up with some of the people he’s interviewed for Forestry Journal over the years to find out how they were coping.

I have been a writer for Forestry Journal for over a decade, submitting features on many companies and people within the forestry industry during that time. Because of this, I was interested to find out the impact the current coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdown is having on the sector. I decided the best way to do this would be by catching up with some of the people I know in forestry. Today’s wide variety of communication platforms allowed me to get in touch with quite a few of them from the comfort of my own home, to find out how they were coping.

As I write this article, the current UK Government guidance states that, with the exception of non-essential shops and public venues, they are not asking businesses to close. Indeed, the suggestion is they want business to carry on as normal. The caveat is that this is providing businesses continuing to operate can take account of the guidance given. This includes social distancing and self-isolation if required for potentially affected people. Forestry, then, appears to be seen by the various governments of the United Kingdom as an essential sector to keep operating.

Given this, I wondered just how things had changed, if at all.


Forestry Journal: A John Deere 1270E 8wd harvester from Prosser Timber Contractors still operating on the Farley Estate.A John Deere 1270E 8wd harvester from Prosser Timber Contractors still operating on the Farley Estate.

On making initial contact, my first question, of course, was to ask people how they were doing personally, before going on to talk about business impacts. Jim Mailer, of Moray (Treeworks), based near Elgin, was one of the first that I reached out to as I am currently working on a feature about his business for essentialARB magazine.

When we met up a few weeks ago, the coronavirus issues were just starting to come to the fore. Neither of us could have guessed just how things would have changed since then. Jim said he is now only carrying out emergency tree work.

“Working with trees is not without its risks and the last thing I would want would be for me or a colleague to have a minor injury that ties up an important hospital bed,” he said. “Financially it is a burden but I can manage for another month before it starts to hurt a bit. That said, I do like the fact the government is following scientific rather than economic advice.”

Murray Hamilton, a forestry contractor based on the Black Isle, echoed the sentiment that now is a tough time. “Things were good for a while, but currently they are not so good,” he said. “I have little work now and nothing planned for the future. The estates will not let us go felling big hardwoods because we would be working too close together.

“Even private tree work has stopped on the firewood side. People are struggling to find the cash to buy it or are asking me to deliver at a time that they have the money to pay for it. Cheaper heating fuel prices will also have an impact on firewood sales. There are weird times ahead.”

I was aware the Prosser brothers, harvesting contractors from Aboyne in Aberdeenshire, were still operating and so made contact with Derek Prosser to see what they were working on. It turned out to be harvesting mainly pulpwood on the Farley Estate, near Beauly, Inverness-shire. Derek told me the wood was going to Norbord at Dalcross, near Inverness, to be turned into chipboard, used in the construction of temporary hospitals.

“They shut off outside suppliers, like us, who were contracting for Euroforest last week,” said Derek. “We have this job and next week we are off to start a thinning job that will be producing chipwood for Balcas at Invergordon. I have to say all the harvesting managers have been great during this challenging time and they are doing their best to keep us working.”

Government guidelines are important in today’s climate and Derek went on to say that they are being kept updated on a regular basis.

“We are following the guidelines about hygiene and social distancing. Our caravan on this current job is 10 miles up a hill, so we only see the odd walker during the course of the week. Both our clearfell machines are currently parked up as our Forestry and Land Scotland contract only has log material. This is understandable during these very uncertain market conditions.

“Once again, our harvesting manager is doing his best to help us out if he has any suitable biomass sites. Many contractors who work directly to sawmills have machinery parked up, so it will be a worrying time for them. As for myself, if it ever came to it, I would spend my last penny on machinery payments and our running costs to continue working in the industry that I love.”

Forestry Journal: A John Deere 1270E 8wd harvester from Prosser Timber Contractors still operating on the Farley Estate.A John Deere 1270E 8wd harvester from Prosser Timber Contractors still operating on the Farley Estate.


Jonny Younger, of Hi-Line Forestry, works in East Lothian carrying out a lot of hand cutting of trees on local estates there. Again, having met up with him for a recent feature and knowing what his workload was like, I wondered if that had changed, but, like Derek Prosser, he gave me a relatively upbeat assessment of the current situation from his point of view.

“We are not too bad at the moment,” he said. “We have reduced to two people a day on jobs, travelling separately. We are maintaining good distancing and using rubber gloves on the machines and just plain old common sense. I feel that we are lucky being a smaller outfit and doing a lot of estate forestry, but we also sell a lot of biomass timber to farmers and so we need to keep them supplied. So our operation is running, albeit on a smaller scale.”

I asked him if he had enough work to keep going over the next few possibly critical weeks, before there may be a relaxation of the lockdown. He was affirmative in his reply.

“We can keep going working locally for a while yet,” he said. “I was hoping, though, to buy a forwarder, but have held back now until I see how things settle down. However, overall I feel lucky that we can keep things going. Forestry is possibly one of the few industries that can, currently. We were clearing wind-blown for a farmer and there were tree planters working away next door, so they do seem to be keeping going too.”

This observation was borne out by feedback I got from Mike Ramage, who runs a forestry establishment business at Melrose. He confirmed that he was still operating but at reduced capacity. One of the biggest challenges – with Mike’s wife Jayne working in the NHS, the schools being closed, and three children to look after – has been juggling family and work for both of them, but they are managing.

On the planting side, Mike explained: “Those that can drive on their own to sites are still working. We have lost some work, but are soldiering on. Our main client, Tilhill, is progressing with strict safety measures in place and we are keen to support that, as there is still quite a lot of woodland creation along with restocking to complete. I would urge all contractors to travel to sites alone so we get out of this situation quicker and with the least financial hardship for businesses. Forestry tends to be a long-term investment, so this large bump in the road may or may not be a problem. We just have to hope, as a lot of it is down to luck, and make sure that we do not underestimate this virus.”

On the other side in terms of establishment, Ron Young of Dunnydeer Services at Insch in Aberdeenshire (who I recently visited for a feature in an upcoming issue) painted a different picture, telling me his diggers used for ground preparation were parked up.

“We are locked down,” he said. “The only contractors working are involved with helping to keep biomass going. I have furloughed everyone and I have no income whatsoever. Forestry and Land Scotland are going to redo the contracts without tendering to allow longer for completing. We just need to try and keep in business to be able to do this when we get the all clear.”


Forestry Journal: The movement of timber by sea has almost completely stopped with the current close-down of the sawmills.The movement of timber by sea has almost completely stopped with the current close-down of the sawmills.

Turning to the sawmills and that side of the industry, Olly Stephen, mill manager at the K2 sawmill at Fort William, gave me an update on what has been happening there.

“The K2 site was shut down on Thursday, 26 March and 95 per cent of the employees were furloughed under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. There is a skeleton staff on site that is continuing to service a small part of our customer base in biomass, pallets and packaging, DIY, and some of our construction customers. It has not been great from my perspective, as we are a pinnacle part of the local community, employing (or having a part) in approximately 10 to 15 per cent of the income of the Lochaber area.

“Our primary concern is keeping our employees safe, and it was felt that the best way to do this was to stop production and shut down the site. Fortunately, being part of a wider group has helped, as each of the sites can offer value.”

Tony Hilton, timber operations manager at Cordiners Sawmill at Banchory, gave me a similar update. “Unfortunately we had to put the mill onto furlough, initially for three weeks but that’s just been extended until further notice,” he said. “All our current harvesting operations are also suspended until we return.”

Stephen Havranek, who owns and runs James Carr & Sons at Inchture near Dundee, offered a more upbeat assessment, confirming his sawmill was still working and experiencing a demand for his timber products. He did, however, indicate trying to run the sawmill in these times was not without its challenges.

“Our sawmill remains open and very busy,” he said. “Unfortunately, due to the lure of the 80 per cent furlough, we are having serious staffing issues. Two of my employees have been trying to force the closure of the mill through all means available, including the press and a local MP. It just seems crazy. The government tells us to continue working to support the national infrastructure, but in doing so we then get into trouble for remaining open.

“I am seriously thinking of mothballing the place. Timber supply is not the problem. I believe the big companies have closed as they rely on the construction industry, but the biomass plants still need supplied so cutting is still going on.”

Forestry Journal: Log stocks not currently being processed represent a large cash investment for some forestry businesses.Log stocks not currently being processed represent a large cash investment for some forestry businesses.


The more contacts I made with people in the industry, the more I came to understand that it was a very mixed picture for businesses dealing with the impact of COVID-19. One thing that was becoming apparent was that everyone was being affected in some way.

I heard from Karen Wilson who, with her husband David, is involved in firewood production through their company DK Logs at Aberfeldy in Perthshire. Karen told me they were still operating and finding a market for their firewood.

“Times are strange,” she said. “Currently we are still delivering firewood. As long as we continue to be allowed, have our health, and the extraction and hauling continues, we will keep going. We normally supply stove centres, restaurants, holiday homes and resorts, cafes, hotels and shops, but they have all cancelled deliveries. Domestics are keeping us ticking over. It does usually quieten at this time of year anyway.

“We are still trying to get through our six-week lead-time from the winter. We’ve now got it down to four!”

Calum Duffy of Duffy Skylining on the Isle of Mull was more circumspect in his view of the situation. “COVID-19 has caused my skylining to cease due to the sawmills shutting down, so there is no demand,” he said. “We have been in full lockdown since 27 March. All staff and machines are sat doing nothing.

“It is a very difficult situation. If we did have demand, we would be working. No one knows when the sawmills will start up again, but one thing is sure: this will take out a lot of businesses, and the way we operate will never be the same again.”

Liam Browning from the Great Glen Shipping Company, which operates ships out of the port of Corpach, near Fort William, moving many different cargoes including timber, gave me a similar viewpoint to Calum.

“I’ve built the business around a niche,” he said. “A niche of smaller ports and piers that is reliant on the lower-value commodities such as timber and aggregate moving. Spring should be our busiest time of the year.

“With the closure of BSW K2, along with most other sawmills in the UK, timber movement has dropped off a cliff. All quarries have shut. All non-essential jobs to the islands have been delayed until further notice.  “I would suggest we are down to about 60 per cent capacity right now. The same number of coastal vessels are operating throughout the UK and north-west Europe. This gives us a concentrated number of vessels operating in a smaller pool of cargoes, which is bad news for us vessel operators. There is a lot of undercutting going on out there and rates are continuing to drop. Luckily, we own the vessels outright and we have the option to use our home port of Corpach as a safety net for tying one of the fleet up, which we are currently doing.”


Forestry Journal: The Scottish School of Forestry is finding new ways of delivering training during the coronavirus pandemic.The Scottish School of Forestry is finding new ways of delivering training during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the information I was getting about the demand still being there for biomass, I next looked to make contact with Richard Spray at Pentland Biomass at Loanhead near Edinburgh. Over the phone, he gave me his take on things, telling me that adapting to external factors was something he was used to doing with his business.

“COVID-19 certainly comes into this category,” he said. “We are still operating, though I am reluctant to buy timber at the moment because of the cash investment. We already carry a substantial amount of timber stocks in our yard with a large cash investment. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, we had been moving the business more towards our customers buying the roundwood and storing it at their premises with us managing the process for them and chipping it when they need it. The current situation has made us more focussed on continuing down this route.

“We know our customers’ demands and the initial signs are that they are happy for this to happen. In effect, we will buy the standing timber, arrange for its harvesting, but then take it straight to the customer rather than bringing it into our yard. We need around 4,000 tonnes for the family nursery business, which we can still do on site. Our firewood side of the business remains sound at the current time. Once more we have been planning to work on more grading of our logs and developing a premium log product, which our customers are asking for and this we will continue.

“We are also finding at the current time more demand for locally sourced timber products such as fence posts and panels, which is keeping our sawmill working. Again, it is another area that we will look to develop going forward. These are challenging times for us all, but we are working our way through them and, in a way, it has helped to reinforce the direction we were moving the business in.”

School closures made big headlines when they occurred. There was much discussion in the media with regard to the continued education of our young people. The forestry industry also offers a wide range of further education options and from two different sources I gained an update as to how this is being impacted.

Paul Cruise, of Living Solutions at Cowdenbeath, which, as well as offering tree surgery and forestry solutions in Fife, is also involved in training, updated me on where his company was in the current situation.

“We have ceased trading until it is all over,” he revealed. “I am paying all staff and trainees and supporting them as best I can, but asking them to stay home. The biggest impact for us is on the training of young people. We only have them for just over a year and this could take until late summer or later. The lads will not be where they need to be.

“We restructured last summer, and had turned the corner. March was a bumper month, but April was a non-starter. We are all alive, though, and that is the most important thing.”

In Scotland, two of the main centres for forestry training are Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) at Barony, Dumfries, and the Scottish School of Forestry – Inverness College UHI, at Balloch near Inverness. Amanda Bryan, who is head of the Scottish School of Forestry, told me she and Martyn Davies at SRUC had been in contact, and offered me an update.

“At the Scottish School of Forestry we have been able to move the vast majority of our teaching and assessment online,” she said. “This has been helped by being at a point in the year when many of our courses were well advanced and, while students have missed out on field visits, we have been able to adapt our courses. Some lecturers have been able to produce virtual tours of assessment sites while others have provided simulated survey data to enable students to complete assessments.”

However, Amanda did go on to say: “Some of our more practical skills-based courses such as forestry machine operation, chainsaw use and tree climbing are more challenging to deliver in an online environment and we are exploring ways of offering compressed skills-based training as soon as we are able to return to face-to-face teaching. We have been working alongside our colleagues at SRUC’s Barony campus that is facing the same issues to find a solution that will work for our graduating students and for the industry.”

The message Amanda and Martyn wanted to impart was that both the Scottish School of Forestry and SRUC have confirmed planning for the next academic year is in hand and both institutions are continuing to accept applications to study across the full range of forestry courses they offer.


Forestry Journal: Chainsaw carving lends itself to social distancing, but delivering the end carves is the challenge.Chainsaw carving lends itself to social distancing, but delivering the end carves is the challenge.

One sector of timber working that benefits from being naturally self-isolating is chainsaw carving. I sought out Iain Chalmers of Chainsaw Creations to see how things were with him. He told me the carving bit was okay, but it was getting the completed orders to his customers that was the big issue.

“A chainsaw carving is not really a necessity,” he said. “Luckily, I have some awesome customers who are willing to pay me once I send them a picture of the finished carving. They will get it as soon as things get going again.

“The next foreseeable problem will be getting supplies of paints, oils and saw parts, as most of the shops I deal with are closed. It has been tough, but I can still scratch enough to keep me afloat, which is better than a hell of a lot of businesses. We just need to keep going. That is all we can do.”

Iain’s sentiments probably summed up the feelings of most people I’ve been speaking to. Talking to this cross-section of business owners and other people involved in forestry, there is no doubt that times are very challenging. Some are closed down and those still operating are doing so in a very different manner to the way they were doing at the beginning of the year.

It remains to be seen just what the final impact will be on the sector as a result of COVID-19.

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.