I AM generally a very positive and optimistic individual and, wherever possible, prefer to look forwards rather than backwards. Sometimes, however, it pays to reflect on events or circumstances in order to progress.

About 30 years ago I was working in a nearby wood doing thinnings. The wood was owned by the Forestry Commission and to assist the task I was using a skidder and a roof-mounted crane atop an old County. In all, there were about six cranes working the area. Most of the work was thinnings and the bulk was done with chainsaws.

Although the move to mechanisation was under way, the processors and harvesters of that time were notoriously unreliable, often broke down and on occasion burst into flames. I look back now, thinking of the guys who battled away on often rugged terrain with only a chainsaw, with great pride. The mature woodlands now so admired by the public where people cycle and walk their dogs are our legacy.

We didn’t make much money and most of the guys who did the work probably have significant skeletal health issues now, but those thousands of acres of beautifully thinned woodland stand testament to our efforts and are still an issue of great pride.

In fact, I currently walk our labrador in a wood I have personally thinned twice. It’s now criss-crossed with mountain bike trails along which the dog hurtles as if on some imaginary pushbike. It’s a strange experience for me to walk through a landscape which I have shaped. Now, decades on and with creaking knees, hips and shoulders, I survey the severity of the ground. I remember how the old skidder would come sledging down, out of control with only the drag of the poles, attached to the back, to keep it upright. All things considered, it seems a little unkind how the Forestry Commission suddenly dumped a hard-working and dedicated group of people. Fast-forward to today and I can’t think of a single wood that’s been nicely thinned by a modern harvester.

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Although they are more than capable, most contractors with big payments to meet want a nice, simple clearfell.

In this area, local contractors were more or less ditched overnight. You could try and tender, but contracts were awarded to large, ‘outside’ buyers. This Wild West era is still very much in evidence. The standard of work was abysmal, and some big forests still bear the scars with knee-high stumps and piles of trees left rotting on the forest floor. I call it the era of smash and grab.

It’s no coincidence today that some of these areas, even after replanting, have never fully recovered. Access is impossible, which is why there are no cycle tracks or public walkways.

But the strangest thing of all, based only on my observations and involvement in the industry, is what has become of those big outside contractors whom the Forestry Commission favoured in place of the conscientious locals.

The ‘new era’ was a fairly unpleasant time. The big contractors to whom I’m referring were likely to threaten to have people kneecapped if they were outbid in the auction. It was a strange time, with the ‘bosses’ driving round in big fancy cars, henchmen in tow. Not unlike a scene from the Sopranos. It was like they were trying to take over the forestry industry. And it’s no surprise that, in totally unrelated circumstances, those same individuals ended up in jail for a range of crimes, from threatening behaviour to major duty evasion.

At the point at which our services were no longer required, this infrastructure of individuals had to diversify. Some launched fencing businesses, others became lorry drivers, plant operators or something else. At that time, I could probably name 100 people involved in local forestry, and now… none! It reminds me of the Highland Clearances. I still reflect on this time period with incredulity and wonder what the Forestry Commission was trying to achieve. Maybe it intended to sub-contract chain gangs? Anyway, the irony is that’s exactly what the people they favoured ended up doing.

Around this time, I was supplying round wood to a pallet company with a staff of around 20 employees. The foreman seemed to spend most of his time with workers in the local A&E, where medical staff would extract staples and nails from various limbs. Sometimes it was a genuine accident and other times it was deliberate, where staff had been playing pranks with the nail guns or even fighting with them. Some of the injuries were horrendous.

On one occasion, I was sorting out an order with the foreman when two evenly matched individuals decided to resolve a disagreement with their fists. I’ve seen a few fights in my time and even been involved in a couple, but I’d never seen anything like this. Judging by the ferocity of the encounter — and the amount of blood — if no intervention had occurred, then I’m sure these two would have killed each other. I never did find out the cause.

Around this time, I also remember visiting a nearby sawmill to which I was supplying timber. As I discussed the invoice with the owner, he looked across the yard and began waxing lyrical about the future. He implied that the next time I called, the mill would be fully automated. Logs would enter automatically, glide to the saw decks and be processed into all their forms at the press of a button. You could see his eyes glaze over as he presented this vision. I looked out across the yard and tried to imagine this but being somewhat sceptical I doubted it would be quite that simple.

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In the intervening period between visits, I too purchased a small sawmill, so my next visit was as a buyer, looking for oversized logs which the automated yards couldn’t process. I was quite interested to see this ‘auto-fest’ and imagined a James Bond-type scenario, where people in white overalls wandered past quietly humming machines with clipboards and black-rimmed spectacles. The reality was terrifying.

The new mill was spewing cut timber at such a rate that there was utter chaos. The workforce had grown to about 70. The majority had no training and were clueless about wood or the timber industry in general. He had to run flat out to fund this uncontrollable monster, when working more slowly with a smaller workforce would have been much more effective. This was an eye-opener for me. The average man on the street is generally impressed with the concept of automation. However, being practical, I could see this mill was doomed.

The problem wasn’t the mill itself but the people operating it. Maybe in different circumstances it could have worked.

The moral of the story is this: forestry, in all its guises, is a tough business. To survive requires hard-working, resilient characters who understand machines and who aren’t averse to getting their hands dirty. I know millionaires who spend 24 hours a day in work clothes and carrying a grease gun. Surviving, let alone prospering, requires working hard and having the ability to solve the various problems which are bound to come your way.

The last few weeks have been a prime example. After the damage caused to the mill by the electricity coming through the water pipes, there is no way I could have repaired starter boxes and control panels and got the mill back up and running in such a short space of time without the experience I have gained over a lifetime in the industry. Where could I have found someone to remedy such a scenario? Even this week, we’ve had several big logs with nails embedded, which has caused havoc with the saws and, because the weather has been so bad, we’ve had to jet-wash the mud from the logs.

There is no doubt that true forestry people keep their heads down and work very hard, all for a modest return. The business may well be highly mechanised, but it still relies on some tough and determined characters to keep it all working.

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