Thursday, 19 September 2013

Pillars of Pine

If a tree falls over, and there’s no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Well it certainly does if our countryside team has anything to do with it.

Over the last couple of weeks we have been felling an area of Scots Pine in the New Forest, in order to revert the land back to acid grassland.  The Pine we were felling has all grown up naturally, seeded by neighbouring pine trees, and had got to the extent of encroaching over a large proportion of an area of acid grassland.  Scot’s Pine trees are a native British tree, but they are native to the North of the country and to Scotland.  In the South they have mostly been planted for commercial use including before and during various wars throughout our centuries, when wood was needed quickly and we didn’t have time to wait for slow growing broadleaves like Oak.

The site we were working on after day 1.

 Don’t get me wrong, I love the sight of a striking Scots Pine, standing alone in the middle of a heathland bathed pink in the glow of sunset.  However I also realise that they need controlling where they have taken over other natural and rarer habitats such as heathland and acid grassland – take a walk on any heathland and you will undoubtedly be able to spot the Pine saplings coming up through the heather.

So Dave Johnson summoned as many of the countryside team as could be spared to come and help with the felling and extraction of the timber.  We also had all our countryside volunteer groups helping out with removal of the brash and we got a good system set up.
Those of us chainsawing would fell a section of trees (far away from each other, don’t worry!), cross cut the trunk to length and cut off all the brash and branches (called ‘snedding’).
We would then move across to another section of trees and continue felling, whilst the volunteers would come in to the previously felled section and take all the brash we had snedded and assemble it into a big pile.  This pile could then be picked up by the Avant (a mini telehandler type tractor machine) and taken up the slope to the bonfire.  
The Avant at work

  The Avant was also used to pick up the cross cut lengths of timber and stack them in accessible piles ready for the timber crane to be brought in to pick them up.  The timber is being sold for biomass fuel.
It was hard, sweaty work – chainsawing in temperatures upwards of 20 degrees is a very warm business.  My chainsaw trousers with their all round padding protection felt like individual leg saunas and the sweat was continually dripping off my nose as I worked, thanks to the constant weight of the chainsaw.  At the end of a day we all looked like we’d been down the coal mines and it got to the stage where Dave and Mike were bringing in 8 litres of water to drink a day – much more prepared than I was, with only 2 water bottles.
Despite the heat, it was enjoyable.  I enjoy felling larger trees as you get to use various methods to fell it the way you want it to go.  My favourite is the ‘sweep cut’ involving sledgehammer and wedges.  With a tree of a certain size – normally if the trunk is wider than the length of your chainsaw bar, you can use this method to ensure it is going to go down the direction you want it to.  Otherwise its sheer weight can mean it will just sit upright on your saw and trap it or there could be a slight lean or distribution of canopy that will shift it another way.
So you cut your front ‘gob’ cut as usual (like cutting a slice of watermelon) out the front of the tree, facing the direction it will fall.
Then you can bore in with the chainsaw behind this cut, parallel to it, and bring the saw round the back of the tree, continually cutting, so you are ‘sweeping’ the cutting edge round and cutting through the back and middle wood (ensuring you don’t plunge the cutting bar through the hinge of wood behind the gob cut).   Halfway round you can stop, put in a metal wedge in the half you have already cut and then continue cutting round until you are once again parallel to the hinge of the gob cut and you have essentially cut away the remaining holding wood.  This is where, on large tree’s, its own weight prevents it from falling over as it can just happily sit upright so you put in another wedge to join the first and then, using a sledgehammer and a few choice words, you whack away at the wedges, driving them into the back cut until they are enough to slowly tip the tree….and with this little bit of encouragement, the weight of the tree is then enough to carry it over whilst you calmly walk away, out of reach of the tree should it happen to bounce and kick up.  Great fun!
Of course sometimes a tree is so heavy and so stubborn that you can be hammering away for a good 5-10 minutes as I was for one tree, and this gets pretty tiring and sweaty.  However, if you get it right, they always go over in the end – even if you end up lying on the ground in an exhausted coma for a few minutes afterwards.

At work - and yes, we cut down those stumps to ground level!

 So we worked our way across the site and bit by bit, we edged our way further in and up the slope.  Progress was quicker some days than others as we had to ensure we tidied up as we went along – so trees felled, snedded, cross cut, brash burnt and logs piled up, so we didn’t end up felling trees on top of trees and making what would have been a huge mess to try and clear up afterwards.  We also had to take into account where everyone was working and if we had volunteers helping, make sure that they were at a safe distance from us and that we were each then far enough away from the next chainsawer.  The poor avant broke a couple of times, her electrics gave up at one point as the front armour was cracked and broken and there was so much rubbish that got inside (not all from this job) that it affected the wiring and connections.  She was promised brand new armour and protective grills and so, at 7pm one evening she was coaxed back to life by an engineer and the show could go on.

We were racing against the weather as we could only do the work and extract the timber whilst it was dry – the site gets very wet and boggy in damp conditions and it would wreck the ground too much if we were working in there in the rain.  This is also why we have started the work in September as oppose to October which is when the traditional felling season starts – we had to take advantage of the good weather and it was late enough in the season not to be impacting upon birds.

One bit of wildlife we did come across was this caterpillar.  Found by Anne one of our volunteers, it was a fabulous creature with really grippy legs that took a bit of effort to peel off yourself.  It is a Pine Hawk Moth caterpillar and after we all had a good look at it I put it back on a pine tree that I knew we were not going to fell – so it could pupate in peace.

Pine Hawk Moth Caterpillar - see the black spine on its back end, always a sign its a Hawk Moth.

After 2 weeks hard at it we have made a good impact – there is still more to do, more trees to be removed which we will continue with when Dave gets back off holiday.  Hopefully by then the weather will be a bit cooler so we don’t all get quite so warm when chain-sawing – although having said that, I always keep my fingers crossed for a late Indian summer…

We left feature trees like this, which are visually striking and good deadwood habitat.

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