Andy Read is a timber harvesting contractor who carries out thinning and clearfell work in southern England using his Gremo harvester and forwarder. I recently visited Andy on a hardwood job he was working near Basingstoke. Driving down I couldn’t help but notice the rise in the temperature – there was a difference of 10° between Glasgow and Basingstoke with a distinct lack of rain It took me a while to find the air-con button and even longer to figure out how to switch off the windscreen wipers!
It is surprising how much woodland there was once we came off the motorway. There are lots more mixed hardwood forests than we see in the northern territories and many of them have an excellent standard of management. The only blot on the landscape was seeing so many beautiful Ash trees either dead or dying due to the Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (Ash dieback), which is increasingly an issue for harvesting contractors. Ash is very brittle under normal circumstances but dead and dying Ash trees create a far greater risk as even the vibration of the chainsaw during felling can cause branches and larger limbs to break off unexpectedly. In these circumstances operators are at a higher risk of injuries or even fatalities, so a good deal more care and attention is required to work safely while felling.
I met Andy the following morning after spending the night in the nearby village of Hook. It was another glorious day and I was looking forward to finding out a bit more about forestry in the south. When I arrived Andy was at the timber stacking area, which was in a field adjacent to the woodlands just off a narrow lane. Getting timber Lorries in and out of a field in Scotland comes with all sorts of problems but the ground here was solid and the biggest problem was keeping equipment clean due to the amount of dust.
Andy, alongside Steve Read and Peter Gough, was waiting to greet us next to the timber stacks where two machines were parked. Andy operates the 2011 Gremo 1050H harvester with a SP Maskiner 451 harvesting head and Steve operates the 2009 Gremo 1050F forwarder. Both machines have been supplied by Scott Burton of SB Forestry. Peter, a forestry engineer, takes care of servicing and repairs of forestry equipment in the south for SB Forestry. Andy and Steve are more than just work colleagues as their fathers were brothers who were both involved in forestry; both men grew up with sawdust in their boots.
Speaking to Andy, it quickly becomes clear that this is someone with an incredible knowledge and a lot of experience. He has been in forestry since leaving school but then diversified into game keeping in 1999 as there were some changes happening in forestry which he didn’t like very much; however, the smell of tree sap and two stroke oil soon got the better of him and it wasn’t long before he found himself back doing what he loved.
The public can be a bit of a nuisance in certain forests with us in Scotland; diversions to avoid harvesting sites seem not to apply to a lot of walkers and cyclists and they think nothing of riding between a forwarder or timber lorry and the stack of wood they are unloading or loading. I don’t understand such attitudes as all the safety measures are for their own safety and if anything happens to them it is us who have to live with the consequences. Every precaution is taken to safeguard them yet they still disregard all the measures put in place. Nonetheless, our situation is nothing compared to where Andy was working – there is an endless stream of dog walkers, cyclists and horse riders and I soon realised that you need a completely different level of patience to the one I have. Being polite and answering the same questions over and over again is part and parcel of their work, but to be successful this is a trait you have to develop. Telling them to mind their own business and go forth and multiply isn’t really an option!
Since returning to timber harvesting, Andy has worked on either contracts for Euroforest or on DP work for private estates where Euroforest market the timber. He was quick to point out that he has never been happier and he has a fantastic relationship with the Euroforest managers. The majority of his work is for Martin Coates, who covers the northern part of the M4 corridor, and occasionally he works with Mark Hedley who manages south of the M4. When he returned to harvesting he worked with Ben Manterfield, before eventually gaining a promotion to manage the Kent Renewable Energy Biomass Plant for Euroforest.
Andy was a great guy to chat to; he was open and honest about his approach to harvesting and explained that forestry in this part of the country is very different to how it is carried out in many other places.
This was a big job compared to a lot of the work he does with approximately 1,500 tonnes of timber being felled and a variety of harvesting work in this coup. There was some hardwood and softwood thinning and all the Ash trees were being removed as they were diseased. Production, although important, is not the priority; the quality of the work is just as important as the woodlands must look aesthetically pleasing once harvesting has been completed. There are no fences to stop people accessing the woodlands so safety and awareness are vital during harvesting operations as walkers can suddenly appear from any direction.
We walked around a block of Ash that was due to be felled and Andy went into detail about the equipment they use and their approach to the work. While many of the trees were too large and heavily branched for the small harvesting head on the Gremo, Andy pointed out that the hand cutters would arrive soon to harvest all the oversized trees.
Andy is very well equipped for the type of work he carries out. He has a team of five skilled chainsaw operators who work alongside a CAT 525B grapple skidder with a 16-tonne winch and a black cab Valmet 860 purchased from SB Forestry. The Valmet is due to be replaced with an EcoLog 574. The line-up is completed by a 22-tonne JCB excavator with a Westtech Woodcracker tree shear and the Gremo 1050 harvester and forwarder. Steve Cackett operates the Valmet forwarder and skidder as well as carrying out some of the more difficult felling along with fellow lumberjack Mike Patrick.
I noticed a fair few dead Ash trees had blown over and were hung up in the crowns of the standing trees. Andy pointed out that this is where the larger forwarder and skidder came into play by removing any overhead hung up trees or debris that could injure his workers, the public or the equipment. This is how forestry should be done as Andy is paid a good rate for the work he does and neither he nor his employees have to cut corners to make a reasonable living. Tendering work to the lowest bidder would be a recipe for disaster as this type of work requires skilled professionals and you will only get them to work for you if the pricing structure is correct.
I was interested to find out that it had been a chance meeting with SB Forestry at the 2018 APF Exhibition that had encouraged Andy to opt for the Gremo products. With a wetter climate affecting the whole of the country many of the private estates looked at the damage caused during thinning by the larger harvesting machines. Andy knew that a solution had to be found to achieve reasonable production and minimise the impact on the ground, and it wasn’t until his trip to the APF Exhibition where he saw the Gremo 1050F on the SB Forestry stall that he knew he had found exactly what he had been searching for.
“This looked to be a light footed, well balanced forwarder and the model I saw was fitted with a 9.2m reach crane. It was just over 2.75m wide on 700 tyres, which is perfect for the work I was doing. It also had good ground clearance at almost 600mm and I realised it was ticking all my boxes.”
“I found Scott to be incredibly knowledgeable regarding the Gremo equipment and his assurance of availability and fast turnaround of spare parts was reassuring. While chatting to Scott, I realised he had a lot of experience in operating the equipment as well as repairing it and it was good to know I would be dealing with someone who knows how forestry works.”
Andy came away from the APF very excited as he had found the perfect equipment for his needs. Previously he had used Valmet 901/911s with Viking heads, a Rottne SNV, and Valtra/Botex forwarding units. Although they did the work well, he wanted lower impact harvesting equipment that could be moved by a tractor/low loader combination. Moreover, despite the good rates he was receiving for his work, a truck mounted low loader moving two machines separately would make it uneconomical to mechanically harvest smaller parcels.
Andy purchased a Gremo 1050F forwarder from Scott that he had been using himself for two years on a thinning contract. However, it took a little while to find a good, well looked after 1050 harvester. Scott managed to locate one that had worked most of its life 15 miles away from the Gremo factory in Aträn; although it was manufactured in 2011, it was very tidy and had relatively few hours for its age. The two machines were delivered in March and April this year and Andy is delighted with the performance and reliability, highlighting that the after sales service he has received from Scott is second to none.
A few months ago Peter Gough, who is an independent mobile mechanical engineer, started sub-contracting to Scott and covers southern England carrying out repairs and servicing. Peter is from a forestry background as his father ran his own contracting company entitled “Brian Gough Forestry” for over 35 years before retiring.
Brian had 27 forwarders during his career: County forwarders including a forward control; Muirhill forwarders; a Belarus Russian built forwarder; and the first purpose built Botex forwarder produced in Britain. Peter grew up helping his father and first started welding when he was just seven years old, preferring to work on the engineering side of forestry. After leaving school he served his apprenticeship on agricultural and forestry equipment and has worked for John Deere Tractors and as a diesel fitter working on timber lorries.
Three and a half years ago Peter decided to break out on his own and has never looked back since. His time is divided between working on forestry and agricultural equipment with a 70/30 split.
Andy admitted having a local engineer is a real benefit and has massively reduced the amount of downtime. For any technical or computer issues Scott is available on the telephone almost 24/7 to offer Peter guidance whenever needed. For Andy, the knowledge Scott has on the equipment he supplies has been astonishing: “I have never met anyone with such detailed knowledge of equipment and it is all in his head. Whenever I have had an electrical fault he will tell me where to look, what colour wire I’m looking for, and the position and amperage of the fuse to check. He has a real systematic approach and eliminates any minor possible issues with the operator before sending out Peter.”
“By doing this he saves me money and downtime so that Peter or Scott is only coming out on site when they are really required. Any spare parts we need are usually with us the next working day whether from Scott or EcoLog (who have taken over Gremo) in Sweden. You won’t get better service than that from anyone or anywhere.”
I spent most of the day watching Andy and Steve working and it is easy to see why they are in demand and never short of work. Luckily Covid-19 hasn’t impacted on their work, with a huge amount of timber continually moving from site. There are robust local markets for timber, Kent Renewable Energy take in 240,000m³ of Chipwood, estates and firewood merchants also take large volumes of both hardwood and roundwood, Pontrillas are one of the larger mills taking saw log material, and there are good pallet wood markets.
During my visit, a Karl Jones and Sons timber Lorry arrived to collect a load of firewood with a Volvo FH 540 double drive unit and Robinson trailer. It was fitted with CTI and had a powerful Kesla Z Crane mounted on the unit – the driver only took three bays of 3m firewood and didn’t have to completely fill each bay to achieve the weight.
Andy runs a slick operation and has a low staff turnover which is testament to a bloody good boss. He will never have to bang out 1,000+ m³ each week as where he works the emphasis is on the quality of the woodlands once they have been thinned. This is a fantastic way of working where everyone can take great pride in what they are doing. Andy summed it up well by saying: “The Gremo equipment means we are able to carry out a tidy job with a very light footprint.”
SB Forestry has recently been appointed as the sole UK distributor for the full EcoLog range of harvesters and forwarders. With the earlier merger of EcoLog and Gremo, it now means that they can provide the widest range of forwarders on the market as well as harvesters operating everything from first thinning to clearfell for all types of terrain. “We are pleased to offer our continued support for all previous models from Gremo and look forward to all future business going forward with Eco Log” said Scott Burton.
We would like to wish Scott and his team every success in this new venture and, as someone who has always been impressed by both Gremo and Eco Log, I don’t think it will be long before there are a quite a number of yellow Eco Log machines gracing our forests.
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