From their workshop in Wark, Northumberland, directors and co-owners Graham Johnston and Stephen Wills, along with their workforce, have designed and manufactured the FMS 575 ST stroke harvesting head.

The company are also the sole UK agents for AFM harvesting heads and offer a range of services including fabrication and design, forestry guarding, and excavator harvester conversions; they also supply a wide selection of replacement hydraulic hoses.

They cover a comprehensive range of quality equipment for timber harvesting, timber extraction, timber haulage, firewood and kindling production. 

Wark is an ideal base for the forestry engineering and equipment supplier due to being located on the edge of Kielder forest, the largest man made forest in England covering over 180² miles, It is strategically placed for covering the entire country as they are close to motorways and main road systems heading North, South and West.  

I arranged to spend some time with both Graham and Stephen in December, which would give me a clearer insight into the services offered by FMS. 

First stop

I met Stephen at a forest near Innerlethen in the Scottish borders. We were joined by William Kerr, the contractor and harvester operator working the site, and Jari Laaperi, one of the original founders and owners of AFM, who had flown into Edinburgh that morning from Finland.

Hyundai 145 LCR excavator conversion fitted with an AFM 45

William was carrying out first thinning in Sitka Spruce, removing every seventh row and selectively thinning between the rows using an FMS Hyundai 145 LCR excavator conversion fitted with an AFM 45 head.

The removal of every seventh row left six rows between the racks to be thinned, with the 7.7m reach of the excavator easily accessing the third row. The form of the trees was good with some nice straight saw log material. The remaining crop would still be averaging over .1m after being thinned. William’s work was being completed to an excellent standard and the trees will not take long to increase in volume.

The Hyundai/AFM combination was ideal in the tight racks; with minimal tail swing and a width of just 2.5m, it had plenty of room for manoeuvring when selectively thinning either side.

Watching William harvesting, I noticed that the 117hp engine was working at very low revs (around 1540rpm) but was felling and processing the trees easily. They were typically Scottish grown, heavily branched Sitka Spruce trees (averaging well over .5m growth in height each year).

As the base machine weighs just over 15 tonnes and is fitted with 600 tracks, it is ideal for harvesting in wet, peaty conditions with minimal ground impaction. 

The 2016 base was purchased second hand in 2018 with 1600 hrs of use and taken to FMS for forestry guarding and for installation of the new AFM 45 harvesting head with the Motomit measuring system.

The AFM 45 is ideal for thinning and coped with the larger trees easily. This particular unit has the larger 75cm chainsaw bar and the optimum size of trees is in the 5-35cm in diameter range ; it has three feed rollers and is able to process trees at speeds of up to 5.5m/sec. 

William was a highly competent operator and his presentation of the harvested timber made life easy for the forwarder operator.

During this operation they were cutting three specifications: 3.7m saw logs, 1.9m mini logs for panel fencing, and 3m chipwood.  Because quality was much more important to the landowner than quantity, William was taking his time to avoid any crop damage while harvesting but was still achieving around 50m³ per day.

Extraction was being performed by a small Novotny LVS 520 forwarder, a narrow low ground impaction machine ideally suited for extracting timber in soft and sensitive conditions. 

Novotny LVS 520

I had the opportunity to chat to William to see what he thought of the harvester and also the service he has received from FMS. 

“The Motomit measuring system has been very accurate and both the base machine and head have been very reliable. Any small issues I have had were dealt with quickly and efficiently by FMS; their after sales service has been excellent.”

William is a very satisfied FMS/AFM customer and had no issues with his harvester to put to either Stephen or Jari. 

At the workshop
After leaving William we headed off to the FMS workshop in Wark  to meet up with Graham and Dave Allen, who was using an FMS 575 harvesting head.

As Stephen introduced me to Graham and Dave I had the feeling I had met Dave before. It wasn’t long before we discovered we had shared a beer or two on a fairly regular basis at the Blackcock Inn, Falstone, back in 1997 while I was working a nearby area.

Dave has been in forestry for a long time. He started out on a chainsaw, hand thinning, in 1978 and has gained experience in both timber harvesting and forest management/ground care. 

Dave decided the tracked 7.5 tonne 70hp Wacker Neuson 8003 would be the ideal base machine for the work in question. A 2013 base machine was duly found, purchased and delivered to FMS so they could carry out the conversion.

Wacker Neuson 8003 with the FMS 575 Harvesting Head

Such a conversion can take up to five weeks for both FMS and AFM harvesting heads. Any vulnerable components are protected and guarded – forests are not as forgiving on machines as a building site or groundwork. Hardox steel skids are fitted to protect the tracks from twisting on tree stumps and other large debris found in the forest, and finally there is the harvesting head and measuring system to install. 

Dave has found a niche in the market with his smaller harvester; he carries out thinning operations on small woodlands on private estates and executes a management woodland programme on racecourses for the Jockey Club. The largest area he has thinned in the last two years is 11ha, although he mostly thins shelter belts and small woodlands between 1 and 4ha.

For extraction he uses a Valtra tractor with a forwarding trailer which also pulls his small low loader trailer for moving the harvester from site to site. The stands he thins are usually in the 15-25 year old age bracket and comprise of Sitka Spruce, Scots/Lodgepole Pine and Larch. As he is able to fell trees up to 45cm in diameter he can produce saw logs, pallet, and chip/biofuel for the landowner. 

Being only 2.25m wide and 2.71m high, the Wacker Neuson is perfect for Dave. It is ideal in closely planted or regen woodlands. It remains under 10 tonnes with the head, guarding and the dozer blade – the blade provides extra stability when at the full 7.17m reach harvesting at a right right angle to the machine.

The combination is easily transported without the need for heavy haulage, usually a tractor and plant trailer suffice keeping haulage low which is crucial when harvesting smaller quantities. Both the machine and head are, by Dave’s admission, “uncomplicated but robust and make an excellent combination. The basic and uncomplicated design is simple to work on and has been very reliable.” 

“It was not a huge capital expenditure so I can concentrate on the quality of the work I carry out instead of high production. This suits me and the landowner is delighted as he has a significantly healthier and better quality of woodland once we have finished. This has resulted in building 
excellent relationships with the woodland owners.” 

“The harvester is never far in front of the forwarder, so once the forwarding is complete I remove the harvesting head and install the bucket for any remedial work or tidying up that is required.” 

Due to the specialised equipment Dave has accumulated, he is ideally placed for safely harvesting smaller areas of Ash Dieback. This type of work is generally unsuitable for mechanical harvesting and too dangerous for manual felling. Dave is another who is delighted with the service and backup from FMS and is a very satisfied customer. 

Next morning
Chatting with Jari over breakfast the following morning, I discovered a bit more about AFM. I had absolutely no idea the name stood for Arctic 
Forestry Machines. AFM were started 26 years ago in Finland and many of the staff have been there from the beginning.

They manufacture eight roller-driven harvesting heads for harvesting timber from 5cm to 100cm in diameter, two energy wood heads, a combi head, and a felling head. Up to 60 heads are manufactured each year, while the company also supplies timber grapples and Anab automatic chain sharpeners.

AFM are growing in popularity largely due to their extensive worldwide dealer network of highly trained engineers who are available to service and repair their equipment.  

Fabrication and design
I had arranged to meet Stephen and Graham that morning at their workshop for a good look around and to see what work was currently taking place.

It was a much larger place than I had imagined and there were two machines undergoing conversions.

Inside the busy workshop

First up was a Valtra 254 tractor for the company Ground Control. It was being fitted with guarding to protect the exposed suspension areas, AdBlue tank and any other vulnerable components. Additions to this machine included a front blade and a rear mulcher.

Graham explained that such conversions are never straightforward as there can be small differences in the design of each tractor model, potentially meaning the guarding needs to be bespoke to each one. 

The second was a Doosan excavator for Brian Pettis, which was in the process of being converted to a harvester and would be fitted with an AFM 75 head. A full cage was being constructed around the cabin with guarding over the engine compartment and Hardox skids.

In the far corner was a shiny new FMS harvesting head ready for installation – this was head no 13. I thought the sticker on the back of the head was brilliantly apt: “Made in Great Britain by Men in a Shed.” 

The metal bending on the FMS head is outsourced and takes place in Middlesbrough, however all the chassis welding is done in house and takes 60-70 hours to complete. It is plastic coated instead of being painted; this offers much longer-lasting protection, especially in heavily branched thinnings. 

FMS was originally founded in August 2006 by Stephen Wills and Kenny Dobson after they gave up the Logset forestry machine dealership for the North of England and Scotland. Kenny retired in 2016 after ten successful years with the business and Graham Johnston stepped in as the new partner.

One of the first FMS 575’s working near Abbey Sawmill near Berwick

Having operated his own company, Greenline Engineering, for many years, Graham has a vast knowledge of steel fabrication and design. He then moved to work for Case New Holland in Russia before returning to the UK and working on the assembly of large offshore pipe and cable laying equipment. Stephen had also spent a number of years working out in former Russian southern countries bordering Afghanistan for CASE IH and CASE Construction.

During this time he gained valuable knowledge and useful experience on excavators, which now allows FMS to take on most excavator conversions with confidence; especially towards the electrical and hydraulic disciplines. 

I can understand from the blend of both Graham and Stephens knowledge and skill sets, that the company is able to tackle any challenge(s) set. They are able to keep their employees engaged in the work allowing the business to deliver fantastic products at great value, time and time again.

Although many of their customers are in forestry, the company’s services are in high demand from the farming and construction community. They supply, service and repair Guerra forwarder trailers, Oehler winches, Vreten trailers and cranes, cone splitters, firewood processing equipment, and are the UK and Ireland’s AFM spare parts shop.

They also offer wide range of other services from the workshop, including a hydraulic department for supplying new hoses and valves, laser and plasma cutting, fabrication, nuts, bolts and electrical fittings. It is an extremely well-equipped workshop with three other full-time engineers, including Joey who served his apprenticeship at FMS, and have been there a number of years. 

Head no 13 Completed. L to R Stephen Willis, Dave Thompson, Graham Johnston, Tom Fletcher and Joey Stewart

Continuing my visit, Stephen and Graham had arranged for Jari and I to see a customer (Will Dalton) harvesting near Richmond in Yorkshire, 
approximately two hours away, with a Doosan DX180/AFM 55.

This machine had been on show at the recent Forestry Expo in Scotland in August. This was a new contractor just starting out in forestry. He took delivery of the harvester at the beginning of October and was thinning small shelter belts in North Yorkshire.

The block we observed him harvesting in was yielding some good sized timber and consisted of a mixed crop of mainly Norway and Sitka Spruce, which had grown well and was producing decent quantities of saw log material.

Although Will was new to harvesting, having just completed his training course and obtained his NPTC licence the previous week, he was showing signs of becoming a very good operator.

He was selecting the trees to be removed himself and after thinning, the remaining crop looked really well. He managed to avoid large holes in the canopy yet still ensured there was sufficient room for the Valtra tractor and Kesla forwarder trailer to manoeuvre while extracting.

It was the second time this block had been thinned. The first thinning had been very light as it was still quite tight. No lasting crop damage was caused during this process as he was precise with his direction during felling.

One or two of the older stumps from the previous thinning were quite high, but fortunately he had opted for the high walker undercarriage on the Doosan and therefore he had plenty of clearance. He was very happy with the design and guarding and thought it was very nimble in the forest for a mid-range machine.

Still under 20 tonnes including the guarding and harvesting head, the unit has 600mm wide tracks with low ground impaction and a boom reach of almost 10m. It was evidently a very efficient harvester and the four motor/ three roller drive head was powerful and fast in the large trees. It has a maximum cut of 75cm and will de-limb trees at speeds of up to 5.5m/sec. 

Will Dalton with his Doosan DX180/AFM55

Another positive of the Doosan is how light it is on fuel as the 125hp engine only needs 1400rpm for maximum torque, and observing the harvester working it is surprising just how quiet it is.

This was another very satisfied customer; the forwarder trailer was a bit short for two bays of 2.5m lengths so Will was looking for advice from Stephen as to how FMS could design, fabricate and install an extension.

I was very impressed with FMS and can see why they are always busy. They have a loyal customer base and a “can do” attitude which inspires confidence among their customers. 

Equipment breaking down is bad enough at any time but having specialised skilled engineers that are able to help and support you can be reassuring and this is certainly the case at Forest Machine Services Ltd.
Rab Easton

Forest Machine Magazine is written and edited by a forest professional with over 40 years hands on experience. We are dedicated to keeping you informed with all the latest news, views and reviews from our industry.

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