Ecological horse logging at Smithills
Over the last few months the site team at Smithills Estate have been felling an area of woodland affected by tree disease. Prior to work commencing, the team worked hard to find a method of felling the trees which would have the least impact on the area – in the process they combined a traditional horse logging method which a more modern ‘skyline’ for extraction. Read more about this, and how volunteers helped the team to monitor impact on habitats, below.
Tree disease – an all too common issue
As those of you who are Observatree volunteers will know, tree diseases are widespread in UK woodlands. Their impact can be huge. At Smithills, the larch woodland at Walker Fold Wood was found to have Phytophthora ramorum (or larch dieback). You can read more about Phytophthora ramorum here – it can have a devastating impact on a number of species and as such, when recorded, Forestry England issues a Statutory Plant Health Notice requiring landowners to take action. In the case of Smithills, the action was to fell infected trees and a perimeter around them, to prevent the spread of the disease further.
The trees formed part of Walker Fold Wood, a popular wood with visitors and one which also has a historic tramway running along its edge. The question for the team was how to remove the trees doing as little harm to the ground, surrounding habitats, and historic features as possible?
Ecological horse logging
The decision was taken to use an ecological horse logging company to fell each tree by hand, and move the timber using horses. This method takes much longer than using machinery but the effect on the ground is significantly less. The tramway was covered with vegetation to protect it from horses travelling up and down. The horses pulling the timber along the ground scarify it, which should encourage existing flora to proliferate. And, thanks to our Wildlife Monitors checking the felling zone, we were able to see that because we were logging individual trees rather than clear felling, wildflowers such as bluebells bloomed as normal through spring. Thank you to volunteer Chris Stott for the photo at the top of this article of bluebells flowering in the felling zone.
Skyline timber removal
Once the horses had pulled the timber to a central location, a skyline (aerial cable) was used to move the timber to an existing track, where a forwarder could take it off site. The cable ran between two 14m high towers and the timber being moved high in the air could be seen across the Estate. Again, the benefit of this method was that no vehicles were required to drive along the ground, thus minimising damage.
The SPHN was issued with an end date on it which meant felling had to happen through bird nesting season. This was not something the team would ordinarily ever do and they wanted to mitigate the impact of this as much as possible. Felling trees individually allowed nest surveys of every tree. Our team of volunteer Wildlife Monitors visited the wood at 6am once a fortnight to carry out nesting surveys, and any trees with suspected nests or nesting activity were marked so that they could be felled last. The felling team also checked every tree for nests prior to felling it. In this way we held off felling a number of trees until the end of the works, in September. We were also able to leave an area of Sitka spruce intact for birds to use – and we created brash piles as the felling progressed, with the aim of this also being used as nesting habitat.