It’s a gloomy and slightly wet day in the Borders, but the new leaves and grass are glowing with an intensity that is only seen in spring. Despite the weather, people and trailers are gathering in a small car park over the road from the impressive new visitor centre at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. We’re here for a demonstration of horse logging, organised by the British Horse Loggers for the Borders Festival of the Horse.
Timber extraction by horses is an unusual phenomenon: a growth area for working horses offering opportunities for new businesses. Forestry is an important activity throughout the Borders, and on both sides of the border. Mostly it’s carried out by extremely large machinery. Areas are clear-felled by harvesters and the timber stacked by forwarders. It’s then transported for various industrial and commercial uses and the ground is picked clean of the remnants (the brash) and eventually replanted. This works well for quick-growing conifers but when it comes to sensitive or protected areas of forest, horses can’t be beaten, as both Iain Laidlaw of the Forestry Commission and Robert Gray, the Woodland Manager for Abbotsford agree.
“Modern horse logging is often a viable option for timber harvesting. Rising fuel costs for mechanised transport are helping to make bio-fuelled horses even more competitive,” says Iain. Robert agrees, commenting that “We are keen to try horses rather than machines for timber harvesting on what is a fairly sensitive site. Whilst it may be slightly more expensive than the most efficient modern machines, we think it would be worth paying a premium to minimise disturbance, for example around streams, footpaths and roadside verges. We are aiming to make the woods more attractive by selectively thinning out some of the trees and we hope to make a small profit from the sale of timber to a local sawmill.”
Nor is a mighty heavy horse necessarily required. All the horses working today are 15 hh or under. Scout, a blue roan coloured horse owned by Danny McNeil, is 22 and about to retire. Danny’s new mare, 9 year old Katie, is just learning the ropes. “It’s only her second time in the woods,” explains Danny. He goes on to tell us that she was nervous and inexperienced when he acquired her. She’s clearly a little uncertain at the start, but by the end of the afternoon has settled into the working routine and even looks as though she’s enjoying herself. Danny is involved in conventional forestry using large harvesters as well as using horses so he can provide a range of flexible options suited to individual needs.
Caitlin Erskine is moving logs of trimmed timber quickly and efficiently into place with her pony Angel, whilst her father Rab stacks it neatly. Angel is just 14.2 hh and she is fast. It’s pretty hard to get an action shot of her as she nips competently through the leaves and under the boughs of trees. All the horses in use today wear open bridles. It might seem logical to provide some cover for their eyes against the whipping branches, but in fact it makes more sense to give the horses the freedom to make their own judgements once they’ve learned the ropes. It’s not a job where horses can be micromanaged all the time. They need to work as part of a team.
Caitlin and Angel have really grown up together since the mare joined the family when they were both quite young. Angel is a good all-rounder, her owner advises me, having tried a bit of everything from cross-country to dressage before starting in forestry work two years ago. Caitlin has nothing but praise for the good reliable type of cob that Angel represents, especially having also had experience of high-maintenance thoroughbreds.
Julian Philipson, treasurer of the British Horse Loggers Association, is quick to comment when I tell him I’m doing a piece for my web site on the event.
“History on Horseback? We don’t want any of that history and heritage stuff,” he warns me sternly. “This is about what’s happening NOW and the economic contribution that horses can make in the future. And horses work alongside the most modern forestry equipment.”
“Quite right too,” I respond. “I’m all in favour of that – it’s not just about what horses have done for us, it’s what they can do for us – what we can do together.”
“That’s all right then,” he says, going on to explain the finer details of the specialist harness in use today. “You see the collars? They are made to an Amish design and much of the rest is Swedish in origin. Can you see the wooden peg there? That will provide a quick release if the horse gets into trouble or falls down in the woods.”
I observe the collars closely, as they are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Amish are members of a chiefly north American religious and social community which has never moved beyond horse traction. This unbroken tradition, and their adherence to traditional pre-mechanised farming methods, clothing and so on, is seen as odd by many but is in fact an invaluable resource and example for those who wish to return to equine power. Sweden is another source for experience, knowledge and equipment in this field.
Gratifyingly, there’s a good turnout today despite the weather, and, perhaps amongst the visitors watching the horses at work under the dripping leaves, there’ll be someone who will seriously consider horse logging as a business option. The British Horse Loggers organisation is not just an industry support group; under the patronage of Prince Charles, it’s also a charitable organisation via its trust which has been set up to encourage and assist in training “new growth” for the future. It’s important that apprentices learn to do the job the right way and have a good understanding of health and safety principles. As well as working with timber, horses can be used very effectively in bracken and weed control as well as many other areas of general transport in forestry.
Most horse loggers are private contractors although some are on semi-permanent contracts to major landowners and estates. “It is the ultimate low impact extraction system and out performs all other small scale systems including quad bikes and mini forwarders,” maintain the British Horse Loggers. “Horse logging allows for a highly selective silvicultural management of our woodlands resulting in a quality of woodland management and care that cannot be equalled by any other system.”
And, of course, there’s always public interest and appeal in watching horses at work. The PR aspects though, are definitely secondary to the practical and economic ones; and it’s encouraging and exciting to think that this is one area where working horses might genuinely make a major return.
To discuss forestry requirements in Borders region and northern England, visit the Erskine’s web site http://www.homestead-horselogging-company.co.uk or telephone Danny MacNeil on 01830 520457 & 07774 616576.