Clear Fell

Left for dead
Left for dead (although plenty more still alive in the background)

Having spent four years dancing around the issues presented by a long forty yard wide band of sitka spruce trees across the middle of the Chayne, the past few weeks have been spent taking matters into my own hands. The wood is too small to make it viable for a proper harvester to come up on the hill and take the timber out, and during the twenty five years since it was planted, the ditches and drains around the upper reaches of the wood have made access impossible, even for soft tracked vehicles. These trees are now destined to do nothing more than rise up to a critical height before gradually falling over like leggy weeds and crushing the fences. During their lives, they will probably do little more than give crows somewhere to nest and provide goshawks with perches from which they can survey the open moor. For every reason, these trees need to be knocked over, and given the terrible access, the majority of wood will have to be left where it falls. I can extract most of the timber from the track which runs along the south side of the trees, but carrying logs by hand over five hundred yards of wet bog from the northern end of the strip is just not worth my while.

Having established the mission, you would think that it is pretty straightforward to knock over a sitka plantation. I suppose that in principle, the job is quite easy, but when you’re trying not to let anything fall onto the fences which run on either side of the strip, complications do start to arise. During the autumn, I felled all of the trees on the west side when the prevailing south westerly wind was pushing them into the plantation. These trees just leant inwards and rested against the main bulk of the plantation. Over the past few weeks since the wind has been in the east, I repeated the process on the other side of the wood (which runs from north to south), so that all the trees on the outside were leaning in towards the middle. With a few irritating exceptions (mainly doubled trunked trees which had too much weight on the outside and just sat back on the saw no matter what I did), I then reached a stage when a one hundred yard long section of trees had been folded in on itself.

The bulk of the trees in the middle of the strip then needed to be removed. After a few failed experiments, I found that the best way to knock these trees over was by cutting them diagonally across the trunk in a single straight line, starting high on one side and working the saw down until the weight of the tree began to shift and press against the bar. I would then pull the saw out and cut in from the bottom at the same angle. With a sudden jolt, the whole tree slips diagonally off its stump but is held in a vertical position by the canopy above. It’s then either possible to keep putting these diagonal cuts in until the tree has vanished into a series of slanty sections or just moving on to the put the same cut into the next one. With the trees on the outside leaning in, the weight was distrubuted like a safety net so that nothing could fall out of the wood and damage the fence.

I daresay the main reason why this diagonal cut has not received widespread attention as a felling technique is because it is somewhat dangerous. Nine times out of ten, the tree falls off the stump exactly as you hope it will. But without leaving a hinge to control the direction that the tree will fall (as per conventional tree felling), there is the odd curve ball. This is particularly true when you have ten or fifteen trees all off their stumps leaning all their weight in a particular direction and, working under a particularly thick canopy, you fail to spot it. There were one or two hairy moments, but it’s all part of the fun of killing sitka spruce trees.

I am extremely encouraged by the progress I’ve made on getting rid of this wasted strip. When it was planted, there wasn’t a great deal of thought put into how it would be harvested, so rather than let it grow cold and draughty, this particular section is now lying dead on its side. I’m planting birches and rowans where I can find gaps in the brash, and as the years go by, more gaps and bare ground will appear. I’ve seen how quickly self-sown sitkas come back under the wreckage of clear fells, so if my birch wood does develop a sitka understorey, I will not be altogether heartbroken, provided it stays low and stunted. A chainsaw may help to keep it low.

All the work I put into the Chayne is a pleasure in itself, but this strip of trees is visible from four miles away, and it is extremely satisfying to be able to see the impact I’m having from a long distance. I’m now just looking forward to seeing it in ten years when the birches have taken hold and the whole revitalised wood is full of blackcock…

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