Seeing is Believing
On 2nd October 2013 the second 'Seeing is Believing' event took place at Mar Lodge Estate following on from the first at Brikhall in April 2013. I was among a group of about 30 people - including representatives from JMT (John Muir Trust), FCS (Forestry Commission Scotland), SW (Scottish Woodlands), SLE (Scottish Land and Estates) - who gathered at the Linn of Dee car park slightly before 10am. These events are being promoted by Prince Charles to demonstrate low-impact timber extraction using hand-held chainsaws and horse-power.
I recognised a few faces among the gathered crowd, including Adam Watson, Dick Balharry, David Frew (Property Manager of Mar Lodge Estate), Geraint Richards (Head Forester, Duchy of Cornwall), Mike Daniels (Ecologist, John Muir Trust), Shaila Rao (Ecologist, Mar Lodge Estate) and guessed that the bearded man between Geraint Richards and David Frew was Kevin Davies (Estates Manager, Mar Lodge Estate).
At this event we were to see Simon Lenihan and his sons Simon (jnr) and Ian at work in the plantation north of Linn of Dee. The trees in the plantation are about forty-five years old and the aims of this four-week thinning operation are (1) to improve the quality of the woodland (2) to improve the quality of the habitat within the plantation (3) to naturalise the plantation (make it more like a natural woodland) (4) to remove non-native species (5) to give the Mar Lodge Estate team an operational 'baseline' for horse-powered timber-extraction to enable them to compare with machine-powered timber-extraction.
About 10am David Frew called on us to gather around and introduced Kevin Davies and Geraint Richards, before all three took turns briefing us about their plans for the day before leading us west towards where the Lenihans were working. Kevin quickly got us out of the way before we saw Ian with Rosco (horse) and Simon (jnr) with Sultan (horse) dragging newly trimmed trunks from the plantation.
In preparation for the day's demonstration Adam Watson and Simon Lenihan (jnr) had dug a soil-pit on the north-side of the log-pile. As we returned to the estate-road we were guided to the soil-pit where Adam Watson told us (1) about the chemical composition of the obvious layers (2) that the soil-layers had taken something like 8,000 years to form (3) how machines, too-heavy for the soil conditions, would permanently change the soil-ecology by churning up the soil-layers.
Returning to the south-side of the log-pile we saw Simon delivering logs to the roadside with the horse-drawn forwarder and adding logs to the log-pile from it.
A combined question and answer / photographic opportunity followed before we returned to our cars for the drive to Mar Lodge for a presentation delivered by David over coffee and cake.
Presentation at Mar Lodge
The presentation revealed much about the thinking behind the operation of Mar Lodge Estate and I didn't feel that David (nor Kevin when he spoke) were holding anything back. David made the point, and returned to it several times, that if landowners only consider timber-extraction as a simple cost-benefit equation (ignoring less-tangible costs) that the 'economics' of horse-powered timber-extraction will never compete with machine-powered timber-extraction. But, if landowners took into account less-tangible costs (actual-damage to the woodland floor, the associated reputational damage, and reinstatement costs) then the benefits of horse-powered timber-extraction could outweigh the difference (in money-cost terms) between horse-powered timber-extraction and machine-powered timber-extraction. It was also evident that the estate team believed that it was an over-simplification of the timber-extraction equation for landowners to only balance the money-cost of extracting a certain weight of timber against the money-income got for it.
Mistakes of the Past
Early in 2012, DWP Harvesting of Aboyne were contracted to carry out a conservational thinning of the plantation beside the gate to Gleann Eidh. I was horrified when I discovered the aftermath of this thinning in March 2012.
During the presentation, David evidenced the estate team's openness, and surprised me, by referring to this disastrous (my word choice) example of machine-powered timber-extraction. David surprised me again when he listed the lessons learned by the estate team as a result - including (1) the estate would have to spend money attempting to reinstate the woodland floor (in spite of the fact that full-reinstatement is impossible) (2) operating too-heavy machines on a wet woodland floor was bound to cause irreparable damage (3) in future (as they were doing at Linn of Dee plantation) the estate team would be more-active in supervising contractors engaged in thinning plantations.
Potential for a Virtuous Loop
David also evidenced the joined-up-thinking of the estate team when referring to their 'biomass plan'. It will see thinnings from the estate plantations used to heat Mar Lodge. The enormity and necessity of such a huge-leap-forward became clear when David told us about the annual £120,000, gas fuelled, heating-cost. Heating Mar Lodge with a biomass heating system, fuelled by thinnings from estate plantations, harvested in low-impact timber-extraction operations, would be a remarkably virtuous loop. Environmentally, the estate would be able to reduce their transportation footprint by bringing in less heating gas while using the thinnings on the estate.
Many parts of the 'biomass plan' are still up in the air - neither the biomass boiler nor the wood-chipper have been ordered and Mar Lodge Estate have not yet committed themselves to continue low-impact timber-extraction. But, if the estate can deliver the 'biomass plan' using low-impact timber-extraction - the significance of that can't be overstated. Not only will they have stopped aspiring to achieve 'best practice', but they will have started defining it.