Horse logging: managing woodland on a Scheduled Monument

By David Hill, MIRCS, Estate Manager · January 26, 2021

On 15 September 2021, the RFS Southern Division visited Eling Estate near Newbury to look at woodland management issues across the estate including an ancient Hill Fort which is surrounded by woodland.

Woodland at Eling is managed primarily for commercial timber under the watchful eye of Matt Steel who has looked after the woodlands for approaching 40 years.  There are a number of Scheduled Ancient Monuments across the Estate including a substantial Iron-Age Hillfort called Grimsbury Castle which lies at the southern end of the Estate near the edge of Newbury.  The hillfort which is encircled by a number of steep ramparts is planted with a mix of broadleaf and conifer species.I have been privileged to oversee the management of the Eling Estate for the past few years.  Eling is owned by a charitable trust and extends to approximately 5,000 acres including 1,100 acres of mixed woodland.  The settlor of the Trust was the late Gerald Palmer who was MP for Winchester and among many professional roles, was a commissioner for the Forestry Commission.  He was passionate about trees and was quite forward thinking in relation to species mix and diversity.  In settling the Trust, Gerald wished for public access to be maintained through the Estate woodland.

Managing woodland on a Scheduled Monument can be a minefield of licensing requirements, conflicts of interest between user groups and typically a cautious interest from Natural England and Historic England.  In 2019, we secured licenses to clear-fell some rather unattractive and over-mature Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar on the lower areas as well as to thin some mixed broadleaf compartments over the ramparts of the Hillfort.  With restrictions on machinery use as well as concern over ground conditions, options for removal and forwarding were discussed with our forestry consultants and narrowed to winching or horse-drawn forwarding.  Having a personal interest in horses, I could see the merits in using them to extract timber and we were  introduced to Toby Hoad of Dorset Horse Logging.

Toby spent approximately four weeks with us, self-supported with his pair of Comtois heavy horses Etty and Celine as well as Bodhi the dog.  What was immediately clear is the power and efficiency with which the horses moved the timber to trackside.  One horse would comfortably keep up with one efficient sawman, even on longer hauls.  Our issue was having a cutter available to get sufficiently far in front, to ensure that the two were not trying to operate in the same space.

The horses most often work individually and alternate on a two-shift per day pattern allowing them time to rest, eat and water whilst maintain work-flow for Toby.  Single butts or gathered stems are pulled on chains or via an arch which enables the leading edge to be lifted off the ground for ease of skidding. Extraction routes are selected carefully to be most efficient in distance whilst making best use of fall in ground as hauling downhill is somewhat easier-going.  Such was Celine and Etty’s appetite, that gradual nibbling of greenery on the extraction route meant that the way was kept clear.  To chew on a large branch whilst hauling half a tonne of tree butt across rough ground is a truly impressive feat.

Clearly the output from horse logging cannot compete with mechanical harvesters and forwarders.  It does though, leave virtually no trace.  In our case, we used Toby’s team to forward to the track edge where it was forwarded to stack at road-edge using the ride network without causing significant ground disturbance.  It was very much a complementary process rather than an alternative.  For the duration of Toby’s stay, the horses were a popular attraction for visitors using the woods.

Walking over the site even a month after completion, it is hard to see where the horses have been.  Conversely, across the clear-fell area, we will expect to come back in the drier months of the spring to reinstate tracks and make good much of the ground churned up by forwarders.

There are a number of historically, or environmentally sensitive sites across the Estate and we will almost certainly make use of the horse logging team to ensure their protection while we remove timber.  Indeed where possible, we hope to integrate horse-drawn timber extraction into our wider management plan for ground protection reasons and to minimise the need to reinstate after works.

We as an estate, are focussing increasingly on our impact on the local environment including an increased focus on protection of our soils and natural habitats.  This must continue into our woodland management, be that in the removal of tree guard litter or avoiding unnecessary ground disturbance.  Woodland is hailed as a precious resource in the fight against climate change and habitat loss and it is vital that we manage these in the most sensitive way possible.  We need to make better use of resources such as horses as an extraction technique to achieve this.  I look forward to seeing Toby, Celine and Etty back soon.