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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Felling Fellow.

By N.E. Beckwith (NatGeoFound) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I love trees and I love the woods, I've spent thousands of hours there, engaged in a variety of activities from walking to bird watching, camping to commercial felling.

I could write a modest book on the subject of felling trees and I'm sure that the forestry commission have got pamphlets, books and all sorts of training aids, even though I suspect that harvesting machines now fell a thousand trees for every one that is cut by a man with a chain saw.

Felling snags on fire line around the Coquille CCC camp, Siskiyou National Forest (3226072285).jpg
And before we felled with chainsaws this was the only option;
Felling snags on fire line around the Coquille CCC camp, Siskiyou National Forest (3226072285)" by OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons - Felling snags on fire line around the Coquille CCC camp, Siskiyou National Forest Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under No restrictions via Wikimedia Commons.

My simple rules and suggestions for felling are very few and very simple:

1. If in doubt, don't!
2. Gravity always wins!
3. Death can be Fatal!
4. Get some training.
5. Get proper equipment, especially protective equipment (eyes, ears, hands, feet and legs) a wedge ( or 2), a sledge hammer and a turning bar / felling lever.

I've cut thousands of trees as a pro feller, the majority of which were in a plantation and these are often but not always, relatively simple. They are usually straight and as a consequence of being in a plantation are not encumbered with a multitude of side branches to catch up and roll the main trunk as it hits the ground or worse, that hold the main trunk way off the ground when it comes to rest, which makes for a dangerous clear up!

Compare the twisted and tangled deciduous trees in Riddy Wood .....

Clearing in conifer plantation - - 342596
...with the straighter conifers in a plantation, while easier from a felling and timber perspective the plantations aren't so biodiverse.
Espresso Addict [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons  
Exceptions of course are 'edge trees' and plantations on a substantial slope. First the edge trees which do grow side branches, often asymmetrically toward the outside world where there is plenty of light. This asymmetry of course, puts the weight on one side and tips the balance (no pun intended) toward the heavy side and whilst you can fell at 90 degrees to the weighted side, you can't go beyond that (unless you have a gale blowing in the direction you wish to fell but one hazard at the time!)

You have to have a decent hinge, strong enough to hold the falling trunk to the stump but not so strong that it resists the initiating force to get the tree moving in the desired direction. 

StateLibQld 1 89188 Two timber workers felling a tree on the Atherton Tableland, 1890-1900.jpg
"StateLibQld 1 89188 Two timber workers felling a tree on the Atherton Tableland, 1890-1900" by Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.These timber workers are starting their hinge higher up than I normally would on smaller trees but in this case they need to get above the huge buttresses on this tree to fell it neatly. This is another example of 'applied bushcraft' the skills that we would now consider recreational bushcraft are certainly being put to good effect here. Working all day with a chainsaw certainly isn't easy but this kind of massive scale felling with hand tools is in a whole other league. 

This initiating force can be a push or a pull and could be from a winch or a wedge, my preference is the good old fashioned wedge as I want everything precisely in my control and literally in my hands. If there is the slightest doubt as to the way it may go, you MUST have an escape route or better still 2. These must be clear paths that you can move along at warp speed without climbing, jumping or squeezing through gaps, because if that tree snaps off it's hinge, you have no control what so ever, gravity and wind now have it 100% and that escape route can be the difference between life and death! no doubt about it! So take some time to cut a track if needs be.

The beaver takes a slightly different approach to felling than we do, it works all the way around the tree until the remaining central wood fibers no longer support the weight of the trunk and gravity takes over, we need to be a bit more predictable and controlled than that.

Now this a blog post not 'war and peace' so I'm going to keep this brief and issue the warning that my comments should not be regarded as guidance or authoritative, just an account of my experiences which may or may not be useful or relevant. As most of the non routine felling jobs are unique in so many ways, the best preparation is a detailed risk assessment and then an assessment of any and all possible scenarios. In the case of a dangerous tree with a lot of rot and / or is hollow, you could easily spend more time in the assessment phase than in the the felling itself, this is where I start:

  • What have you got to cut? I.e how big or bad is it
  • Where is it now? Relevant to tracks, structures or trees that you want to preserve.
  • Where do you want it to be when it drops? Ground position.
  • Where is the worst possible place for it to go?
  • Is the size, damage or weight distribution heavily influencing where it's going?
  • Is there enough good wood to form a hinge?
  • Are there any 'hang-ups' or significant fragile parts which could detach and drop during the fall or at any point in the felling process?
  • Is this going to need a rope assist?
  • Is the wood solid enough to take a wedge with any effect?
  • Etc, etc, etc.......

Don't let that tree go anywhere that your head hasn't been already!

That old carpentry analogy "measure twice cut once" isn't enough, you may need to measure, assess and plan a lot more times than twice and it's worth it, you need to give it to gravity on your terms and not let gravity take it from you on his, that will always end badly!

It's possible to drop a tree all the way to the ground still attached to its hinge but often not, the butt may rise dramatically in the later stages of the fall, it may also back up or swing either way, dependent on which piece of the falling tree hits the ground first.

I hope that this paints a scary picture, it's meant to. In coming months we will try to capture some of the felling in Riddy Wood as we take down some dangerous and badly neglected trees and post them on the website, watch this space and that one and that one, because the tree could arrive in any of them if it goes badly.
Take care in the woods!

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