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Dinefwr Historical Renovation Project

Arwyn Morgan discovers how easy it is to change people's minds.

I have to admit that I have always been quick to criticise the National Trust, especially when they let mature trees just rot and disintegrate instead of harvesting them so that they can be used. But recently, through my work, I saw the other side of the coin where the National Trust needs to keep many facets of the public happy.

Some time back I had bought some Poplar from the National Trust. It was only 30 odd trees, but it was a clearfell that was not to be replanted. They had been planted some time in the late 60s, like much of the Poplar in the UK. Some of the butts were up to 30" in diameter, but others were hollow, with rot.

They all grew within Dinefwr Park which, with its nearby castle, forms part of the earliest written records in Wales. With this historical background it was decided to renovate the whole park, including the mansion house and adjoining properties. This renovation includes transforming the landscape, returning it to the way it was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Thus the reason for the removal of the Poplar, but it was not to be a simple matter: first of all there were the public meetings, with their many complaints, and the meetings with various agencies and groups. Some people were very opposed to the proposed fellings. A letter was even printed in the local newspaper with a stunning picture of the Poplars in winter. The writer compared the Poplars to Swedish pop stars with legs up to their armpits etc, and so on.

Due to the obvious public interest, it was decided to fell all the trees in one go. I was to do the felling, and as there was a footpath near the Poplars, my father was to act as banksman. Technically the public had no right to be beneath the trees, but sadly people easily forget common sense at times of emotion, and the last thing you need when putting in a back-cut is somebody tapping you on your shoulder and asking you what you’re doing.

The evidence which persuaded the public that the Poplars did need felling.

The evidence which persuaded the public that the Poplars did need felling.

It was a quick job to get the Poplar on the deck. Needless to say a few people walked by and voiced their disgust that the Trust was having the Poplars felled, especially as they were “several hundred years old”! My father informed them of the Poplars’ true age. That in itself was a revelation. They couldn’t get over how fast trees could grow, but still they thought it was a shame to fell them.

After I had finished felling, we decided that it was more prudent to exit the scene. I returned the next day to sned them. This time I was prepared for any comments. Several people appeared and expressed their disgust at what the Trust had sanctioned. At this point I would direct them to an exceptionally badly butt-rotted stem, and await the look of surprise on their faces. It was funny how easily their attitudes could be changed. From disparaging the Trust, they turned to praising it, and commenting on how the National Trust really knew what they were doing !

As it happens, at Dinefwr Park there are many other wooded areas, some of pure broadleaves, whilst others planted in the sixties or later are made up of a mixture of conifers and broadleaves. Some of these areas were to be clearfelled, apart from the few broadleaves, whilst others were thinned.

One of the areas consisted of two rows of Beech, two of Japanese Larch etc. Some of the Larch were of fine form, but some could act as giant corkscrews or propellers. The Beech had grown through the Larch, with the end result that the old double act – “wedge ‘n’ sledge” – was needed to drive the Larch through the Beech branches.

Sadly the Beech had been barked at their bases by the local deer, and upstairs they had considerable squirrel damage. In fact every other Larch tree had a squirrel dray in it, so next winter some of the woodlands won’t be as hospitable for the greys. The difficulty with such woodland is that even if you just touch the upper branches, because of their brittle semi rotten nature, they tend to snap and, as it were, explode. The long term hope is that the Beech will be under planted with Oak. The Beech will be left as a nurse, and when more light is needed by the Oak, the Beech will be removed for firewood.

One of the other areas had Norway and Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, Corsican Pine, Japanese Larch with a few Oak, Beech, Cherry, Ash, and Willow dotted about – quite a mixture.

As all the land was being rented out to local farmers, extreme care had to be taken to avoid messing the fields, and to top it all there were many badger sets. Not only does the Countryside Council for Wales watch all activities in the park very closely, but also a badger group keeps an eye on the badger population.

So many people and organisations watch how the National Trust manages a property. I dread to think about how much in the way of unproductive wages are spent on all these staff from their various organisations.

Unfortunately my machinery isn’t what could be called ideal for this type of timber, as we generally cut larger softwoods or hardwoods. I used the County skidder with its Boughton to pull all the stems out to the edge of the woodland, then cross cut and used the other County with its Botex to stack the sawlogs and pulp. All the brash was bladed by the County and burnt on the site of the clearfell, or on narrow racks, it was bladed up to the base of the Beech trees to dissuade the deer from barking them further.

The 35 year old County 1004 that bladed the brash to make a bonfire

The 35 year old County 1004 that bladed the brash to make a bonfire

It seems quite ironic that I’m using two machines, with a combined age of over 70 years, to harvest this timber. Although the job involves several hundred cubic metres of wood, due to the situation and size of most of the trees, hand cutting is essential. Although a small percentage of the area is suitable to be harvested by processor, the job is too small and fiddly for most contractors. Not far away 2000 cubic metres was being harvested on a good site for Pontrilas timber. It took the contractor four days to harvest and forward it all, quite some speed, but whereas I had invested less than £10,000 in machinery, that contractor had invested considerably more than half a million in his. It seems, that as long as there are mixed species, small woodlands there will be continued need for the contractor specialising in motor manual methods.

Perhaps you are wondering what was to be done with all the timber ? Well, anything over 12” butt diameter is to be milled into boards and planks to be used on National Trust property whilst all coarser sawlogs and pulp will be allowed to season for a few months and then will be chipped. All of the chips will be stored on site and used as fuel for the estate buildings, so nothing will be wasted. With all this timber being utilised on the estate that grew it, it is encouraging to see that this sort of local woodland usage is alive and kicking and being encouraged by the National Trust.

Arwyn Morgan
Forest Machine Journal 11-06

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