Saturday, 21 January 2012

Horses and community woodland

John Bunce and a Clydesdale
It sounded like an ideal combination – using horses in woodland, but was it practicable and appropriate?  This was the mix of thoughts when our community woodland group considered using horse loggers to thin an area of neglected larch wood. Here is our experience.

The woodland
Blaen Bran Community woodland, or Coed Gwaun-y-Fferiad to give it’s Welsh name, lies to the north west of Wales’s only new town, Cwmbran, and is an area of 100 acres around a disused reservoir which used to supply water to the communities that made up Cwmbran. The area was planted by the Forestry Commission between 1937 and 1939, as they had a long term lease from what was then the Llantarnam and Llanfrechfa water board. Post war there was rotational thinning, planting and felling firstly by the Forestry Commission, and then by a succession of private owners. The last of these sought to have more community involvement with the woodland. Its close proximity to Cwmbran, now a town of 45,000 people, meant that it had become both a playground and a dumping area. Off road motorbikes regularly rode through the woodland and deliberate fires were a seasonal feature.

The community group
The community woodland group was born through two convergent threads. Children at Woodlands primary school, the closest to the wood, had occasional nature trips there under the direction of the deputy head. They noted some of the mess and damage, and wrote to Cwmbran Community Council to ask if they could do something about it. At around the same time the forestry agent for the then leaseholder also approached the Community Council and gave a talk on the wood and its history seeking support to get more community involvement.

The Blaen Bran woodland is on an area that had been historically used for small scale coal mining;  it lies along the eastern outcrop of the south Wales coalfield. Ground is undulating, with a rise to the northwest from around 700 metres to about 900 metres. The upper part of the woodland - around 30 acres of the total – had been planted with larch in the 1970’s. This had never been thinned, leaving this part of the woodland relatively dark and inaccessible, although there was an old track through the middle and old tithe maps of the 1840’s showed that the area had been arable farmland, with remains of boundary walls and part of a stone farmhouse visible in places.

This un-thinned larch wood was not easy to get to; whilst the main forestry track was in reasonable condition, the actual entrance track to the woodland was not. It lay over local authority land, and being on a fairly pronounced slope that had been eroded and not repaired over the last 20 to 25 years. The community woodland group got some grant funding to thin a section of the larch, but the small area allied to the poor access and the sloping ground meant that contractor interest to take on the work was limited. It was then that consideration was given to using horses and the group looked around for potential horse loggers.

Horses and logging
Contact was made with the British Horse Loggers ( and two contractors and their horse teams were available at the time we wanted. They were Frankie Woodgate and her two Ardennes, from Kent and John Bunce with his two Clydesdales from Gloucestershire.

We also spoke to the loggers about holding a demonstration session on a Saturday late morning and early afternoon, so that visitors could see how horses worked with their handlers.  We let our members know and spread information by word of mouth as well as putting up posters in some of the local pubs and at the entrances to the wood. Around 60 people came along and really enjoyed seeing  the horses at work. One of the audience, member of a local male voice choir, recalled how he used to work with horses in the woodlands as a youth, and it brought back good memories.

Remember the Alamo!
Certainly using horses on the sloping terrain worked effectively, and there was much less impact on the ground than would have been the case with mechanical equipment, although we could have planned better to fell lines more quickly to make best use of the loggers time and expertise.

Generally the larch wood brought out was of poor quality, but we went on to use some to create a stockade behind one of our vulnerable boundary fences that tended to be cut by off-road bikers bringing their bikes in the woodland. Larch log sections were placed behind the fence and stakes at intervals behind helped keep logs in place. Sections of wire secured logs together so that they could not be lifted out. Locally we refer to this as ‘the Alamo’ and it has worked well.

Overall it has been a good opportunity to have traditional methods of one aspect of forest management brought to a wider audience; to have a good job done with low impact on the environment; to support traditional small business and to learn from the experience as well.

A new town and old traditions – a positive way forward!

David Williams

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