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A key forest management operation for Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) is thinning trees which creates better quality timber and makes the trees more resilient to pests and diseases. Thinning also opens up the tree canopy to encourage greater biodiversity and a more accessible forest. Not all forests can be thinned, as some are on soils, or at elevations where thinning would actually be detrimental to the growth of the trees by creating windblow scenarios.

The majority of the National Forest Estate (NFE) is essentially ‘manmade’ forests. Thinning creates a more naturalised and aesthetically appealing forest.   In the past thinning was done by hand, which was physically demanding and dangerous work. However this work has now been replaced by machines which has improved safety and very much speeded up the process.

Forest harvesters parked off road in front of a forested hillside


Since the beginning of 2018, FES has been re-equipping its in-house machinery fleet with a range of new state of the art forwarders and harvesters specifically for thinning and working on sensitive sites. Currently there are 10 new machines from manufactures such as John Deere, Ponsse and Komatsu which are deployed in Moray and Aberdeenshire, Lochaber, Cowal and Trossachs, West Argyll and Galloway Forest District. The machines are currently working in a range of mainly conifer woodlands, but are versatile and can easily operate in broadleaved woodlands in both rural and urban settings.  This investment and direction of travel will ensure that FES maximises the growing potential of its forests, whilst protecting the environment on our most sensitive of sites.

The machines are the most technologically advanced of their kind. They have eight wheel drive, which offers reduced ground compression and greater agility for meeting a range of challenging ground conditions. They are compact in order to work in the ‘tightest’ of conditions and their footprint in the forest is light. The machines are also better equipped and comfortable for the operators, who spend much of the working day in an ergonomically designed cabin aimed at improving their working environment, whilst maximising productivity. The process is highly computerised and requires great skill from the operators to maximise the products we cut from the tree. A far cry from the days of lumberjacks wielding chainsaws and axes! Chainsaws are not a thing of the past though and they are still required where the machines cannot go. Chainsaw work is a highly specialised skill.

An important factor in the purchase of the new machinery is their ability to work on sensitive sites, which commands additional care in safeguarding not just the remaining trees but the wider environment, historic features and public areas.  There are a range of sensitive sites across the NFE which for example includes forests where populations of red squirrel exist or rare plants such as the twin flower, to working in areas adjacent to recreation sites used by the public. To operate in these sensitive sites takes careful planning to ensure the integrity of the area is preserved for the future and actioned on the ground by having the right machine and a skilled operator. In contrast to the high timber volume output of a clearfell operation, thinning of sensitive sites requires taking time to do the necessary work to ensure that a good legacy has been left for the forest, wildlife and for people to enjoy.   

Further machinery purchases are planned over the coming years to eventually replace FES’s entire machinery fleet, meaning a promising future of harvesting operations on the NFE.

Remember, when you are in the forest and come across harvesting operations, stay safe by obeying the signs and keep to the paths that you are advised to use.