Hard Work, Soft Hearts: Timber in the Bovey Valley

The sweet smell of freshly cut western red cedar timber rises above the distant roar of chainsaws and rumble of tractors. For the last time this winter season, the team of woodland contractors have been at work in Houndtor Woods, deep in the Bovey Valley. Before spring picks up pace, this final felling job is being brought to a close, opening up the shadiest part of the conifer plantation to bring in the sun and revive the depleted wildflowers down below. When planted as a single-species timber crop, western red cedar casts the darkest shade, and this year a 50% thinning should give the wild woodland species a solar boost on the highest part of the Houndtor ridge.

Tractors used for winching and extracting timber cause less disruption to the woodland ecosystem than larger commercial machines

Felling some of these coniferous giants brings added complications. The large, flared base of these 50-year-old hulks need extra work to cut away the bulky buttresses of wood before the felling cuts can bring the trees to the ground. Another challenge for the contractors is the extraction of the large diameter timber on the long and tortuous track to the transfer area in the more accessible Pullabrook Wood.

Barry removing the buttresses before making the felling cuts [photos: Paul Moody]

Another characteristic of western red cedar is its susceptibility to butt rot. There may be no obvious signs of decay on the bark of the trees but, once the saws have worked through the outer layers, they are often inclined to find soft patches inside. This species is prone to decay in the heartwood around the butt end and, though it doesn’t extend a long way into the straight timber, it will reduce the useable sections of wood. Barry Green, one of the woodsmen explained that “it’s good timing to be felling these trees now while they are still structurally strong. The trees can be harvested before the decay can do too much damage”.

Josh felling western red cedar [photo: Paul Moody]. The rot in the base affects the lower section of the trees without significantly compromising structural integrity

To remedy this, a short section of the tree butt can be cut away and left on the ground. While the economics of this might not be so sound, these unsound blocks of hollow heartwood may provide a valuable wildlife habitat as they lie decaying on the woodland floor.

The great irony of this fungal decay is that it only affects the living tree as it stands in the wood. Once the tree is felled and processed into timber boards it produces some of the finest architectural exterior cladding, weather boarding and cedar wood shingles which are an excellent roofing material. See the blog on the Yarner Wood shelter

As the Houndtor Woods are opened up and the sunlight penetrates to the lifeless soil, the few remaining wildflowers will take the opportunity to spread and bring the diversity back to the Bovey Valley.

spring on the way

A patch of bluebells among the wood chips:  spring is on its way.

You can meet one of the forestry contractors who has been felling these conifer giants at our woodland event this Saturday 25th in Pullabrook Wood.  Sam Pyne will demonstrating some of the forestry machinery they have been using in Houndtor.
For all details of this event – Timber! Tools, Trees and Tall Tales –  visit the Woodland Trust website

by Matt Parkins

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