Farm Ireland

Friday 16 November 2018

If technology doesn't cut it, horses have a niche role to play in timber extraction

I am standing in a plantation of yield class 18-20 Sitka spruce planted a little over 20 years ago and considering the owner's options.

It's a fine stand of timber on a good, stable site with adequate access but it is not a feasible option to thin conventionally using a mechanised harvester because the site is simply too steep.

Earlier this year I looked at the site with a harvesting contractor who regretfully ruled it out, even though he had a new lightweight thinning machine.

We also gave some thought to tractor and winch but ruled that out as well. It's a pity as the stand would certainly benefit from thinning as soon as possible, so what other options are available to us?

The stand is part of a larger woodland in the same ownership and immediately adjoins an area of broadleaves.

The owner's ultimate intention is to replant the area predominantly with oak as the woodland is in a visible and scenic area, and is bordered along the lowest boundary by a well travelled secondary road.

In the meantime, the aim is to maximise the return from the spruce, which means carrying out at least one thinning if at all possible. When this stand comes ready to be clearfelled the timber will have to be extracted using a cable logging (skyline) system.

Again, the cost of cable extraction is uneconomical, certainly for a first thinning, and usually for subsequent thinnings as well.

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So the answer to our predicament is either to forget about thinning altogether and wait a number of years until the stand is ready for clearing, or go back in time and engage one of the very few contractors left in the country still using horses.


The use of heavy horses for timber extraction fell by the wayside with the advent of modern machinery.

However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in their use.

On sensitive, difficult or steep sites, horses still have an important, albeit niche, role to play. Part of this resurgence in interest is as a result of environmental considerations.

Horses are low impact and cause minimal soil disturbance, and they are also highly manoeuvrable and can get to places no machine can dream of travelling.

I have only ever used horse logging on two occasions. The first was in a highly sensitive and exposed location where a conventional line thinning would have resulted in an unacceptable level of wind-throw risk.

The second occasion was in a very prominent woodland on a busy road and overlooked by a housing estate. The horses proved to be great ambassadors for the woodland owner as they went down a treat with the local population.

And it's worth noting that four years on, windthrow has been negligible in the first site. It is very doubtful this would have been the case had we put a machine in and carried out a line thinning.

Tom Nixon, of Trojan Heavy Horses, is one of the better known horse loggers in the country. He told me at the recent Woodland and Bioenergy Show held at Stradbally Hall, Co Laois, that he is so inundated with requests that he is having to turn work away.

While he is based in Kinnity, Co Offaly, he and his horses travel to anywhere in the country and in addition to harvesting and timber extraction, he can spread fertiliser from an adapted spreader on awkward sites as well.

Most sites in need of fertiliser usually allow the horse to travel and this can work out as a more cost effective option than fertilising manually with human labour.


Aerial fertilisation was only ever economically viable on large sites, and in any event has mostly fallen from favour due to fisheries concerns.

Mr Nixon is also calling for a programme of formal training courses in horse logging to be implemented. He claims that there are a number of contractors seeking these skills to tap into the rising demand.

But managing a team of horses is highly skilled and occasionally dangerous work, so it is important for the industry that only suitably trained operatives are used.

As importantly, animal welfare must be considered a priority and should be included in any training course.

William Merivale is secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email

Irish Independent