A master, his apprentice and two sturdy horses are on a mission to restore a precious fragment of ancient woodland in the Pennines.
The Forestry Commission and the North Pennine AONB Partnership have linked up with landowner Noelle Wright, to revitalise centuries-old Chapel House Wood at Allendale near Hexham in Northumberland, as part of a major push across the region to improve the condition of the oldest woodlands.
Now the clock really is being turned back.
Logger Chris Wadsworth, from Guisborough, and his 10 year old heavy horse, Ouragan (a Percheron), are treading carefully on the sensitive terrain to remove five tonnes of timber, including sycamore, allowing light to penetrate the overgrown beauty spot and give other trees a chance to thrive.
But this is a job benefitting from extra horse power in the shape of 33 year old apprentice, Steffi Schaffler, originally from Munich, and her horse, Lisa, a 12 year old Ardennes.
Steffi, who now lives in Castleton on the North York Moors, switched from organic farming to win a place on a new three-year training course run by the British Horse Loggers Trust.
Set up to ensure that a new generation of loggers keeps old skills alive, Steffi is one of just three such apprentices in the UK, and is now working with Chris to benefit from his 21 years’ experience as a woodsman.
Chris said: “Although it’s a very old way of hauling timber, horse logging still has a bright future. Not only is it gentler on ground flora, but sometimes it can be the most economic or indeed the only viable option of working a wood.
“So it really is important that we have young loggers coming forward and Steffi and her horse are already pretty proficient. But practice makes perfect and this wood is a fine place to learn.”
Ian Everard, from the Forestry Commission added: “Many woods in the North Pennines are on difficult terrain or are more sensitive to disturbance so horse logging could play a big role in putting them back to work.
“We have provided £4,000 to support the scheme at Chapel House Wood. Working with the AONB and the far-sighted owner we now have a good management plan in place. This, combined with old fashioned horse sense, means that the future here looks very promising.
“We would like to see many more of our neglected woods follow suit.”
Ancient woods have been dubbed Britain’s rain forests – irreplaceable for many plants and animals. Evocative species like wood anemone and dog’s mercury typically grow in them, while some fungi are found here and nowhere else.
But a recent report found that 43 of 94 ancient woods surveyed in the North Pennines AONB were in a poor condition. Some were overgrown, dark and moribund, while others were planted with conifers.
The Forestry Commission and the North Pennines AONB are targeting their support and expertise to reverse this decline and produce a major boost for wildlife.
Jon Charlton, Programme Development Manager for the North Pennines AONB Partnership, said: “The ancient and semi natural woodlands of the North Pennines are relatively scarce and we are very pleased to have been able to work to conserve and enhance some of them over the last four years.
“This project at Chapel House Wood is a great example of what can be done with traditional skills and a committed owner. We will work with our other partners to develop more woodland schemes in the North Pennines AONB.”
For more information on Forestry Commission grants contact 01669 621591, or visit www.forestry.gov.uk/northeastengland