In this age of mechanised timber extraction, Andrew Whitaker is one of the few to take ‘horse power’ quite literally into the world of forest management.
On first sight, five-year-old Ghalm seems surprisingly small for a draught horse, as compared to our leggier Scottish Clydesdales.
On running an eye over his conformation, however, one can appreciate the compact physique, sturdy legs, good slope of shoulder and well muscled rump. Here is 15.2hh of robust power which, combined with a stoic and biddable nature, makes for an ideal haulage ‘machine’.
Anything bigger wouldn’t manage to negotiate the terrain.
Ghalm is no Scot, but is a North Swedish Horse, brought over here as a three-year-old by forester and shepherd Andrew, and is the only one of his kind in Scotland. He’s a beauty, calm yet interested, with a soft, ever so-slightly cheeky eye. His stunning colouring is tricky to define – intense, ‘new-conker’ chestnut with Fjord-like markings in chalk and charcoal.
His luxuriant tail is kept cropped at hock level: enough for him to swish flies, but above the level of the traces and the working zone, where it could get caught up in chains and tackle.
As Andrew tacks Ghalm up in thick vintage WWII leather, he explains that this is a Scandinavian harness, with the neck piece in two halves, which allows the neck to be free and windpipe unrestricted. A shoulder ring trace attachment also prevents pressure being borne around the front of the chest, and a loose girth belt stabilises the harness to stop slippage and rubbing. It’s lovely to see such old leather still in great condition and doing the job for which it was made.
As Andrew says, you can’t get stuff like this these days.
Ghalm stands quietly throughout his tack-up, yet strides out willingly onto the forest track, and I find myself wondering what he’d be like as a ridden horse.
‘A bit dull,’ says Andrew, whose previous logging horse, Billy, a feisty Irish Cob with a spring in his step and a mischievous bent, was more fun. But Ghalm is proving to be a fabulous work horse, and that’s an essential attribute when operating in steep, rugged, slippery conditions with logs capable of unexpectedly bouncing or rolling off the sled behind him.
Andrew shows me the rein he uses as a long line whilst working with Ghalm, which runs from the bit along both sides to meet at a ring on the croup, with a single line from there into Andrew’s hand. With this he can effectively neck rein, along with verbal commands of ‘leo’ (left) and ‘jibe’ (right). The single rein gives Andrew a free hand to adjust the tackle and timber, whilst also giving the horse more freedom to make his own decisions.
As a youngster this can sometimes cause a bit of disarray and entanglement, but the horse needs to learn to trust his own judgement and intuition. Andrew predicts that in the next couple of years he will be able to dispense with the bit and rein and communicate entirely with voice commands. It’s a process of building a mutual bond of trust, along with knowledge and experience.
There’s a well choreographed, rhythmic dance in the process of pulling timber from where it lies, with the horse seeming to know where he needs to be as much as the man does.
When I marvel at how quickly Ghalm has learned his trade, Andrew tells me that as foals these horses are tied to their mothers and taken out to work, so they learn the routine from the beginning.
Most interestingly, the breed is delineated on its working ability rather than on conformation, colour or any other physical appearance traits (as is more normal). Before a foal can be registered as a North Swedish Horse, its parents have to have passed a work
A good horse can pull about one and a half times their own weight on a sledge (Ghalm is 750kg, so can pull 1125kg on the flat and 1500kg downhill). They tend to pull for just under 30 feet, then take a breather before going again. However, production is at its highest with many pulls at lower weights (250-300kg loads all day long is ideal). Every horse knows his own capabilities and will stop and start dependent upon heart rate. This is one reason for allowing them to use their own judgement.
Andrew explains the logic behind horse logging: ‘It avoids the soil compaction and divots caused by heavy machinery, which can lead to water run-off as it can’t sink in, which leads to flooding. With no driven wheels, there is no rutting and no crushing of hidden drains or water supplies. The ground recovers incredibly quickly after horses leave a wood.
‘It also means individual and smaller trees can be taken out, creating a fine habitat for pheasants and woodcock, who relish the neat lines of brash, the clearing of which also creates clear rides for the beaters and dogs. Selecting trees at their optimum, while leaving rest of crop to mature, means continuous tree cover. This is really important if we want to prevent flooding.
‘It’s a win-win result, with less damage to the remaining standing stock and enhanced preservation of rivers, lochs and burns.’
Although they can work in any forest or woodland, Andrew tends to be contracted for specialist areas and situations: SSSIs; windblow; historical sites; steep, wet or less accessible ground; and areas close to footpaths, parks and urban infrastructure. He works all year round and can be out for eight hours a day, five days a week, which he splits to allow for a Wednesday rest day for both horse and human, as it’s a very physical job.
Andrew is keen to highlight that: ‘three other businesses rely on the timber I extract: an artisan baker, a sawmill and builders who source their green oak and other specialist timber through me. We also use extracted timber as firewood.’
In my naivety, I had thought that the practice of horse logging would be on the increase, as this method of environmentally sensitive forestry management becomes better known. But apparently not.
‘When I started horse logging there were five full-time horse loggers in Scotland,’ says Andrew.
‘There are now only two and we are both struggling. To survive we have to be prepared go anywhere for work, yet this is not some outdated thing of history, it is for now and the future.’
Back in the paddock with the not-so patiently waiting Elsie, a gangly two-year-old Suffolk Punch, Ghalm immediately sinks to the mud for a well-deserved roll. I ask about his upkeep requirements and, unsurprisingly, he’s a good doer, needing only grass, and living out with no rug. He even managed to put on weight during last winter. For a horse in work that’s pretty amazing.
This feature was originally published in 2017.