Established in Derbyshire over 20 years ago as a log and kindling supplier, Midlands Logging Company has grown to become one of the region’s leading timber contracting businesses. Hilary Burke met with owner and managing director Luke Evans to learn about his operations in Martinshaw Wood and discuss site security.

THE weather in the English Midlands took a turn for the worse as winter set in. On the outskirts of the city of Leicester, the soils of Martinshaw Wood were deteriorating and a few more weeks of timber extraction was threatening to cause unacceptable damage to the forest floor.

Fortunately for Luke Evans of the Midlands Logging Company, the forest works manager was agreeable to a postponement of timber harvesting operations. The contract could recommence in 2020 when ground conditions were more favourable. The John Deere 1270D harvester would start on another timber harvesting site and the two Valmet forwarders would follow when the last of the cut produce had been lifted.

Timber harvesting contractor, Luke Evans (left) speaks with a couple of Ratby residents who seem to be wandering in the direction of the forest operations risk zone. Luke explains the part thinnings operations play in the management plan and points out that they will be free to roam in all parts of their precious local woodland when harvesting operations conclude.

The Midlands Logging Company is well adapted to working the small and medium-sized woodlands – coniferous, broadleaved and mixed – that are so common among the agricultural lands that predominate in the English central counties. Luke has expanded his opportunities with the offer to purchase timber from landowners: for use in his own firewood business, for biomass production, but preferably for milling in English sawmills.

While consideration is now being given to the acquisition of another harvester to increase the production of quality timber for milling, Luke himself started out on the family farm with a small firewood delivery business – mainly sourced from the farm’s own ash trees. As the demand increased year on year, raw material was soon being purchased from neighbouring woodlands in the South Derbyshire area. A natural progression was the purchase of a timber harvester.

In the cab of the John Deere 1070D harvester, operator Paul Kendall works his way through a stand of pure conifers. The forester charged by the Woodland Trust with marking the trees for removal has ensured the canopy is well opened to give native species a fair chance of survival, but has wisely retained conifer stems of the best form for future timber production.

The Swadlincote farm was within the National Forest area and the Evans family took the opportunity to convert almost all the land to timber production. The crop has now reached thinning age. The opportunity to produce timber from his own farmland is, of course, a tempting prospect for Luke, and the option to schedule operations to fit in with the Midlands Logging Company’s workload is an added bonus. Felling and processing quality stems on the Derbyshire farm for specialist English hardwood sawmillers, on the other hand, may still seem like a somewhat distant prospect.

Across the county border in Leicestershire, Martinshaw Wood is also in the National Forest area but its most noticeable trees are now fairly sizeable conifers. While the woodland may have been one in the vicinity referred to in the Domesday Book, written records from the 13th century almost certainly identify it as ‘The Shaw’ and the property of the predecessors of the Earls of Stamford.

It seems to have remained for five centuries as ‘coppice with standards’, supplying timber and woodland products to the city of Leicester and surrounding areas. The 20th century saw the character of the wood change dramatically as the Earls of Stamford introduced exotic species, including American conifers, to Martinshaw Wood. Clearfelling before and during World War II saw the removal of almost all the best oak, ash, beech and birch. The Forestry Commission took over the woodland in 1950 and, over a couple of decades, restocked with a wide range of native and exotic species. It is assumed the intention was to manage the plantation on a medium-term thin/clearfell rotation.

In 1967, the construction works of the M1 motorway reached the western outskirts of the city of Leicester. The route was driven north between the villages of Groby and Ratby and straight through the centre of Martinshaw Wood. Shortly afterwards, the divided wood was acquired by the Woodland Trust. A more traditional woodland management system was envisaged.

The ultimate aim was to reinvest Martinshaw Wood with the characteristics it presented for almost 700 years as a social and landscape feature in the shires of central England. Nevertheless, the Woodland Trust was able to resist the easy option of ‘purifying’ the semi-ancient woodland with the elimination of all the alien species. After all, the exotic conifers had played a large part in shielding the residents of Groby and Ratby from the visual and acoustic disturbances entailed in the construction of the new road. As they matured, they also assisted in buffering the noise from the ever-increasing flow of traffic.

The rough and forked Western red cedars in the crop have been earmarked for harvesting. With the ever-increasing demand for chipped biomass material and the current prices offered, many foresters judge that it is a good moment to clear out poor-quality growth. Both Paul Kendall and Luke Evans agree that John Deere harvesting heads have the robust design to cope with the toughest challenges.

Few of the residents of the two villages on the northern outskirts of the city of Leicester will now remember the building of the motorway. In the half century since Martinshaw Wood was divided, however, huge numbers of those living in the area have made use of the area in their leisure time. It has always been a great place for walking the dog, of course, and more recently for jogging and cycle riding.

Luke Evans is able to report that, despite the difficulties of restricting public access to areas where forestry operations are underway, most visitors to the woodland have caused no problems.

The operator of the Midlands Logging Company’s Valmet 840 lifts some well-formed stems of Western red cedar onto the forwarder’s bunk. As part of his contract with the Woodland Trust, Luke Evans has taken on the responsibility of persuading English sawmillers to make the most of the timber grown in Martinshaw Wood and pay a fair price for the produce.

There has been, understandably, a little downtime for managers, machine operators and hauliers when risk zones are in danger of being breached. A few minutes spent explaining the nature of the thinning operation and the hazards of timber harvesting is almost always met with understanding by local people.

Less welcome has been the accessing of the site – usually under the cover of darkness – by a few visitors Luke believes come from further afield. In such a densely populated area in the vicinity of one of central England’s main motorways, traffic is on the move day and night, the vast majority engaged in lawful and necessary business. The odd few vehicles prowling around with malicious intent are unlikely to be noticed with the constant flow of traffic keeping the UK economy running.

For large businesses, a viable full-time security system should present no problems. The motorway service area at Leicester Forest East, just a couple of miles south of Martinshaw Wood, has been in operation for over 50 years, and no hour has gone by without personnel on site and a duty manager to oversee security issues. On the northern outskirts of Leicester, the fortunes of the construction industry – both commercial and residential – have ebbed and flowed over the last half-century. Security measures have been upgraded in line with informal national industry standards over that period.

One of the recent trends has been to engage the services of a private security business to periodically visit worksites. The system is not without its disadvantages. Intruders with criminal aims can quietly bide their time. When the security operative has left after the inspection, they know the coast is clear. For the Midlands Logging Company, with valuable machinery, fuel and tools stored in a clearing in Martinshaw Wood, it was not a viable solution. Luke Evans engaged the services of PID Systems to protect his worksite in the Leicestershire woodland.

Luke Evans requests that the PID Systems control centre activates the Armadillo intruder-detection towers. As he approaches the compound, lights flash and warning voices ring out in Martinshaw Wood. Most intrusions take place under the cover of darkness and the deterrent effect is considerably enhanced. In vulnerable locations, in Luke’s view, the hire charge is money well spent.

When set by the last operative leaving the worksite, four battery-operated armoured towers will detect any movement in the vicinity of the protected area and relay a signal to one of PID Systems’ alarm-receiving centres. A nominated keyholder will be informed of the intrusion and, if necessary, the emergency services will be notified. One recent activation of the system occurred only a quarter of an hour after the machine operator had left the site – somebody, obviously, had been waiting and watching.

There are also benefits for the landowner. Churning up mud may have put the Midlands Logging Company’s contract on hold temporarily, but ground damage was probably a limiting factor when the Earls of Stamford had their men harvesting the oaks and hauling the stems out with horses. Unauthorised draining of diesel storage reservoirs and puncturing of machine fuel tanks constitutes a new risk to the soils of historic woodland.

The Armadillo is a wireless battery-operated tower that detects movement and relays warning signals when activated. A group of four towers can effectively guard the perimeter of the landing used for storing machinery, tools and fuel. An operator in a control centre arms the system shortly after receiving a phone call from the last of the forestry crew to leave the worksite.

Luke Evans explained that the cost of the system – around £300 per week – was money well spent. In every instance, the police patrol had been on site within 20 minutes and, as yet, the miscreants had been deterred from their criminal intentions by the flashing lights and audible warnings which they encountered. As Forestry Journal was visiting the site, Luke Evans called the PID Systems control centre in Prestwick, Ayrshire, and requested activation of the Armadillo perimeter intruder-detection system. 

Lights flashed and voices boomed when Luke approached the protected area. In this instance, of course, the attendance of the emergency services was not required. Just as well. The M1 southbound traffic was, for a change, not rocketing along between the two halves of Martinshaw Wood. It was totally gridlocked and all available Leicestershire Constabulary officers were fully committed to sorting out the chaos ensuing from a major traffic incident at Junction 21.

Courtesy of Forestry Journal