Ask woodsman Duncan MacNeil which he prefers working with, a tractor and heavy lifting gear or horses, and he answers without hesitation.
“Horses! There’s no escaping modern machinery, but there’s something very relaxing and therapeutic about quietly working away in a wood with a horse.
“You can build up a rapport with your horse. You can’t speak to a tractor. A horse is like an old friend: reliable, always there for you and knows what you want.”
Duncan, 60, is an expert horse logger. He learnt from his father and, in turn, he has now passed the skill down to his son, Ross, 34.
Duncan’s wife Marion, 58, also lends a hand in the business, based in the small village of Elsdon in the heart of the Northumberland National Park.
They keep two 16-hand working horses, Strider, an 18-year-old French Percheron, and Rocky, a 20-year-old Shire cross.
The MacNeils are among a dedicated group who are helping to turn around the fortunes of what is an age-old, but until recently, dying country tradition.
Using horses to remove timber and manage woodland dates back thousands of years. But the practice nearly died out in the 20th Century as machines began to take over.
By the mid-1980s, there were only three full-time horse loggers working across the UK.
But horse power is once again being harnessed as both landowners and conservation groups like the National Trust, English Heritage and the Woodland Trust, work to protect and preserve our landscape.
There are now around 20 self-employed professionals working with horses across Britain. It’s a fraction of the thousands who once plied their trade, but it’s a sign the long-standing craft has a future.
The MacNeils are not the only practitioners in the North East.
Forty miles away from Elsdon, at Broadwood Bridge Farm on the outskirts of Allendale, Jonah Maurice, 34, also runs a horse-logging business alongside wood-carving and selling meat from his Tamworth pigs.
It was seven years ago he bought Seamus, a 13.2-hand fell pony, to work in his own wood at the 14-acre smallholding he shares with his partner and two daughters aged seven and four.
Amber, a 15.2-hand Comtois, a breed that originated in the Jura Mountains on the border of France and Switzerland, followed three years later, which is when Jonah decided to move into horse-logging commercially.
He had already been working in wood management, and
it was his desire to find an alternative to machines, and to seek out a more sensitive way of removing timber, that led him down the horse-logging path. A member of the British Horse Loggers’ Association, he is largely self-taught. The horse-logging is not a full-time job, but Jonah says interest is steadily growing.
His clients are “a pretty mixed bag. I work at a lot of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and in the heritage sector. I have a contract at Allenheads coming up soon to do some clearing around an old lead mine.
“It’s a heritage site and the trees need to be cleared with as little disturbance as possible.”
A horse’s strength and agility mean it can work in areas unsuited to heavy machinery, such as steep valleys or boggy ground.
Heavy forestry machinery can also disturb drainage, harm flora and fauna, compact the soil and damage surrounding trees.
Horses are eco-friendly with the added bonus that woodland doesn’t have to be made off limits when timber is being extracted
– a boon for the likes of the National Trust which at some sites, like Wallington and Cragside, has seen its logging operations become a visitor attraction in their own right.
And it’s easy to see why. Horses always draw people to them and there is, as Duncan says, something very appealing in watching them quietly and methodically undertake an age-old country custom.
The horses use chains to pull along the logs, or a timber arch. The animals can move up to 10 tonnes of timber in a day.
Horse loggers also carry out other important work such as controlling bracken, brambles and invasive weeds, cutting back to encourage natural regeneration and moving fencing materials, tools and equipment.
After the work is complete, there is usually little sign the horse logger and his equine partner have been at work, except for a few hoof marks and the strategically thinned trees.
Jonah says horse-logging is “definitely on the up among conservation bodies. It is now a feasible and viable option”.
Neither Jonah nor Duncan is a purist, however. Both work with modern machinery and see a place for horses and tractors to work side by side in harmony.
“If you have a good horse then the two can work together,” Jonah says. “A big part of the effectiveness in terms of gauging the job is the length of drag, which is where the timber falls and how far you have to pull it.
“Often you will find the horse logger will pull the log to the edge of the wood where either a tractor and trailer or a timber crane will take care of the rest.
“There is no way a horse will ever be as fast as a tractor, but it has less impact on the woodland floor and the environment. This is especially important when you see the size that some of the forestry machinery is getting.”
For more information, visit the British Horse Loggers website at www.britishhorseloggers.org