Big tools, small mistakes
More tales of mechanical mayhem, disaster and very personal injury down on the farm from Adam Smith’s keepering days
Most keepers these days have a shedful of kit to help make the job a few touches easier, but back in the good old days – for the first few years, anyway – I was dependent on interdepartmental cooperation. Most times, this meant going cap-in-hand to the forestry department.
Poor old Henry, the forester, has come in for perhaps more than his fair share of stick in my columns. And although much of this is fully merited – naturally accident prone, a hypochondriac, pedantic and never one to miss the chance of calling a spade an agricultural implement, or an oak a Quercus robur – I have to confess it wasn’t all one-sided.
In those early years, and outside of the farm, which was a law to itself, much of the machinery I occasionally needed belonged to the forestry department, only on loan under sufferance to me. The usual form involved a brief but sharply worded lecture on correct usage accompanied by well-defined restrictions on length of tenure and return condition status. I often felt like a naughty schoolboy and, if I’m honest, items were not always cared for quite as scrupulously as they should have been. Demolishing the rear wall of Henry’s store shed with an uncontrollable Wolseley Clearway brush cutter is a perfect example, although it was a genuine accident and not malicious.
But that was the big stuff. Smaller tools were less of a problem, and until common sense and a shift in the perceived position of the shoot prevailed and I got my own kit, I would have to borrow chainsaw, slasher, monkey-winch, sledgehammer and piledriver to recall but a few at some point during the season.
There’s not a lot of harm you can do to a piledriver – essentially a thick steel tube, one end closed and weighted and with a long handle on each side, known affectionately as a ‘man-killer’ – though a piledriver can more than return the favour if it smacks you on the back of the head due to over-enthusiastic use. This is because it’s designed to wallop farm-style fenceposts in, starting comfortably below shoulder height: knocking in 10ft release pen uprights with the unwieldy lump initially held well above head height, is a different and more exhilarating ball game altogether. It’s when mechanicals get involved that the fun really starts, although generally I’ve been lucky with chainsaws. Keeping the chain properly tensioned and using the tool with the respect it is due goes a long way towards ensuring you don’t end up in A&E with an arm hanging by a thread, but for all that, they have a well-merited reputation for biting the hand, so to speak.
I write of the days before anyone knew or cared about ‘whitefinger’ (vibration-induced paralysis) and my first hand-me-down Stihl 08S weighed about the same as a bag of cement and breached most modern H&S guidelines with no damping or chain-brake safety systems to complicate things. Despite these drawbacks, being able to do all my own clearance work was a big advantage.
Memorable Moment Number One might well have concluded with several missing teeth, but I got away with it – if you count a grossly swollen upper lip and a badly bitten tongue as minor damage. I was cutting through some hazel stems, weighed down and bent over under tension from a small but heavy diseased Dutch elm, and as the saw came through and out the other side one of the 2" thick boughs jumped up rather spitefully and hit me a mighty clout in the mouth.
Moral: must pay attention.
Building pens single-handedly has its dangers, in particular if you are trying to knock in very tall posts with a piledriver designed for shorter farm fencing!
Number Two was with the same saw, clearing more dead elm when enlarging my main pen. You can see any number of government films warning of the dangers involved with felling trees and using chainsaws, many of them stressing the importance of avoiding the butt as it falls.
One of the biggest risks is when the trunk jumps backwards, propelled by the curved upper branches which act as springs as they hit the ground, so all you do is adopt matador mode, step lightly to one side and allow the charging tonnage to pass harmlessly by. Couldn’t be simpler. Alternatively, stay calm as you withdraw the cutting bar and look up to ensure the direction of fall is as intended. Even if it breaks wellestablished rules and starts to topple towards you, there’s no need to panic and run, as avoiding the falling mayhem is easy enough provided you don’t choose to rapidly retreat along the line of the fall. I mean nobody would be stupid enough to do that, would they?
Well, sad to say, I could, and if that tree had been any taller I might not be writing this. As it was, only the thinner upper branches connected with my panic-stricken person, but they proved adequate to knock me off my feet and leave me spitting mouthfuls of leaf mould together with feelings of ineptitude, coupled with a particularly painful collision with a badly placed little stump, which could well have compromised marital responsibilities. On the plus side, no one was watching.
Other than these incidents, chainsaw use was not a problem. By far, the worst accidents were associated with a Massey 65, the biggest lump of machinery it was my privilege to have on occasional loan. An old tractor, even in those days, and a long way from today’s air-conditioned palaces, one with in-built peccadilloes, among them an accelerator lever on the steering column with a mind of its own.
Yet it did the job, most especially when fitted with the major machine for shoot improvement – the Swipe. The Swipe was essentially a large shallow steel box containing a rotating spindle, driven by a PTO shaft which sent a chain-flail into a welter of weed destruction.
This tool opened up the rides and paths, allowing walking Guns to follow behind the beating line, for instance, without having to force a way through head-high weed growth. And there lay the snag, or one of them. For the sake of economy, the swiping was done late in the year, so it only needed doing once, but which also meant driving into the unknown.
Swiping lanes through woodland was generally straightforward enough, but the really special thrills came when clearing the river bank. This steep-sided stream wound its way through various gullies and presented at times a dense head-high wall of nettles, brambles, cow parsley and assorted greenery which I had to trust to luck and hope to steer my way through while negotiating constant river bends.
As a rule, I managed to do this, while dodging brambles being dragged towards me across the bonnet with the obvious intention of snagging on the throttle lever and adding a sudden unforeseen increase in speed to the progress.
Naturally, there was one bladder-emptying occasion when I looked down and realised that the nearside front wheel was hanging in mid-air. Without the weight of the Swipe to keep the tractor anchored, we’d have fallen four or five feet down to the river bed and I’d have very likely finished up in a foot or so of water pinned down with two ton of tractor on top. On the plus side, I’m fairly sure the estate would have laid on a lovely funeral.
‘By far, my worst accidents were with a Massey 65, the biggest lump of machinery it was my privilege to have on occasional loan’
Clearing rides through dense scrub was straightforward enough, unless you happened to be working by a river
Keeping chainsaws clean, sharp and well oiled can save your bacon (or, more accurately, your fingers!)