Big tools, small mis­takes

More tales of me­chan­i­cal may­hem, dis­as­ter and very per­sonal in­jury down on the farm from Adam Smith’s keeper­ing days

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

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!)

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