Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Big Logs at Tarn Hows
First day’s tandem.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

by Chris Wadsworth
photos by Simon Lenihan of England

The felling and extraction operation at the Lake District beauty spot of Tarn Hows in the summer and autumn of 2004, was done in often appalling weather, and in the full glare of publicity. It must rank as one of the most spectacular pieces of horse logging, or indeed of commercial horse work done in these islands in recent years. [tarn is a small lake, ed.]

Tarn Hows is a major tourist honey pot near Coniston in the south of the Lake District National Park, attracting up to 300,000 visitors a year. Together with 4000 acres of the former Monk Coniston Estate, it is owned by the National Trust. In its present form, it is a result of an exercise in landscape engineering by James Garth Marshall, the wealthy owner of the estate in the Nineteenth Century. His idea was to create a foreground feature for a panoramic vista of the surrounding high fells, [a fell is a rocky or barren hill, ed.] from Coniston Old Man, by way of the Langdale Pikes, to Fairfield over beyond Ambleside. A valley with three small tarns was dammed, creating a single large tarn fringed with a number of peninsulas, and woods were then planted on the bare slopes to the waters’ edge. Hardwoods were planted with a conifer nurse crop, but lack of management thereafter left the conifers dominating the landscape. By the turn of the 21st century, they were shutting out the high fells they were meant to frame.

The National Trust had long wanted to do something about the trees at Tarn Hows.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Home made metal frame to assist side loading.

This is an iconic landscape, with vast numbers of visitors. The Spruce at the edge of the water are huge. The Trust stalled at the idea of the public outcry that would result from the impact of mechanised forestry operations. Irish horse logger Simon Lenihan moved to the Lakes from County Kerry in 2001, and has logged considerable tonnages for the National Trust and others. Simon and his elder sons Simon, Keith, and Ian, with their Belgian Ardennes horses, work good timber in bad places. The Lenihans are very much a family unit, and Simons’ wife, Kate, and the rest of the family tend their other horses whilst the lads are working away. With skill and hard work, they are making a living logging with horses when many conventional operators are going to the wall.

A National Trust manager mentioned the Tarn Hows problem to Simon, and he offered to do the job with horses. The Trust had not considered horses as an option, given the large size of the timber, and the steep climb from the water to the road. However, Simon knew of a Swedish timber bogie over in the North East, and was sure that with this piece of kit, and the power of his horses, the task was possible. The Trust was persuaded, and arranged to hire in the bogie for Simon to use.

Having decided to go ahead, the Trust opted to do the hardest bit first, no doubt reasoning that if they could do that, all the rest would be possible. Work started in July 2004. The area chosen was a low peninsular covered in massive Spruce, with a narrow boggy neck at the landward side, and a steep, rocky, and sometimes wet slope up to the access lane.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Tarn Hows water in background.

The Spruce on the peninsular were impressive. The tallest were 121 feet (37 metres) tall, and the largest had a volume of 5.5 cubic metres. The option of felling these trees, and winching the timber across the water to the far bank, had been rejected for reasons of ecological sensitivity, including the presence of Medicinal Leeches in the tarn.

The trees at the waters’ edge had heavy side growth over the water, and it was necessary to climb and partially de-limb each one before felling. The brash was then manually hauled to the neck of the peninsular to build a stock proof barrier to exclude grazing sheep. It is possible that the cleared area will be replanted with hardwoods in the future.

As the trees were felled, they were crosscut to sawlog length, and the process of extraction began. The smaller logs were rolled by hand up ramps lent against the ends of the bunks of the bogie. Larger logs were hauled up the ramps by horse or horses walking at right angles to the bogie. After early efforts with wooden props, a specially fabricated tubular steel unit with fixed ramps proved much more effective. Using the horses to load logs onto the bogie took some practice initially, and there were some cases of logs pulled off the far side, but the horses soon learned to ease off the pull as the log came off the ramp onto the level bunk.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Sultan De La Campagnette (Ardennes Stallion)

Simons’ horses are all Belgian Ardennes of the mountain type, shorter and handier than the larger lowland variety. The horses used at Tarn Hows were the stallion Sultan, standing 15 hands, and weighing 750 kilograms, and the mare Hermes, standing 15.1, and weighing 780 kilograms. They work in Nordic harness. On this job, they usually worked as a pair, with Sultan in the bogie shafts, and Hermes ahead in traces.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Hermes (Ardennes Mare)

The combination of loads and extraction route on this site were a severe test, even for this fit, powerful, and experienced team. The biggest single logs exceeded 2 tonnes, plus the 325 kg tare weight of the bogie. The route started across the boggy neck of the peninsula, followed by a steep climb up and around a rocky ridge. Near the top there was a tight turn, bringing the trace horse out of draught. The shaft horse had to keep the load moving on his own for several yards, until the trace horse could swing back in line and start pulling again. There followed a long final section, mostly climbing, to the landing. The timber was then moved by tractor forwarder to the lorry loading point.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Getting ready for extraction.

As if the job were not hard enough already, the Lake District weather took a hand. In the first half of August 2004, 7.5 inches of rain fell. The neck of the peninsular became a quagmire, and swallowed vast quantities of brash to keep the track open. The climb became rutted and greasy. Horses and men struggled, but the work kept going. The job was extended into September.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

The largest trees were felled at the end, and the largest log, 12 feet long and just over 4 feet diameter at the butt end, had a calculated weight of 2.1 tonnes. Sultan and Hermes loaded this monster, and hauled it up the bank in style. Over the whole job, in which the Lenihans climbed, felled, crosscut, moved brash, and worked their horses, 170 cubic metres of timber were brought to the top of the bank. On the best days’ extraction, 15 cubic metres was loaded and hauled to the landing.

The works at Tarn Hows were widely publicised and the already popular beauty spot was besieged by spectators. The team often hauled laden bogies into an already narrow landing, in the face of a press of tightly packed onlookers and a barrage of camera flashes. The Ardennes took all in their stride. The Trust managers did their best to relieve the team of most of the public pressure, but some urban comments did cause some bemusement to the loggers.

One day, the team were working on the felling area, and the stallion, standing in the bogie shafts, had nodded off. “Excuse Me,” the lady asked, “Is He Real?”

Big Logs at Tarn Hows
Taking a break.

At another time, in one of the very few adverse comments they received, a lady expressed concern that whilst the men using chainsaws wore helmets with ear protection, the horses did not. It is rumoured that, not long after, a picture was taken of Sultan wearing a safety helmet with ear defenders in place.

The Trust was well pleased with the result, with the overall workmanship, and with the final condition of the cleared site and the extraction route. Most of all, a potential public relations nightmare had been turned into an asset. The Tarn Hows work has lessons for all aspiring Horse Loggers. It is possible to put horses to very hard work full in the public gaze, but your horses and your gear have to be up to the job, in strength, fitness, and temperament. Your skills, both as a woodsman and a horseman must be of a high order. You must keep the Client and the Public on your side.

Well done, the Lenihan Family and their Horses!

Big Logs at Tarn Hows