Horselogging in Yewdale
Horselogging in Yewdale

Horselogging in Yewdale

TARN HOWS WOOD – The Use of Horses in National Trust Woodland Operations

by Simon Lenihan of Cumbria, United Kingdom

The Location

Set in the heart of the Lake District National Park, Tarn Hows Wood lies on the eastern flank of Yewdale. The valley is characterized by Yewdale Fell to the west, with Yewdale Beck flowing in headlong rush from its cascades in Tilberthwaite Gill, to its tumbling rapids in the lower reaches of the valley before flowing into Coniston Water. The flat valley bottom is a miniature agricultural patterned landscape consisting of small hedged fields, punctuated by small groups of trees.

Tarn Hows Wood is classified as an Ancient Semi Natural Woodland (ASNW). This classification means that the wood still retains much of its diversity and native species; however, like all woods in Britain, in one way or another has been managed by man. There is ample historical and archaeological evidence of man’s influence with old timber extraction routes, charcoal burner’s pitsteads, small quarries and derelict wall boundaries. Sessile oak and birch dominate the woodlands in this area. On the richer soils can be found Hazel, Ash and Cherry with Alder and Willow on the wetter areas. The most significant feature is that the woodland has been much altered by the underplanting of non-native species such as Larch, Norway Spruce and European Beech. The dense shade cast by these introduced trees severely impacts on the native ground flora leaving just bare soil covered in leaf litter. Also, within 30 years the conifers are taller than the native Oak and Birch and which are then shaded out and eventually die. (Britain has only 3 native species of conifer. Scots Pine, which is a forest tree only in Scotland, Yew which is found occasionally, and Juniper which forms a large shrub.) A special feature of these Lake District woodlands is the rich and diverse epiphytic flora of ferns, mosses and lichens which carpet the trunks, and limbs of the ancient trees and covers almost every rock on the woodland floor. This is a consequence of the typically damp Lake District climate. In the spring the woodlands are a vision. Bluebells and other wild flowers carpet the floor and fill the air with their exquisite fragrance.


Simply to restructure the wood towards the native species by gradually removing the conifers. As with a lot of woods in the Coniston area there are a number of difficulties that affect the efficiency and smooth running of Forest operations.

  • Steep slopes, often with crags and rocks, which limit the range and efficiency of machine extraction. In the past this has restricted the extent and range of our operations and limited the property in gaining full commercial value from our woodlands.
  • Poor infrastructure such as tracks, rides and stacking areas.
  • Woodlands are often biologically sensitive sites, with wet flushes, mires and important ground flora.
  • Most of the woodlands are Planted Ancient Woodland sites. I.e. conifers have been planted beneath the broadleaves. Therefore any restoration work needs to be done carefully without collateral damage such as debarking. This is often difficult with standard forest machinery.
  • The woodlands in Coniston contain a huge number of archaeological remains such as charcoal pitsteads, bark houses, internal boundary walls and horse extraction (or snigging) routes. Again this has restricted our operations.
  • All National Trust woodlands are open to the public and there is an extensive footpath and bridleway network, which are often extremely busy. Tarn Hows has over 300,000 visitors a year. This often dictates on how we operate in the woods. Large machines are not able to use some tracks during busy times and the damage that they do to the path network is often unacceptable.

After two very successful projects in other woodlands, horse power seemed an obvious choice. Simon Lenihan of Witherslack was contracted to fell, convert and extract timber to roadside. Simon, originally from Ireland, works with his two sons, Simon and Keith. In Tarn Hows Wood, horse power was provided by Ardennes Stallion “Sultan”, an Ardennes mare “Hermes”, and Irish draft gelding “Phil.” The Ardennes stand around 15hh and weigh 750Kg, approximately. The Irish draft stands at 15hh and weighs 500Kg.

Simon takes up the story. “The thinning operation in Tarn Hows Wood, which like a lot of the woods in the Lake District, can be very difficult. A lot of the timber is in very inaccessible places and on very steep ground. Some of the slopes are up to 45 degrees with a lot of big boulders in the way. A typical pull would start at the very back of the wood with the trees felled and pointed towards the direction of the landing or stack area. Normally we group the trees together by the light end. On the steeper slopes we sometimes include a log pointing the other way so that the heavy butt end can assist in braking.”

The quantity of timber extracted in a single pull varies from wood to wood, but can be anywhere up to two tons. Simon continues “the problem with such loads is not being able to pull them, but being able to hold it back. When the horse goes down a steep slope and the timber starts to run up behind him he has to smartly trot on to stay ahead of the load. When the ground levels out, he moves to one side and braces himself so that he can bring the load to a halt before continuing the process again until he reaches the stack area.”

There are a lot of powerful and technical machines in today’s modern forest industry. However, in the woods of the Lake District, horses can compete in what is a new, difficult and competitive forestry market.

Simon concludes “We are indebted to our horses and a day does not go by that we do not thank our lucky stars for having the privilege of working with these wonderful animals.”

The operation has been a complete success.

  • The National Trust has realized the full economic potential of the timber in the wood, by extracting timber that would not have been possible by using normal forest machinery. This site has become economically viable.
  • There has been no damage to important watercourses or pollution incidents.
  • There has been minimal damage to the ground flora and no soil compaction.
  • We are able to fully achieve our aims in the restoration of an ASNW.
  • A public footpath that crosses the site has remained open.
  • Archaeological remains have been fully protected.
  • There has been no damage to remaining trees by debarking.
  • The use of horse power has not been slower than by conventional methods on this site. In fact it has saved time and money by reducing the amount of clean up and tidy up operations after work has been completed.

An additional benefit to the National Trust has been valuable public relations. The felling of any tree here in the National Park can be an emotive issue. The use of draught animals is seen as a traditional countryside activity. However, we have to be careful to avoid becoming a “Theme park.” We have to remember that this is still a working landscape, even though it is still within a National Park, but any management, be it farming or forestry has to be done sensitively and with care to preserve this special place.