Felling the lethal weapon

4th June 2004 at 01:00
A Yorkshire college is offering its students a certificate in safe chainsaw use. Kevin Berry reports

A spinney at Skipton golf club needs thinning. So Ed Brown, of Craven FE College, has brought his chainsaw students along.

It is a bitterly cold morning. Brown and his students are all dressed in protective trousers and jackets. The linings are made from a material that is designed to stall the saw blade if something goes wrong. The students have a piercing whistle to blow and a first-aid kit with large dressings.

All have special boots and gloves and their heads are protected by helmets, full-face visors and ear muffs.

Chainsaws are scary tools. My local DIY hire shop will not hire them out because of potential litigation if there is an accident. I can buy a chainsaw from the hire shop but not before the safety aspects have been explained by an anxious salesman.

Ed Brown, a forestry lecturer at Craven College in Skipton, is respected throughout the Yorkshire Dales. He says that there is always the potential for chainsaw accidents.

Occasionally householders come on his course, homeowners with a couple of trees in their garden they want to fell. Increasingly landscape gardeners sign up because they are fed up of waiting for the expensive man with the chainsaw to come and they want to learn to do it themselves.

Most of his students are involved with countryside work and they need a certificate to sprove their competence and get the necessary insurance.

Mechanics who service chainsaws need a certificate before they can even switch a machine on.

"We spend the first day on maintenance and safety," Brown explains.

"Accidents occur when blades are blunt and people try to force the saw.

Having said that, with all the safety equipment that's being used more of the accidents happen because of falling timber."

Almost a quarter of Brown's students return for further qualifications.

There are courses on dealing with windfall trees and using a chainsaw when suspended in a harness. More than 90 per cent of Brown's students achieve the target qualification.

Today there are four students who are involved with woodland conservation work. We are at the geographical entrance to the Yorkshire Dales, but Brown gets disappointingly few farmers on his courses.

"They will have had a chainsaw around the farm for years," he says, "so they don't appreciate the need. They'll say, 'Oh I've had one for years. I know what to do.'"

The students begin felling small-diameter trees. They are on the third day of Craven College's basic chainsaw course, covering two units of the National Proficiency Test Ccouncil's certificate in competence. Already their body language is smooth and purposeful. The sawdust falls in neat piles. Fallen trees will be trimmed of branches, a process known as snedding, and then the tree is cross-cut into manageable lengths. The chainsaws seem to be humming rather than roaring. It is all about technique, Brown says. His students certainly do not fit the muscular image of lumberjacks.

Daniela Klein is from south Wales. She works outdoors and insists that anyone used to the outdoors should be fit enough to use a chainsaw.

"Coming on the course has massively increased my confidence," she explains.

"A chainsaw is a dangerous instrument but now I respect it, I don't fear it. When you start applying things that you've learned indoors you find that it's not as scary as you first thought."

Trees are landing where they should, or at least almost where they should.

If a chainsaw is jammed, the students know exactly what to do.

Simon James from Manchester uses a felling lever and frees his saw with impressive ease. Then he points the chain saw into the cutting vee and makes what is known as a plunge cut. He pushes the tree and it falls gently down.

Olly Rooker spends some of his week working for Knott Wood Coppicers, a woodland conservation group in Calderdale. Some of the oak logs he cuts will be going back to Calderdale with him.

His group will put oyster mushroom spores in the logs and hopefully, many months later, there will be lots of tasty mushrooms to sell to local restaurants.

"I'm quite familiar with chainsaws," he says.

"But it's good to talk to someone who has such a history of working with them. Now I can judge things better. I feel a lot safer and everyone around me is safer."

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