Leave only hoofprints and footprints, is the motto of forester Simon Lenihan. Since the Limerick man left Ireland for Britain in 2001, his ecological logging company that strives to leave no trace has left a big impression on environmentalists, and royalty too.
"It's the environmental side of timber harvesting where we use horses to do all the extraction," says Lenihan of his family business, Celtic Horse Logging. "The norm is mechanisation. However, we take a more sensitive approach."
His ancient craft is proving thoroughly modern. “When it comes to climate change, preserving water quality and protecting the forest, it ticks every box.”
Lenihan, his sons and their Swedish stallions work at sites of special scientific interest, those with access problems or places where previous mechanised harvesting has caused flooding.
Using horses to extract timber is slower, but speed isn’t always the best metric of success. He says, while there are still “the big timber companies, run by accountants who have to balance the books”, there is also a swing in the other direction.
"Forestry is a long-term business and a lot of people are starting to look at the environmental impact. The forest is not just about growing trees but looking at the complete ecosystem."
Machines are a fast but blunt way to extract value from forests, he explains. “Machines work in straight lines and take everything out, whereas we very much take out only the unhealthy trees, a ‘worst first’ approach. The manoeuvrability of the horses means we can do that. And we don’t have to cut a big oak tree out of our way, we can go around it.”
Working with horses can add long-term value to a forest rather than diminishing it for short-term gain, he says. “When you are finished working with the horse, it has actually increased the value because you have taken out all the poor quality stems and left a healthy crop. With machinery, you are taking out a lot of what would be final crop trees.”
There are ecological benefits too. While heavy machines compact the ground, horses scarify it. “Any dormant seeds lying underground, it helps them to get away.”
Ground compaction from the continuous tracking of heavy machines is having devastating effects, says Lenihan. “Where a machine has travelled, it can take up to five years for water to penetrate the ground again,” he says. Machines are getting bigger and it’s not uncommon to see machines coming out of forests with timber in excess of 30 tonnes.
"Up in Scotland, there are big problems at the moment. Half of Dumfries was under water," he notes of flooding days before the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow. Conditions led to evacuations, school closures and travel disruption. He attributes this to decades of mechanised harvesting upstream from the town. "The effects of flooding have been tremendous," he says.
When Lenihan grew up in Co Limerick, farm work was still powered by draft horses. “My father and my grandfather worked horses and I grew up with horses. Horses had worked the farm back several hundred years.”
The tradition continues. “Four of my boys work with me, all six of my boys are involved with forestry. Two of them are professional tree climbers working with the electricity board. But I can call on all six if I need to. My grandson is starting to work horses now. There is an unbroken chain there.”
The family is based in Cumbria's Lake District but has worked in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall too. "I love working with the horses," he says. "I like the satisfaction of walking away from a job knowing we've improved the woodland and that we can be proud of our work."
In 2007, Lenihan won the British Horse Loggers's "Best Woodland in Britain" award for his work clearing trees above Tarn Hows in the Lake District. The woodland was once owned by Peter Rabbit creator, Beatrix Potter.
“It’s a very, very sensitive area. They were slow to do anything to it, but it had got to a stage where trees were starting to fall into the Tarn so they had to do something and they contacted us.”
The judges, who included the prince of Wales’s own forester, were impressed by the sensitivity of Lenihan’s work, despite wet conditions. So began a working relationship with the prince of Wales.
Since then, the prince has engaged the Lenihans to participate in his Seeing is Believing events. These aim to give business leaders an insight into pressing social and environmental issues. “He’s a huge promoter of our work,” says Lenihan of the prince.
“We’ve worked all over the country on his estates. We know him quite well. He comes into the wood to us and we’ll wind him up like no one else. He has to take the banter if he comes into the wood. Away from the cameras, he’s quite a good chap, actually.”
Lenihan has also worked at Balmoral, the Aberdeenshire estate of the queen. He found her “fascinating”. “She used to come into the wood to us. Her knowledge of horses and horse breeding is unreal. She was fascinated with the work we were doing there. She was very down to earth, scarf over the head, like you’d see, and into the wood and just chat away as normal.”
Lenihan is a commercial timber harvester but works mostly for bodies like the Woodland Trust. He says these organisations in particular are waking up to better practices. "Some older-generation foresters were stuck in their ways with mechanisation. We have noticed they are employing younger foresters with a new outlook. The last forester I worked with was 29 and he doesn't want to use machines."
Before emigrating, Lenihan worked for a number of years in Ireland. “You were basically getting the leftovers on the side of a cliff face that mechanisation couldn’t reach. You were just treated as another harvesting system and the ecological benefits never really came into it.”
Brexit hasn’t affected his business but farmers and vegetable growers paying up to £4 above minimum wage and offering accommodation struggle to employ local workers, he says. “It goes back to the beet factories in Peterborough where my father went; they didn’t want to do it then either.”
Succession planning is important, especially with horses. "We are looking for athletes of the forest, if you like. These horses are bred purely for forestry work in Sweden. We have four stallions at the moment and we breed our own foals. We are all right for the next couple of years but we will have to get a mare or two in to breed our own stock again so there is something there for the boys."
His business ethic of over 30 years has been leaving a woodland better than he found it.
“Once you’ve finished a woodland, you can hardly tell you have been there, and I think that’s what it’s all about. You want to do a good job and increase the value of the woodland, but at the same time do absolutely no damage. We have to look at these woodlands long term. They are for everyone.”