Topic: Horse logging in New Zealand plantation forestry by Alison Brown

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Horse logging in New Zealand plantation forestry by Alison Brown was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

Memories of the early days in New Zealand’s logging of exotic plantations come easily to Jim Spiers. He remembers a lifetime’s impressions and experiences with remarkable clarity despite his 89 years, but he does own to a little confusion when it comes to dates and numbers.

In 1941 Jim took up one of the first technical trainee positions with the NZ Forest Service and at the onset of his training was sent to Conical Hill Forest, nine miles east of Tapanui in West Otago. The Tapanui area had five distinct plantations, known as the Pomahaka District.

“By the late 1800s,” Jim notes, “Government had recognised the limited potential of our native forests, which were being overcut throughout the country. To compensate for potential timber shortages and depletion of native forests, tree nurseries were set up to grow a wide variety of exotic seedlings, and plantations of these introduced species were started.”

The Pomahaka district was one of the first in the South to benefit from the new afforestation programme. Production from these newly planted forests started in the 1930s and by the mid-1950s had surpassed that from the indigenous industry.

One of the earliest of these exotic plantations in the South, Conical Hill Forest was planned and planted in the late 19th Century by British-trained foresters whose mission was to trial a range of species in likely new environments. As a result, Jim believes, Conical Hills Forest had possibly one of the widest range of exotics planted in New Zealand. The species, both hardwoods and softwoods, were selected for planting according to the microclimate, aspect and soil type of each location. North American species, principally radiata pine, proved most adaptable and eventually became the basis of New Zealand’s timber industry.

At first Conical Hills forest seemed massive, Jim recalls: “Perhaps because my boss was conducting an inventory and my first job involved walking to, and within, every compartment of trees in the forest to assess tree volume for the forest’s first management plan.”

He does remember the walking: “There was no transport to the job. In those days you walked every mile!”

Jim’s next assignment was working with the horse logging gang in the stands of Conical’s European larch that were being thinned to provide posts and telegraph poles to be treated at the Conical Hills creosote plant. Research on treatment methods here would later be extended to other parts of New Zealand.

“I was the junior, the trainee, with no experience, but I did enjoy being part of the horse logging gang. It was action-packed and much more exciting than planting trees or collecting cones in the freezing South Island winter.

Jim knew about horses. Then in his late teens, he’d been riding his uncle’s draft horse for years. But these horses were different: “Logging horses had to be recruited and trained, like people,” remembers Jim. “Paddy Cavanagh was the horse trainer for the whole district. He also selected and bought the horses.” Half drafts were preferred as they were more nimble and intelligent than the big Clydesdales used in agriculture and cartage.

On each forest there was a blacksmith who shoed and otherwise maintained the horses and a horseman whose job was to feed the horses and get them to and from the job, as well as helping put in the skid tracks over which the horses had to haul the logs.

Jim remembers the routines: “The horseman was always first on the job in the morning. He rode one horse from the home horse paddock and trailed the rest to the job site where they were fed chaff and rested in preparation for a six-hour day, after which they set off home again. Most operations required two or three horses. Trained horses were valuable animals and were treated as such – much better than the men, in fact.

“Once trained, these intelligent half drafts could virtually do the log skidding from felling site to landing by themselves, provided the skid tracks were properly laid out by buffering the standing trees on the track’s downhill side to prevent the logs rolling or jamming or damaging the trees.

“Planning the track layout for a horse job took real skill with constant regard for changes in the terrain. A smooth downhill grade with no steep pitches, flats or little cross gullies was necessary for the horses to pull a full load without the horseman in constant attendance. We had to bridge the small dry creeks on the hillsides to prevent the front end of logs from driving into the opposing bank.”

Each gang included one or two men at the bush end, felling and preparing logs, then hooking them onto the horses’ harness and, with a slap on the rump, sending the horses off on the skid tracks to the landing. Another one or two men at the landing unhooked the horses and sent them back to the bush – with another slap on the rump. In between, those two men used cant hooks to stack the logs and load them onto the trucks. Occasionally they had to go up into the bush to rescue a horse whose load had got stuck.

After six months’ training at Conical, Jim was moved to Dusky Forest, another in the Pomahaka group. Here he was assigned for the winter planting season to a gang working at the higher altitudes where the hillsides were dense with speargrass and often totally under snow. From there he joined the horse thinning gang, this time working on much steeper slopes with heavier Corsican pine logs, the oldest stands of which were planted before 1914. These logs were trucked to a sawmill adjacent to the forest.

Dusky’s steeper slopes required even more critical planning of the tracks.

“We had to plan to avoid the horses having to pull uphill – at the same time making sure the downhill slopes weren’t so steep that the logs slid uncontrollably, overtaking the horse, or catching and possibly damaging the horse’s hocks.

“We did have one smart old horse, ‘Old Dusky’ who could sense by the lessening load that a log was coming – and he’d sit on the butt to slow it down. Return tracks had to be partially contoured too, so that the horses could climb back up without getting too exhausted.”

Jim saw how a small change in the gradient could make a big difference in how well the horse could pull. He learned too how important it was not to make the bend so sharp that the log couldn’t get round without jamming.

“Because horses were used mainly unguided there was always the risk of the load snagging or damaging standing trees. We had to determine where to place logs strategically to deflect the logs and protect those trees.”

This was a thinning operation and, using crosscut saws, the bushmen aimed to fell the trees directionally to skid tracks or potential tracks so that the horses could haul the logs downhill to the skid. The tree fellers had to keep ahead of the horses to ensure there was always a selection of logs.

“The logs were always hauled with the weight at the front. Chains were fitted from the log ends to the horses’ harness to give some lift to the logs and to stop them digging into the ground.”

Later, the system was improved. The butts were lifted off the ground and rested on a sledge or an iron pan to lessen the extra load of the butt and make the logs easier to pull.

“We knew to use gravity, avoid obstacles and ensure weight was pulled on the optimum slope. We knew to locate the log skids no less than 12 feet above the road and near the foot of a hillside so that horses could drag their logs downhill to where the men hand-loaded them off the skid and onto the trucks below.

I guess I learned from all this that, whether you’re dealing with one-horse power or a 300hp machine, the same principles apply: you need to understand the terrain and plan to use it or avoid it if the operation is to go smoothly.”

Jim reckons that this horse logging experience led to his interest in planning and so to his life’s work: “The principles of planning for logging became the cornerstone of my forestry career.”

After working on a variety of logging jobs around the country Jim was given the assignment to head a small team to plan the first five years’ logging operations for the new Tasman Pulp and Paper scheme in the 1950s.

The success of this project saw him posted round the country’s major forests, before becoming officer in charge over the Kaingaroa Forest, reputedly the largest plantation forest in the Southern Hemisphere. Following this, he was invited to start up and lead LIRA, the Logging Industry Research Association. As CEO of LIRA he oversaw ventures that led to safer methods, more efficient operations and higher environmental standards.


About Alison Brown

After a decade of writing features and news stories, truncating press releases, and proofreading for a community newspaper, Alison Brown cut loose.


Now her proofreading, editing and rewriting services earn her bread’n’butter, while her cake’n’cappuccinos come from writing about older folk who modestly consider themselves 'ordinary'.


She notes: “They seldom are ‘just’ ordinary. Many have led colourful lives and are still doing extraordinary things in their golden years. I feel privileged that these ageless characters allow me to rake through their memories. I see them as colourful role models and I am honoured to be the chronicler of their tales.”


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:


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Horse logging in New Zealand plantation forestry by Alison Brown

Year:c.1940 and c.1950
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
Horse logging in New Zealand plantation forestry by Alison Brown by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License