Forestry Journal article – The right tools for the job

Joe Litter, MD of machinery supplier Oakleaf Forestry – UK and Ireland dealer for Sampo Rosenlew and Kesla among other brands – talks to Forestry Journal about how his company got started and where it’s headed.

OVER the past decade, firewood production and forestry equipment distribution company Oakleaf Forestry has helped shape the evolution of the industry across the UK and Ireland. A driving force behind the automation of firewood production and low-impact forestry, it has earned an impressive reputation and developed an enviable range of products. From its headquarters in Portadown, Co Armagh, Oakleaf imports and distributes machinery from some of the finest manufacturers in Europe to a wide array of customers. Yet it is a company that has grown from quite humble beginnings.

Founder and MD Joe Litter has a background in the agri-engineering industry and, when he began producing firewood, quickly became interested in automation. “I wanted to make things a bit less labour intensive,” he explained. “After I bought my first couple of firewood processors from Palax I realised there were plenty of other guys with the same problems as me. I thought I could reach out to them and help them make their firewood operations a bit more productive.

“So in 2009 I began selling Palax processors from home on a very small scale. As things progressed and demand increased, I started to look at ways to expand and grow the range, looking upstream and downstream. There were guys buying firewood processors who said they were struggling to get firewood. Some of our customers were saying they could buy standing timber, but it wasn’t cost effective to buy it standing, cut it with chainsaws, extract it and so on. They were looking for more low-cost, low-impact ways to do it. Part of the reason they were being offered the smaller blocks of standing timber was because the landowners didn’t necessarily want someone coming in with a huge machine to do it. So naturally that led us towards small-scale harvesting.

“Once we got into that we started looking at add-ons like cranes and trailers, chippers and things like that. Each product would spin off from the last. We considered what we could do to expand the range and sell more products to the same customers as well as reaching new ones.

“When I started the business I was still doing it alongside my day job, but as things got busier and busier I realised I couldn’t continue to ride two horses. I had to make a decision and go in one direction, so I chose to pursue this full time. And I never looked back.”

The business moved into dedicated premises in 2012, relocating to a larger site in 2014. Today it employs 12 full-time members of staff and is regarded as the UK and Ireland’s leading supplier of low-impact forestry harvesting and extraction machinery.

While Oakleaf continues to supply a wide range of durable and reliable Palax machines and accessories for processing firewood, the family of well-known brands it now offers has grown considerably.

Kesla’s range of cranes, trailers, harvester heads and biomass chippers was an early addition and very welcome, given the Finnish manufacturer’s reputation for products that are well made and very well supported. Following on from this, Oakleaf signed a deal with Hypro, manufacturer of tractor processors designed to appeal equally to contractors and self-employed forest owners.

“The Hypro brand has been a fantastic addition for us,” said Joe. “It’s really good, hard-working machinery ideal for country estates and small-scale, low-impact guys who want to go in and manage their woodlands without making any footprint. It’s a great machine that doesn’t require a lot of modification on the tractor. Generally it’s fitted within a few minutes. That’s why it appeals to estates that otherwise would have tractors and machinery sitting around at various times of the year, not being used. In a lot of cases, on estates and National Trust properties where they’ve bought Hypro machines from us, it’s been the case that they’ve had contractors in with big heavy machines in the past and they don’t want to do that again. They want to bring in something lighter and do the job in a much more sensitive way.”

Another name that might fit the bill for such customers is Vimek, which producers mini-forwarders and -harvesters ideally suited for thinning work in small woods and estates where low-impact systems are preferred.

“There’s now good money for thinnings in the biomass game,” said Joe. “Good money and plenty of demand. Between chip and firewood, the small-diameter roundwood that used to be a waste product – an annoyance and nuisance as a cost – can now be worth as much as a sawlog. All our brands are suitable for the biomass market. It just depends on the level you want to go in at, how productive it needs to be, how big the stands are and how much the person wants to spend. It’s important to have the right tool for the job.”

One of the latest (and certainly the most high-profile) names to join the stable in recent years has been Sampo Rosenlew. Oakleaf became a distributor for the Finnish manufacturer’s range of low-impact harvesters and forwarders in 2018, launching the HR46x harvester at that year’s APF.

Small-scale but high capacity with a large fuel tank and excellent visibility, the HR46x is a four-wheeled harvester worth getting seriously excited about, reckons Joe.

“It is more than a very productive thinning harvester,” he said. “At less than half the weight, a third of the running cost and half the price of a John Deere 1170G, it will go in and do the same number of cubic metres in a day. We’ve done extensive testing on this with good, really experienced contractors doing 100 cubic metres a day using an average of 60 to 65 litres of fuel. We’ve tested it at different sites, facing different tree species, different density and on average it’s working out at 0.67 litres per cubic metre. There’s simply no other machine out there – yellow, green or red – that will do that.”

That’s quite a boast and, during the machine’s extensive demo tour, Joe encountered more than a few sceptics.

“Each contractor we invited to try the machine said the same thing: ‘It’ll never do it’,” he said. “Some of the big guys were really sceptical but decided to come and have a look, for the sport of it. And every one of them came away really surprised. They found the machine felt strong, the crane felt strong, there was ample power for the job it was doing and the controls were really intuitive. But the biggest plus for them was how close they felt to the action.

“When sitting in the cab of a big harvester you’re much further away from even the base of the crane, let alone the base of the tree you’re trying to cut. In the HR46 you can drive right up to the base of the tree you want to see. You can see the front wheel at all times so you know where you’re placing the machine and it doesn’t need big tracks or big chains on it to get over brash and stumps because it’s just 9 tonnes.

“It’s similar in dimension to the old John Deere 870, which was a great machine but was discontinued some years ago and since then there’s been a hankering in the market for a small thinning machine. There are several manufacturers that make machines in that size, but we looked around until we found one we were happy with. The big positives for us were that Sampo is made in Finland and uses Kesla cranes, Kesla harvester heads and Agco engines. The fact we already have the relationship, expertise and knowledge built in there made it a no-brainer for us.”

Joe is very particular about the products he will supply, going to great lengths to ensure any new additions fit in with the carefully curated range he has built up over the years. To this end, any potential new offering will be thoroughly tested prior to deciding on whether to stock it or not.

“Thorough doesn’t begin to describe my way of going about things,” he said. “Some of the products are ones we used long before we became dealers for them. In some cases, they would contact us. We do receive enquiries daily from different manufacturers all over the world asking if we’d like to represent them.

“It has to be a good fit for us. We have to look at the product and ask if it complements the product range we have already. Then we have to go and meet the people involved and try the machine out in the native conditions they have. If I think it’s going to work, we’ll bring it back to test it in Ireland or Scotland, because those are the toughest conditions we’ll see anywhere.

“If you put a machine into a Sitka spruce plantation in western Ireland or somewhere up in Moray, it’s going to be pretty well tested, whatever the equipment. We’ll work with customers who we know are going to give honest feedback and we don’t expect a win every time. Sometimes we’ve had to say it’s good, but not good enough.

“We have to be satisfied that it’s a good machine and represents good value for the customer. If it causes them problems, it’s going to cause me problems. We want to make sure they’re getting something that’s going to do the work for them efficiently and affordably. That’s how we select the brands we have. It also means we’ve done the all the R&D and tried the things that didn’t work, so we have the experience to be able to point customers in the right direction and find the right machine they need for the job.”

One machine Joe was looking forward to getting his hands on this year was Sampo’s new HR86, an eight-wheeled harvester weighing close to 20 tonnes. The manufacturer’s first venture into the large-scale market, the HR86 was unveiled at FinnMetko in 2018 and is officially released for sale in September. Joe had hoped to have one of the machines at this year’s APF, but COVID-19 put a halt to that.

The pandemic also slowed down Oakleaf’s efforts to open a new purpose-built facility, but Joe said the company is now back on track and pushing ahead to keep moving forward.

“We’ve still been delivering machines during lockdown, but things we would normally be doing in terms of demonstrations and visiting people, planning events and things, that all had to stop,” he said. “We realised it would be like this for a while and we had to look at what we could do to continue to provide people with machinery and support them.

“One of the things we looked at was our website. It’s our window to the world, so we’ve completely revamped and relaunched it. We’ve changed how the products are presented, making it easier for people to navigate by application rather than brand.

“The business and brands we have are really something to be proud of. It’s a range that I have curated over 10 years and it didn’t happen by accident. That’s why we took the time during lockdown and made the effort to do some fine-tuning on the website to present our products in the best way possible. There are a few other things we’re continuing to look at and talk to people about. We’re always looking to expand and continue to bring more quality products into our range.”

And now that we’re gradually easing our way out of lockdown?

“We’re now back to full capacity and it’s like we never stopped,” said Joe. “There is still big demand. We’re getting plenty of work coming through and it’s great to see. The fact is, we are part of an essential industry, so while this year has been a bit of a blip, there is a very positive outlook ahead.”