Restoring pasture land following a pine forest harvest.
Our small block of pines was harvested over the winter, not ideal timing by any stretch of the imagination. But the combined factors of it only being a few hectares and a long way from anywhere meant our options were limited.
As homesteaders on approximately 6 hectares of land we have a close connection to our land, but the pine trees felt like interlopers. They should never have been part of this landscape, planted on some of the few gentle sloping areas in a steep rugged farming and bush valley. In our wet environment they were becoming hazards, with trees falling or breaking after every rain or wind event. As they were at harvest age, we decided it was better to remove them and repurpose the land for a more beneficial use.
Initially we were told the harvest would happen in late spring, but after many date changes it was not until the following winter that the harvesters arrived. The result of heavy machinery on sodden land in high rainfall country was massive track rutting which filled with water every time it rained. Branches and even whole logs were churned into the mud, often to provide footing for the machines. Numerous breakdowns and another lockdown delayed the job but by early September they were gone leaving us with the cleanup.
Unsure of how much, if anything, we would receive from the harvest and having seen the damage done to the land by the machines, David began the cleanup by hand, starting by clearing a small spring fed stream which ran across the paddock. The slash had choked the flow and the whole centre of the paddock was a sodden mess. Getting the stream flowing again allowed much of the area to dry out enough to work in it. He learnt fast that it was best to wear work gloves after getting several large splinters up under his finger nails on the first day of clearing. David then moved on to the area where the old man pines had been dropped the slash was deep on the ground, masses of pinecones spread through the debris made walking even more hazardous. We were offered the use of a tractor but it was still too wet to get the tractor in the paddock. The job was an exhausting and relentless one. Branch after branch had to be released from the tangled mass or pulled from the still wet ground. Where the harvester had sat and stripped piles of logs, the pine needles and small debris formed thick mats up to a metre deep, often with large branches or short logs buried in it. In these thick areas David built the fire stacks, better to burn it out then try to pull it apart. In areas which had become boggy, logs were squashed into the earth to create ’platforms’ so the heavy machinery wouldn’t end up sinking belly deep in the mud. Seeing all this made the plan of growing pasture in the paddock seem a very distant dream.
We had wanted to biochar as much wood as possible but the reality was to remove the large firewood and just burn anything else. Leaving the slash to break down was not an option as we are returning most of the land to pasture as it was pre pines. If you were planning on replanting in tree species this level of slash removal would not be necessary as they can be planted amongst the slash, but for our purposes it was to be cleared back to the soil. Draining the sitting water from the massive ruts and cleaning the small spring fed steam helped to get the water off the land and dry up many areas. But as the sun came out the earth dried into a solid almost concrete like mass with branches and logs sticking out. Piles of slash dotted one end of the paddock and days were spent burning the pyres and pulling more surrounding slash on top. Green piles were slow and difficult to burn, with whole days spent maintaining them. Dry piles burnt hot and fast but often tried to escape across the bark, needle and twig littered ground. Huge piles of firewood grew in the paddock, short logs and stumps cut into rings; large branches cut to more manageable lengths. It took about a week to mostly clear about ¼ of an acre and have it ready to reseed with pasture. As each area was cleared seed was spread, the aim being to establish cover as fast as possible. Partially to avoid any soil loss and further damage in our high rainfall area and also because any grass which was in these paddocks was gone and our grazing was now severely limited.
Hand clearing several hectares of pine slash is a depressing job. A whole day of slogging, exhausting labour and you look up to still see a vast expanse of mess. It gives you a true appreciation of the toil of the first settlers in this landscape, as they cleared the land for their homes and farms. But there are times of enjoyment, a cuppa in the midst of it admiring the stunning rugged views now evident all around us, talking to a small robin as it flits around finding bugs in the freshly turned pine needle litter. Listening to the river below and the quiet roar of waterfalls cascading into the ravine. The valley feels less closed in now, we can see down it to the neighbours hut perched on their hilltop 2km away and back up to the DOC land past the neighbouring bee farm.
We have left the stumps in the ground as the work involved to remove them is huge. As we get the more pressing jobs sorted, like the rest of the slash cleared and pasture and fences in place, we will look a dealing with the stumps. We have a number of options and will trial a few to see what works best for us within our environment. Those in the way of any farm tracks will be dug out but the majority will be left to rot with various methods use to accelerate the process.
With about half the big paddock cleared and pasture sown, David moved to a smaller paddock for a bit of variety and a change of view. It was here that another forestry crew approached him about access across our land to avoid using a small bridge on our narrow gravel road. We had been wary about having more heavy machinery over our land as we had witnessed the impact they can have. But the offer to clean up our final paddock and create access down the steep banks to our creek was a light at the end of the tunnel after months of hard labour. They brought in two diggers which had been creating tracks through the large forestry block opposite us. Two days later the paddock was raked with 3 mountainous piles of slash. But the majority of the paddock was now able to be sown and the next rainy day we spread a mixed pasture seed over the freshly cleared land. The creek was cleared of debris from our harvest and the steep banks replanted with natives. An old hand dug culvert cave was uncovered, hidden beneath the punga and mahoe. This is an amazing piece of history and more evidence of the hard work of the early settlers on this land. It is a cave dug through rock to divert the flow of the stream, about 20ms long. They would then full in the small ravine to push the water through the culvert and remove the need to build a bridge, how long this worked for I wouldn’t know as we now have a small bridge spanning the stream and the culvert is now home to hundreds of giant weta.
We sowed the first grass seed in late September, the cold temperatures meant a long wait to for the seed to sprout but by late December the area was covered in better pasture than before the pine harvest. Where the piles were burnt the grass is lush and dark green, the potash having boosted its growth. In other areas the endemic lotus is in dominance, but its use as a rapid ground cover in the poorer condition areas is much appreciated. The weeds are there too, inkweed, betony, foxglove, thistles, blackberry and the ferns which thrived under the pines, but David walks the land with the weed whacker taking the tops off. With no fences in place the feral goats have been grazing the land too, which is helping keep the blackberry in check. Almost the entire roadside fence line had to be removed as the skid sites had to move due to the wet ground. We had seen the tangled mess of fence left if the forestry were to remove a fence so David had gone through in advance and rolled back the wire and battens. The posts and gate were removed too and stacked out of the way, saving and reusing as much as possible will save us hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the long run.
The two main skid sites were left a mess of churned topsoil, clay, volcanic ash and pine debris. The massive metre deep ruts were full of manky water and in many places the old fence line was nonexistent. The use of a neighbours tractor for a day helped level out some areas but with bald tires it was a risky business in the slippery areas, so David abandoned that and much of the leveling was carried out with a shovel. I’m pretty sure the farmer who grazed the bee farm up the road must have thought we were crazy by now… but when it won’t stop raining and drizzling long enough to dry out, things just need to get done. We had some old crappy hay so tried spreading this over the grass seed on one of the skid sites once it was leveled and just sowed the other. The ground with the loose hay cover grew much better grass which could be attributed to the retaining of moisture within the mulch and the extra seed contained in the hay. But another area where we had been feeding out hay and silage prior to the harvest was also producing a better coverage and quality of pasture.
We believe that the use of the hay helps to change the ‘signals’ of the soil to the production of pasture species. Seeds will sprout when the conditions are right and pasture species prefer a 50/50 Bacteria/Fungi ratio, whereas trees (in our case the pines) do well in a higher fungal soil. By adding in organic matter of which you are wanting to grow our theory is you adapt the soil to your needs. In areas where these methods weren’t used, we had a more sporadic pasture and a higher occurrence of weed species, especially the woody weeds as they would naturally occur in the higher fungal areas left by tree removal. Another interesting study that we came across was that pines do not actually create an acidic soil, though it is their preferred growing condition. The acidity in the landscape is actually the result of damp shady conditions which the close planting of a plantation in a wet environment creates. This is the same effect created by our native forests. So, the theory may be extrapolated that by removing the conditions which create acidity and by supporting the earth natural processes, nature will start the process to balance the PH to suit the existing plant species, in our case pasture…
As I write this (December 2021) David has been working on the restoring the fence line on the large paddock. It has been three months since we sowed some of this area and its now grazable. While the paddock still requires a lot of work to finish the cleanup there is now much more and better-quality pasture than pre harvest. We are finally reaching a stage in this whole process where the weight of it is lifting. What have we learnt from clearing by hand? Be prepared for it to take many years if wishing to return the land completely to pasture, not because it takes that long to establish pasture but because of the shear amount of exhausting work involved. Once an area is clear pasture can be established in as little as three months. We recommend that clearing by hand is only undertaken if you have a small amount to clear (under a hectare) or a team of willing workers.
The pros and cons
Smaller piles to burn
Minimal soil disturbance
Builds lots of muscle, stamina and endurance.
Very hard work
Slow and labour intensive
Wears through lots of work gloves
Very hard on your body, need to pace yourself.
Surface is left in a reasonable tilth to sow into.
Can have landscaping done at the same time, e.g. shaping for water run off etc.
Scary huge piles of slash
Churns soil in wet areas
Compaction – affects deeper layers
Cost – can cost $1000 plus per day per machine, plus transportation costs for getting machines to and from the site.
July 2022 update
After a long hot dry summer and autumn David has been back in the large paddock clearing the slash. It has been too dry to burn anything and after a brushfire, which was possibly caused by wind blowing powerlines into an old man pine, we have been wary of fires in our remote area. But we are back into open fire season now, the dry being broken by nearly two weeks of rainy weather.
Progress has been much faster, even with David having to dig logs from the wet ground. The green needles are long gone and with them a lot of the weight he had to contend with when the slash was fresh. The soil has changed too, soon after the harvest it was a puggy sticky churned mess. But now it crumbles and the needles and smaller debris have broken down giving the soil a nice dark colour in many places. While there is still a lack of worm life evident, there is a large amount of fungi already working to break down the logs and stumps. This should mean there is a high fungal load in the soil and with the animals grazing the bacteria should be building too. Hopefully this will help balance the soil into a more suitable environment for growing pasture. That said the areas which are already established in pasture coped reasonably well with our prolonged dry summer. In the large paddock there is a high water table due to the springs which flow from the hill across the road, this has certainly helped maintain the pasture in this paddock. The paddock which the machines cleared has not fared so well, while it has a cover of chicory and plantain, the young grass did not survive the assault of the neighbours cattle and the lack of rain. This paddock is much drier as most of the hill runoff is diverted through a small gully along side the road. We will need to use pasture species which can handle a drier environment here. We also think that while the machinery left the surface in a decent tilth that the compaction layer is quite shallow and possibly the scraping action of the machines has actually worsened the compaction. The plants which have grown there this summer are all deep-rooted, mining or pioneer plants, chicory, plantain, inkweed, thistles, nightshade and seedling pines. Weed management has been an ongoing issue especially in this paddock. We are hoping as we develop the pastures and change the soil fungi/bacteria ratios that these weed species will disappear.
The area where we had fed out hay on last winter/spring are coping well under the grazing pressure. So, we are utilising the locally grown hay, which we feed out to the stock daily, on the newly cleared land. This should hopefully reseed the land with a mixture of locally adapted pasture plants. The animal’s ‘hoof’ the seed into the ground, giving it a better chance of actually germinating and developing a good root hold. The residue hay will help change the land balance towards pasture growth as it decomposes. If you were trying to regenerate pasture without animals, spreading old hay, silage or haylage should hopefully spread the mixed seed and compost matter to enable faster regrowth.