Young Limpopo sawmiller on the move

The LT70 Remote ploughing through a 6 m pine log.

Pieter van der Linde, a young entrepreneur from Polokwane in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, bought his first sawmill at age 18 with the savings his parents had earmarked for him to further his studies. Instead he decided to use the money to start his own business.

“I love the outdoors and timber, which made the decision simple,” Pieter says. He ploughed the cash into his first Wood-Mizer LT15, and Duva Timbers was born.

Duva’s initial focus was sawn pallet components that went to pallet manufacturers, but Pieter soon spotted an opportunity to expand his product line to supply structural timber to the lucrative local construction and roofing market. However this required more equipment - and staff.

A straightforward through-and-through cutting pattern with flitches with wane exiting both LT70s and transferred to the EG800 with minimal manual inputs.
Final-size product exiting the EG800 Edger/Multirip.

A Wood-Mizer EG300 Board Edger and a second Wood-Mizer LT15 came first. Then a Wood-Mizer LT70 Remote that boosted output and improved recovery, followed by a second LT70 Remote in 2019.

A Wood-Mizer EG800 Edger/Multirip came next in 2020 to streamline the production process further.

The remote configuration of the LT70 drew Pieter’s attention. The remote operator station makes it easy to control all the functions needed to process the 6 to 6.6 m logs into boards with wane in an efficient, fast and automated way. Minimal labour is needed to move the board to the EG800 edger where final sizes are cut.

The EG800 is a robust manual edging and multirip solution for small and medium-sized sawmills. When configured as a multirip the single arbor EG800 can process flitches up to 900 mm wide and 110 mm high. The sawmilling process allows for a simple and slick through-and-through cutting pattern that sees flitches with wane exiting both LT70s, and the EG800 processing them into accurately sawn boards.

The uptick in production opened markets for Duva Timbers across Limpopo. Duva sells air-dried structural timber in all popular sizes to hardware stores across the province and to walk-in customers and custom orders delivered to clients by Duva’s own trucks.

Duva Timbers product ready for market.
Duva’s own truck fleet hauls roundlogs to the sawmill and finished product to customers.

An improved recovery process has also seen Duva moving back into the pallet component market.

The next step in creating a truly sustainable business was to purchase a timber farm situated on the slopes of the Wolkberg outside timber-rich Tzaneen.

The timing couldn’t have been better. With ongoing timber shortages being experienced in the region, Pieter is able to supplement his log shortfalls at the sawmill from his own farm. This has enabled Duva Timbers to increase market share, and to have more confidence in the future of the business..

Pieter credits his staff for much of his success.

“Their support is my strength,” he says.

Duva Timbers’ own farm provides crucial raw material security.
Pieter van der Linde, CEO of Duva Timbers.


New generation contractor makes his mark

Sabelo Sithole of New Age Forest Solutions.

At just 30-years-old, Sabelo Sithole is at the forefront of a new generation of forestry contractors servicing Mondi South Africa. Sabelo is the Managing Director of New Age Forest Solutions, a new harvesting business launched in 2021, which has secured a five-year harvesting contract for the Zululand area.

Sabelo’s journey in forestry has been deeply connected to Mondi from the start. During high school, he attended Protec, an extra-curricular maths and science programme that gives academic support to under-resourced rural schools. This programme has long been supported by Mondi, and Sabelo rose to the fore as one of his school’s top academic achievers. He was identified as a candidate for the Mondi Bursary Programme and made a successful application in 2012.

“To be honest I didn’t know anything about forestry,” admits Sabelo with a shy smile as he walks through a shady plantation in Zululand. Sabelo stops at the harvesting operation to check in on one of his Hitachi machines, which is cutting through a Eucalyptus compartment with great speed and precision. Here he continues his story…

“The first thing you do after receiving the bursary is go to a Mondi operation for work experience. This lasts a whole year and it’s really tough!” he remembers. “You do everything from general labour to planting, establishment, tending and harvesting … that’s where I started to know about forestry, to experience every different kind of work.”

From there, Sabelo went to study forestry at Nelson Mandela University’s George campus, where he completed a three-year National Diploma in Forestry. After graduating, he joined SiyaQhubeka Forests, and worked as both a harvesting and silviculture forester. It was harvesting that stole his heart.

“I decided to leave SQF and join a harvesting contractor so that I could specialise,” explains Sabelo. “The machines really fascinated me. I spent four and a half years at the harvesting contractor. Then I started my own business.”

Excavator equipped with a Ponsse head busy harvesting for Mondi in Zululand.

Sabelo was always looking for opportunities to grow, and he kept an eye on the regular contracting opportunities being advertised by Mondi and SQF. He began working on a business plan and registered his company New Age Forest Solutions in 2021.

“Working with a contractor helped me understand the business side of forestry. I started my business as the only employee – I was doing everything myself. When I won the Mondi harvesting contract last year, I had to hit the ground running!”

Sabelo takes a look at a stack of freshly cut timber. He is happy with the neatly stripped and stacked logs. The soft-spoken young forester is brand new to business, but he has 10 years of operational experience, which puts him in a good position to guide the company.

“From the moment I made the successful bid on the contract, Mondi Zimele has assisted me every step of the way,” he goes on. “They believed in me and my vision for the business.”

Mondi Zimele, which is Mondi’s enterprise development unit, provided 60% of the start-up funding in the form of a soft loan and helped Sabelo consolidate his business plan so he could apply for further funding.

It took a few months to put a team together and acquire the assets needed to start the work.

In order to meet the contract of 140 000 tonnes per annum, Sabelo needed two harvesters, a forwarder and a loader. He went for Hitachi excavators fitted with Ponsse H7 harvesting heads, a forwarder with a Matriarch grapple and a Bell loader. Once his forestry equipment was in place and his team was mobilized, he commenced work in May last year. It was a dream come true.

The Bell loader, workhorse of the harvesting operation.

The Mondi perspective
Cindy Mji is the Mondi Zimele Business Development Manager responsible for the Zululand area. She has been engaging with Sabelo from the time he won the contract.

“Supporting Mondi contractors has many benefits,” she explains as she sits on the back of a bakkie with Sabelo, while the harvester hums in the distance. “Developing new contractors is important for job creation and economic development, which helps to build healthy communities in the forestry footprint. But it is also crucial that we empower up-and-coming contractors to ensure the sustainability of the supply chain for Mondi,” she explains.

“This is part of Mondi’s broader strategy to develop new contractors in the forestry space. The strategy prioritizes transformation and succession planning. Being a young black forester, Sabelo was the perfect candidate, and he has a bright future in the business,” she concludes.

Sabelo adds that the business development support encourages continuous improvement, growth and development. Cindy has helped him set out short, medium and long term goals that go beyond the scope of the Mondi contract.

Excavator equipped with a Ponsse head busy harvesting for Mondi in Zululand.

“MZ helps you to be a visionary,” Sabelo says with a smile.

“Although we are just beginning our journey, I am very excited and proud of our achievements. We have 20 employees, and four machines running 24/7. That’s 20 families that are benefitting from this work. We are looking to add more employees and grow the business even further.”

Story and photos by Samora Chapman

Bell Equipment appoints Ashley Bell as new CEO

Bell Equipment’s new CEO, Ashley Bell.

Bell Equipment has appointed Ashley Jon Bell (41), grandson of the company's founder Irvine Bell, as the new Group Chief Executive Officer effective from 1 January 2024.

This follows the resignation in July of the outgoing Group CEO, Leon Goosen, who leaves the company after 16 years of service, five and a half spent as Group CEO.

Ashley is well acquainted with the company having served as a non-executive director on the Board since 2015 and has provided valuable input as a member of the Board’s Risk and Sustainability and Social, Ethics, and Transformation committees.

A qualified commercial helicopter pilot, Ashley holds a degree in business management and has previously worked for Bell Equipment after graduating in 2007 assisting with product marketing management of the Bell Articulated Dump Truck and Backhoe Loader ranges. Since then, he has jointly established and managed several successful businesses in various industries.

He co-founded Matriarch Equipment with his brother, Justin Bell in 2009. The company focused on developing innovative equipment - including the Matriarch Fastfell and Skogger - for a wide spectrum of industries and enjoyed notable success in agriculture and forestry due to its ‘customer-centric’ approach and quick turnaround of niche solutions. Bell acquired Matriarch in 2019 as part of its strategy to revitalise its presence in the agriculture and forestry industries and Matriarch products now fall under the Bell brand.

Ashley Bell introduces the Matriarch Skogger to foresters at a Focus on Forestry field day in 2017. It was developed under the Matriarch banner by Ashley and his brother Justin Bell, and is now manufactured and distributed by Bell Equipment.

Gary Bell, non-executive chairman of Bell Equipment, congratulated Ashley on his appointment. “Ashley joins a sizeable team representing the third generation of the Bell family actively engaged in the business and it’s heartening to see the next generation stepping up to play an integral role in the future of the company. Having worked closely with Ashley for several years he has all the personality traits and credentials we need, is well aligned with the Board’s strategy, and is a good fit to lead our experienced management team. I have every confidence that he will build on our family legacy with dedication and a passion for the business. On behalf of the rest of the Board, we congratulate Ashley on his appointment and look forward to working with him in his new role and contributing significantly to our continued success and growth."

Ashley Bell said: “I am fortunate to have grown up in an environment where Bell Equipment has been a central theme, and I am both honoured and excited to step up as Group CEO. I look forward to working with the entire Bell team, supported by our customers and suppliers, to ensure we execute our group strategy and make a positive impact for all stakeholders. I would like to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to the Board for the trust and confidence they have shown in me taking on this role.”

More support for emerging contractors required

Silviculture contractors at work …. It’s a challenging environment for running a business!

Emerging forestry contractors in South Africa are in urgent need of support in order for them to make a go of their businesses. This theme became the centre of lively discussion at the SA Forestry Contractors’ Association AGM that was held at the Hilton Hotel in the KZN midlands recently.

Most of the members who attended the AGM were of the opinion that forestry contracting is an extremely tough business that requires a seasoned and experienced hand at the tiller in order to be successful. With the increasing mechanisation of forestry operations, contractors are more often than not required to borrow heavily from financial institutions in order to purchase the equipment required to fulfil their contractual obligations. This leaves them with little room for trial and error, and in the forestry environment there are so many variables at play that errors are going to be made.

Compounding the challenges that contractors face, many of the foresters appointed to ‘manage’ the contractors are themselves short on experience, and as a consequence they are unable to contribute to the solving of problems and are prone to make unreasonable demands on contractors at times.

By way of example – a contractor provides the costing for a weeding operation, based on a low level of weed infestation in a compartment. But the managing forester only gives the contractor the green light to commence the weeding operation several weeks or months later by which time the weeds are above waist high, and the original costing model is no longer adequate.

“Contractors are being set up to fail,” was a frequently heard refrain during the discussions at the AGM.

SAFCA’s new incoming CEO, Roger Johnston, himself an experienced forestry contractor, urged experienced contractors to reach out and provide emerging contractors with help, advice and support at every opportunity.

Contractor mentorship programme

A presentation at the AGM by Brad Shuttleworth of Forestry Solutions which focused on a contractor mentorship and support programme offered by his company, sparked the discussions that ensued.

Brad Shuttleworth of Forestry Solutions … offering a comprehensive contractor mentorship support programme.

“As part of the South African forestry companies’ Enterprise and Supplier Development programmes, their objective is to enhance supplier and beneficiary productivity and efficiencies in their operations. In many instances the companies identify and appoint contractors based on their own selection criteria,” said Brad.

“Once appointed the forestry contractors are expected to hit the ground running and frequently do not receive the support from the company foresters as, firstly, they are seen as independent contractors, or the company foresters do not have the time or in many instances the knowledge and expertise to mentor and assist their contractors in managing or developing their businesses.”

Brad said that experienced forestry consultants and contractors need to be mobilised as technical service providers to conduct business assessments and to provide management and operational mentorship to the identified forestry contractors.

Forestry Solutions offers a comprehensive and practical three-phase approach that covers a broad range of issues including general and legal compliance, safety, costing, risk assessments and operational planning, financial management, supervisor training, operational best practices, market linkages and expansion, continuous improvement and sustainability.

There followed some discussion among SAFCA members as to the best way to approach these challenges, and it was concluded that the association should engage with Forestry South Africa in an effort to get the forestry growers behind a contractor mentorship and support initiative.

Digitalisation of forestry operations

Muedanyi Ramantswana of Nelson Mandela University provided an overview of the forestry programmes offered at the university’s George campus. He also gave a presentation on the ‘digitilisation’ taking place in the forestry space, and demonstrated a software programme currently under development, called ForestTabs, that provides a digital platform for managing, monitoring and measuring silviculture operations.

Muedanyi Ramantswana is a Senior Lecturer and Forestry Programme Co-ordinator at Nelson Mandela University.

Finally, a presentation by Rikus Smith of Forestry & General Insurance Brokers provided useful insights into the nuts and bolts of ‘public liability’ and ‘spread of fire’ insurance required by forestry contractors.

Bell, AFGRI, Husqvarna equipment round-up

The Dipperfox stump crusher in action.

A mid-range spare parts option from Bell with 1 000 hour warranty; a 61 stump/hour Dipperfox stump crusher from AFGRI Equipment; and specialised, super protective new chainsaw trousers from Husqvarna, proudly made in SA …

Bell introduces mid-range BETA Parts
Bell Equipment has launched Bell Equipment Trusted Alternative (BETA) Parts to give its customers a convenient and competitive alternative, endorsed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), for their older Bell machines or when faced with budget constraints.

Bell Equipment Director of Aftermarket and Logistics, Aldo Mayer, explains: “BETA Parts has been designed to bridge the gap between new Bell Parts, being our premium quality parts designed to OEM specifications and used in production, and Bell ReMan, which are major components that have been remanufactured to meet OEM specification. New Bell Parts and Bell ReMan carry a one-year/unlimited hours warranty while BETA Parts has a six-month/1000-hour warranty.”

At the other end of the scale, Bell Used Parts are also available but do not carry a warranty.

BETA Parts was piloted with starter motors and alternators that were offered to a sample group of customers. They responded positively to the opportunity to be able to buy cheaper parts from Bell, and BETA Parts has now been officially launched and will be expanded to other parts and rolled out throughout South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, followed by the rest of the global dealer network.

“It’s all about giving our customers choices and being able to fully support their needs throughout their Bell ownership experience,” says Aldo.

“BETA Parts is the next best alternative to our premium new Bell Parts, our ‘alpha’ or leading parts brand, and we’re confident that our customers will benefit from being able to buy more cost-effective parts from Bell, especially since they are approved by Bell and carry less risk than other cheaper parts due to their Bell warranty cover.

“Choosing BETA Parts simplifies the purchasing process, offering a one-stop-shop experience that eliminates the need for customers to search and compare prices from multiple suppliers in their quest for savings."

Dipperfox stump crusher logs 61 stumps/hour
The AFGRI focus this month is on the Dipperfox SC600 stump crusher mounted on a Wacker Neuson RT75 excavator. It’s an efficient combination that foresters can use to eliminate stumps in a compartment that needs to be cleared and re-planted. Removing old stumps makes it easier for subsequent mechanised operations to function efficiently, and also improves compartment access for fire-fighting units in case of a wildfire.

The original equipment manufacturers rate the Dipperfox at 60 stumps per hour. The AFGRI team that recently tested the Dipperfox mounted on the Wacker Neuson RT75 in a Eucalyptus compartment, achieved 61 stumps in an hour.

This equipment is supplied and supported by AFGRI Equipment, which has recently established a new branch in Tzaneen servicing the forestry industry. Premium forestry equipment supplied and supported by AFGRI includes John Deere, Waratah heads and ProMac three-wheel loaders.

Wacker Neuson ET75 specs.
• 4 cylinder Yanmar diesel engine developing 35.9 kW
• Variable displacement hydraulic pump delivering 144 litre per minute
• Operating weight 6 800 – 7 300 kg (depending on final configuration)
Dipperfox SC600 stump crusher specs.
• Cutting diameter 600mm
• Hydraulic flow requirements 65 – 150 litres per minute
• Weight 285 kg
Carrier requirements:-
• Excavator size: 6 – 14 tons; Excavator engine power: 35 – 83 kW
• Backhoe loader size: 6 – 8.5 tons; Backhoe loader engine power: 50 – 80 kW
• Skid steer loader size: 2 – 6 tons; Skid steer loader engine power: 40 – 80 kW
• Compact tracked loader size: 2 – 6 tons; Compact tracked loader engine power: 40 – 80 kW

Husqvarna opts for SA-made Chainsaw Trousers for maximum protection
The Husqvarna South Africa team has introduced specialised safety pants for chainsaw operators that provide all round protection from chainsaw-related hazards. The trousers, which are made in South Africa to international standards, are also water resistant, flame retardant and acid repellent.

Studies reveal that just under half of all chainsaw-related injuries target the legs. This is why Husqvarna SA has introduced the chainsaw trousers as an essential addition to their arsenal of protective gear.
Pieter Smuts, Husqvarna South Africa's Managing Director says that the chainsaw pants were a ‘passion project’ for him, and they purposely chose to use local manufacturers. “South Africans are talented, resourceful, innovative and our new chainsaw pants epitomise our faith in the synergy between innovation and local ingenuity," he said.

The Husqvarna chainsaw pants are designed to achieve a perfect balance between providing protection and comfort. Certified Class 1 – 20M/S, they face chainsaw speeds of up to 20 meters per second. Meeting the ISO 11393-2 international standard, Husqvarna Chainsaw Pants assures an unmatched safeguard, catering to both homeowners and professionals in forestry, arboriculture, farming, and the realms of green space management. Tailored sizing, ranging from waist size 77 to 132, weaves a tapestry of custom fit, fusing flexibility and comfort into a seamless union.

Husqvarna Chainsaw Pants are available through certified Husqvarna dealers or can be purchased directly from the official Husqvarna eCommerce site.

Safe DIY tree felling


Winter and early spring are the perfect time for felling trees because all those bare branches make it easier to see what you're doing. But whether you are a seasoned professional or a homeowner, tree felling is a dangerous business that requires proper planning and the right working techniques to make sure it is done safely and effectively.

Charles Henderson, Husqvarna's Tree Professional Business Development Manager, knows a thing or two about this. “Winter is the tree-felling sweet spot. The lack of leaves makes it a breeze for arborists and loggers to assess a tree's health, spot any potential issues and pick the right ones to cut down,” he says. “Homeowners should also take advantage of this opportune time if they need to cut down any trees in their gardens.”

Remember though that the most important part of tree felling is safety first! Whether you're a pro or a first-time tree-feller, Henderson recommends following these six steps to complete the task with confidence.

  1. Start with a Plan
    Before commencing any tree-felling project, it's crucial to plan. Take a close look at the tree's surroundings and identify any potential obstacles that may interfere with the felling process. Consider factors such as the tree's size, shape and proximity to structures or power lines. This assessment will guide you in selecting the right tools and safety equipment needed for the job. For bigger trees, a chainsaw will always be the most efficient and effective tool and it makes post-felling work a lot easier too.
  2. Identify the Felling Direction
    Carefully study the tree and assess the direction in which it naturally leans. Additionally, take note of the wind direction, as this should align with the tree's natural lean to ensure a controlled fall. Clear the area around the tree and in the direction of the intended fall to create a safe working zone.
  3. Trim the Trunk
    Before making the felling cut, it's essential to prune the tree's trunk by removing any branches and twigs up to shoulder height. This will ensure that you have a clean and unobstructed cutting path to enhance the safety and precision of the tree's fall.
  4. Determine the Cutting Technique
    If you are using a chainsaw, the appropriate cutting technique depends on various factors, including the tree's size, slope and the size of your chainsaw bar. There are different cutting methods such as the notch and back cut technique or the plunge cut technique, each suited for specific scenarios. If you're unsure about the best approach, don’t chance it. Get advice from a professional.
  5. Inspect for Rot or Disease
    Inspect the tree's timber and lower part of the trunk for any signs of rot or disease. A weakened or decaying tree can behave unpredictably during felling, posing significant risks. If you detect any structural issues, reconsider felling the tree and consult an arborist for expert advice.
  6. Establish an Escape Route
    Before starting the final cut, make sure you have a clear and safe path of retreat. This path should be at a 45-degree angle away from the direction of the tree's fall. Having a designated escape route is crucial for maintaining your safety during the felling process.
    Henderson reiterates prioritising safety above everything else: “Even with careful planning and preparation, tree removal can be hazardous. If you feel uncertain or uncomfortable with the process, hire a professional with the necessary expertise and equipment.”
    He also emphasizes the need to plant one or two new trees for every tree felled. “This practice is essential for maintaining a balanced and thriving ecosystem. By planting new trees, we can offset the environmental impact of tree removal and ensure a sustainable future, keeping the cycle of tree planting and cutting in harmony.”

For more info visit https://www.husqvarna.com/za/

Measuring the forest sector’s sustainability progress

Sappi plantations in KwaZulu-Natal supply the Saiccor mill in Umkomaas with raw fibre used to produce dissolving pulp for the export market.

The International Council of Forest & Paper Association’s (ICFPA) latest Sustainability Progress Report demonstrates progress in seven key areas of sustainability and highlights the role the forest sector can play in helping to meet global climate goals.

“Forestry workers and consumers of forest products are in the unique position to drive our move to a world with less dependence on fossil energy and fossil-based materials,” noted Jori Ringman, ICFPA President and Director General of Cepi (the Confederation of European Pulp and Paper Industry). “They are doing this through sustainable forest management, advancing the forest bioeconomy, and recovering more and more paper and paper-based products and packaging for recycling.

“I am proud of the work and leadership ICFPA has built over nearly 20 years. This report demonstrates the global impact of associations working together on a common set of commitments," he said.
The ICFPA Sustainability Progress Report tracks progress achieved in 2020-2021. The overall trend is positive – reflecting that the industry continues to improve in key sustainability areas from baseline years.

Key progress on ICFPA’s sustainability performance indicators include:
• 50% of procured wood fibre came from third-party certified sustainably managed forests, a 38-percentage point increase from the 2000 baseline year.
• Greenhouse gas emission intensity decreased 23.5% from the 2004/2005 baseline year.
• The energy share of biomass and other renewable energy increased to 63.7%, a nearly 11 percentage point increase since 2004/2005.
• Sulphur dioxide emission intensity from on-site combustion sources decreased 74% from the 2004/2005 baseline year.
• Water use intensity decreased 9.5% from the baseline year.
• Investment in health and safety interventions yielded a 30% reduction in the global recordable incident rate from the 2006/2007 baseline with the number of recordable incidents falling to 2.81 per 100 employees annually.
• In 2021, 59.9% of paper and paperboard consumed globally was reprocessed by mills to make new products, marking a 13.4 percentage point increase in the global recycling rate since the year 2000.

The 2023 ICFPA Sustainability Progress Report also includes info about the 2023 international finalists for the ICFPA Blue Sky Young Researchers & Innovation Award. The theme was ‘Building a Lower Carbon Economy with Climate Positive Forestry and Forest Products’.

Sappi’s Ngodwana mill in Mpumalanga.

Representing South Africa among the top three finalists was Leane Naude, a Master of Science (Chemical Engineering) student at North West University, who presented a more cost-effective purification method for lignosulphonate, an abundant and versatile alternative to fossil-based fuels.
ICFPA serves as a forum of global dialogue, coordination and co-operation. Currently, the ICFPA represents 16 pulp, paper, wood and fibre-based associations from 27 countries, including many of the top pulp, paper and wood producers around the world.

South Africa, through the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa, is a longstanding member of the ICFPA and contributes data and case studies to the Sustainability Progress Report.

Download the 2023 ICFPA Sustainability Progress Report.



Climate change & forestry sustainability on research radar

Sappi Research Chair launched at Wits (left to right) Dr Tracy Wessels (Sappi Ltd), Prof Mary Scholes (Wits) and Giovanni Sale (Sappi Forests).

Professor Mary Scholes is heading up a research initiative on climate change and plantation sustainability at Wits University, supported by Sappi …

Sappi Southern Africa and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) have established a Sappi Chair in Climate Change and Plantation Sustainability. This initiative aligns with Sappi’s drive to generate technical and operational solutions which mitigate against climate change risks and to enhance reporting on carbon emissions, climate change and sustainability.

Professor Mary Scholes, an internationally recognised authority on tree physiology and climate change and who is affiliated with the research platform in the Wits School of Animal, Plants and Environmental Sciences, will act as the Research Chair.

The work by Wits will help to enhance Sappi’s planning process and overall competitiveness.

“Because forestry is a long-term crop, the industry needs to know well in advance where to direct their resources and investment and needs the most accurate climate models to rely on,” says Prof Scholes.

She will identify critical research needs and develop research outputs related to climate change, which is one of the University’s eight research priorities. She will also lead the development of capacity to manipulate and interpret climate modelling data.

Speaking at the launch, Tracy Wessels, Sappi Group Head of Sustainability and Investor Relations, commented: “The creation of this Chair demonstrates Sappi’s commitment to building a thriving world through strong partnerships, supporting innovation and investing in future research capabilities.

“Like all other agricultural crops, the trees in the 399,996 hectares of land we own and lease are negatively impacted by climate change. While we practise climate-smart forestry and while our research teams have been hard at work developing drought resistant genotypes, the temperatures over the South African interior are projected to rise at about 1.5 to 2 times the global rate of temperature increase.

“In addition, there is increasing global pressure to account accurately for greenhouse gas emissions from forests, land and agriculture. Against this backdrop and in line with our commitment to UN SDG13: Climate Action, the need to develop climate solutions has intensified, which is why our sponsorship of the Sappi Chair in Climate Change and Plantation Sustainability makes sound business sense.”

Sappi’s initial sponsorship of the Research Chair will run until 2026.

Sappi’s association with Wits is not new: In 2020, Sappi began working on a project with other industry members and the Wits Global Change Institute on a project which involved the generation of raster climate surfaces for the entire forestry domain of South Africa, at a resolution of eight kilometres, with monthly time resolution, for the years 2020, 2030 and 2040 to 2100.

Sawmillers on the ropes

Sawmillers large and small are under pressure as a result of rising input costs, load shedding, round log resource constraints and tough market conditions.

A ‘perfect storm’ of rising input costs, roundlog resource challenges, unreliable electricity supply, declining exchange rates, high prime lending interest rates and shrinking markets has put South Africa’s sawmilling industry under severe pressure. Many sawmilling businesses are operating at break-even or worse, resulting in business closures and mounting job losses.

This is the sad story shared by Sawmilling South Africa’s Chairperson Duncan MacKay and Executive Director Roy Southey at the SSA AGM held in Pretoria recently.

“We have seen a reduction in saw log volume throughput, resulting in sawmill closures and further job losses,” said Duncan, who is a Director at White River Sawmills. The most affected provinces are Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, where unemployment is already running at more than 40%, he said.

As a consequence of the extremely difficult economic conditions, sawmills have been engaged in alternative power supply projects and cost management, devoting less attention to replacing or improving production technology, said Duncan.

He said that SSA has an active relationship with government and participates in a number of government/business initiatives, and has highlighted the plight of sawmillers at these forums, but to no avail.

“It would appear that Government does not understand the urgency of the situation - or has little or no interest in our sector,” said Duncan. “It is therefore becoming increasingly obvious that our industry will have to take the initiative by taking appropriate steps to enhance our own interests. Interaction and input from our members is becoming more critical to ensure prosperity for our companies.”

Promoting use of structural timber
In order to boost demand SSA is taking a proactive role in promoting the use of structural timber products with architects and designers, and facilitating access to export markets for value added timber products to boost economic growth and create jobs.

To this end SSA has almost concluded the sampling phase of negotiations with Wespine to have timber originating in South Africa graded to Australian specifications. This will allow South African sawmills to export sawn timber to Australia.

Apprenticeships and learnerships
SSA members have also been engaged in the development of apprenticeships and learnerships that are seen as crucial for the growth and development of the sector. The first of these, a Saw Doctor

Apprenticeship, should be ready for implementation by the end of 2023. Additional funding received from the FP & M Seta will enable work to continue in the development of the kiln drying and wet and dry mill operator programmes.

Executive Director Roy Southey reported that SSA’s individual sawmill membership has remained fairly constant through the year at 47. However Roy said they had lost the membership of Limpopo-based Stevens Lumber Mills which closed temporarily in April citing load shedding challenges and problems with round log procurement as the main reasons. Stevens Lumber Mills is one of the oldest sawmills in South Africa, and has been operating for over 60 years.

Sawmilling SA Chairperson Duncan MacKay (left) and Executive Director Roy Southey.

On a happier note, Roy welcomed back Geelhoutvlei Timbers sawmill in the southern Cape, which has completed a rebuild after it was gutted by fire in 2018.

“2023 has certainly been the toughest year ever for the sawmilling sector in South Africa and one in which we have seen the closure of a number of mills with the resultant devastating effect on rural economies. Sawmilling, which for many years has been a driver of job and wealth creation in many rural areas from the Limpopo to the Cape, is under pressure from a multitude of challenges,” said Roy.

“However, not all is lost. If you consider the groundswell of interest in timber building driven by the green economy, the rapid development of the mass timber movement, the advances in recovery from log mechanisation, the development of export markets, and the move towards additional timber-based products, the future does not look quite so bleak.

“The challenge for us as sawmillers is to rise and grasp these opportunities and gear our businesses to take advantage of this shift away from commodities towards value-added products. Then we will certainly survive,” concluded Roy.

This silver lining of optimism amidst the storm clouds of our troubled land was echoed by Forestry South Africa’s Executive Director, Michael Peter, who presented the keynote address at the SSA AGM. Ever the optimist, Michael is heavily involved in several public/private sector initiatives set up to tackle the energy, rail and ports challenges, and he maintains that real progress is being made on all these fronts and that solutions are achievable.

He also pointed out that the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has recently called for expressions of interest from the private sector to partner with local communities to bring the so-called exit-reversal state plantations located in the Western Cape back into production. That represents 22 000 ha of mainly pine plantations that – once fully operational - will go some way towards alleviating the shortage of round log resources in the Cape region at least.

Sawmill Productivity Improvement Award

The annual Sawmilling Productivity Improvement Award was presented to the Tekwani owned e'Mpuluzi Sawmill in Mpumalanga, during the SSA AGM.

Andrew Crickmay (left) of Crickmay & Associates presents the Sawmilling Productivity Improvement Award to Sean Hoatson of Tekwani Timbers..

Runners up were (in alphabetical order):
• Bracken Timbers
• Eswatini Plantations
• Eswatini Treated Timber
• Dulini (GNG)
• Jessievale (York Timbers)
• Langeni (Merensky)
• George Sawmill (MTO)
• RF Gevers
• Thornville (Tekwani)

The purpose of the Sawmill Productivity Improvement Award is to give recognition to mills that show improvement that serves to make them more competitive. As the focus is on improvement, the winning mill is not necessarily the most profitable mill. The award is based on results from the Intermill Comparison, a quarterly benchmarking report produced by Crickmay & Associates. The floating trophy was first awarded in 1991.

Red flag over deteriorating health of forest soils

Planting successive rotations of the same tree species on the same piece of land over and over is likely to have a negative impact on soil health and long term productivity of the site will decline – especially when the residue from the previous harvest has been burnt off, leaving the soil unprotected from the elements, as is the case with this community forestry enterprise in Eastern Cape.

Planting the same tree species over successive rotations carries a high risk of deteriorating soil health, say FABI researchers …

It is widely accepted in agriculture circles that practicing crop rotation is beneficial for soil health. This is because the continuous cultivation of the same plant species on the same piece of land over and over again impacts negatively on soil health, and leads to a build-up of harmful micro-organisms. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support this theory.

To address this issue, good farmers all over the world practice crop rotation, planting different crops over successive rotations, or do inter-cropping where for instance they will plant a legume in between rotations to improve soil health and biodiversity.

Many small-scale tree farmers in Zululand practice inter-cropping, planting mielies, beans or peanuts in between their Eucalyptus seedlings when they are still small, and before the canopy closes. This could be beneficial for soil health.

So why not treat short rotation tree crops the same way – and if we don’t, and we keep on planting the same species rotation after rotation, will we eventually find that soil health deteriorates to the point where the trees will no longer grow properly?

Common sense would suggest that this will be the case, but there is no ‘conclusive’ scientific evidence to support this theory. In any event crop rotation in forestry is not so easily done as rotation lengths are long (8 – 20 years), land available for forestry is limited (in South Africa) and only three species are widely grown – eucalypts, pine and wattle – all of which are geared to serve specific markets.

Moreover improvements in silvicultural practices and advances in tree breeding have thus far masked any impacts of deteriorating soil health on successive tree crops, thus reducing growers’ appetite for experimenting with crop rotation...

This Sappi compartment in Zululand has been mulched and the residue retained to cover the soil with a nutrient-rich layer that provides protection, retains moisture and gives the young trees a growth boost.

But now a group of highly regarded researchers have raised a red flag and warned that deteriorating soil health is a real risk for short rotation plantation forestry, as it is practiced in South Africa and in many other parts of the world.

A team of FABI researchers including Dr Tanay Bose, Prof Bernard Slippers, Almuth Hammerbacher, Jolanda Roux and Mike Wingfield, have analysed existing data on soil microbiomes from short-rotation forestry environments around the world which, they say, provides evidence that a build-up of harmful micro-organisms, depletion of beneficial micro-organisms, and deterioration of the physical and chemical properties of soil can result from continuous replanting of the same tree species on the same piece of land.

“Populations of unfavourable microbes can be expected to become more abundant over successive rotations,” state the FABI researchers in an article published in the journal Current Forestry Reports. “This is strongly supported by data from recent soil microbiome studies involving commercially managed forests, which provide convincing evidence of an increase in pathogenic microbes in soils of continuously replanted forests.”

Building on these findings and considering similar approaches in agriculture, the team proposes a number of practical solutions that have the potential to mitigate the deterioration of soil health resulting from planting the same species over successive rotations.

Weza farmer Jon Mackenzie uses a tractor-powered chipping machine to chip the post-harvest residue after clear felling, which is then spread evenly over the site before the re-planting operation begins. This is his strategy to conserve the health of the soil on his farm for the log term.

• Retaining post-harvest residue on the site is likely to result in healthier soils over successive rotations. This is why many growers have stopped burning the post-harvest residues and have opted for mulching or chipping.
• Application of biochar has considerable potential to enhance soil properties, nutrients and microbes in continuously replanted forests. Biochar is a carbon-rich, stable organic product made from the pyrolysis of organic biomasses such as leaves, sawdust, animal dung and wood. During carbonization, biochar releases phosphate into the soil along with other mineral nutrients, improving its fertility. Biochar also improves the physical properties and microbial biodiversity of the soil, which could further increase soil nutrient availability and carbon storage. However more research is needed to assess the impact of biochar on plantation soils.
• Crop rotation and intercropping could alleviate the negative consequences of continuous replanting of the same species in short-rotation plantation forestry. For example, rotating between eucalypts, black wattle and pine species could prevent the accumulation of harmful soil microbes detrimental to these trees. Rotating nitrogen fixing leguminous tree species such as Acacia with eucalypts or pines has the potential to further promote both soil and tree health increasing the availability of nitrogen in the soil and improving the quality of plant litter.
• Practicing agro-forestry, where different crops are inter-planted on the same piece of land, would also have a positive impact on soil health.
• Innoculation of tree seedlings in the nursery with beneficial microbes.
“Continuous replanting practised in short-rotation plantation forests is likely to be accompanied by a high risk of ‘replanting syndrome’ in plantations. While long-term monitoring programs to document the changes in soil microbiomes are still lacking and should be urgently initiated, the available evidence suggests that short-rotation forest plantation enterprises could be restrictive when successively establishing plots with the same or nearly the same genotypes,” the FABI team concluded.

Mulching after clear felling is an expensive exercise, but many growers have opted for this approach instead of burning off post-harvest residues, in the interests of boosting soil health for the long term.

For the full Report see: Current Forestry Reports.