If it wasn’t for the fact that I was so impressed by Drew Whitaker and his North Swedish horse, Ghalm, showing us their logging skills in a small forested area in Perthshire, I’d have returned myself and my frozen fingers back to the car and turned the heater up full blast.

It’s freezing cold, with a bitter wind whistling into our faces, but Ghalm is non-plussed, with his thick coat and furry ears, he is built for this kind of weather and more importantly bred for this kind of work.

Drew Whitaker has been operating as Strathearn Horse Logging, in Crieff, for seven years. Ghalm came to him as an unhandled three-year-old but within two weeks he was out on the hill working, Drew says it was easy to train him as he was a blank canvas, it was in his blood.

North Swedish horses are bred to be powerful but not heavy, he stands at 15.2hh, and is pretty dainty on his feet. Generations of this breed have been bred in Sweden for forestry work, with foals being tied to their mothers while they work to ensure that the foals are desensitised to the noise and the environment. Drew believes that Ghalm is the only working North Swedish in Scotland, looking at him, he reminds you of a Highland pony on steroids. They are bred for temperament, and strength, they are docile but have just enough attitude to keep things interesting.

Drew says: “This isn’t an old-fashioned way of logging, it is low impact on the surroundings. I’ve seen forestry machinery leave waist deep ruts in the land. Using the horse, you’ve no pollution, no fuel leaking onto the land, it’s particularly useful in areas that are difficult to get to, like sensitive sites, steep ground, near watercourses etc. Even providing access for the mechanical option can be a messy outcome.”

Drew brings Ghalm down off the hill where he has spent a night with a couple of donkeys, he is delighted to have the company, but he stands at the gate getting his harness on and giving the gate a good kick as his patience runs thin.

Drew talks as he harnesses up the horse with a New England harness, lots of logging equipment is designed in the US, where there are still vast hardwood forests where horses are still used, particularly within the Amish community.

Drew’s a Yorkshire man who found himself in Scotland while travelling around when he was a shepherd. He worked for SAC for years working with sheep and training sheepdogs. Nowadays, he restricts his sheep contact to doing a couple of lambings each season.

Today he is working for a local farmer to thin out a Norwegian Spruce forested area in the middle of grazing fields. Drew says as we walk toward the forest: “Lots of farmers have areas of forest on their land that they don’t see as viable. You need to view forestry in the long term. If you invest a little now in the management of it, particularly if it is hardwood, there is a lot to be gained financially when it is ready to be harvested. Have it thinned out now, allow the decent trees room to grow and you’ll see a decent income from it.”

If you have a patch of forest you can pay Drew to come in and manage it, or he will take any hardwood away himself and not charge you for his services.

Back to work and Ghalm stands surrounded by trees head down, munching Norwegian Spruce. Drew takes his chainsaw and cuts down a slim spruce that needs to be removed to allow the surrounding trees to thrive. If the horse can get into an area and spin round, then that’s all the space he needs to work.

In this wood the trees are growing close together, which means when he cuts the tree it doesn’t fall, it catches on the branches of surrounding trees. “You always take out the worst first,” shouts Drew above the din of the chainsaw, talking about the quality of wood around him.

This is when Ghalm’s trust in Drew is important. It’s a dangerous process, particularly if working on steep land.

Drew explains: “The logs can bounce around, you need a horse that will listen to what you are telling him, but it also has to have enough initiative if it gets stuck to think: “Bollocks to this and get itself out of there, he has to have some attitude.” Ghalm has been sooking the corner of my notepad again after being told off, he is displaying all the attitude he needs.

The horse weighs around 750kg, he could pull double that, not that Drew would ask him to, in general he isn’t too stretched with the weight he pulls out of the woods. I ask if Ghalm enjoys his work, Drew replies: “Well put it this way, when he isn’t he lets you know by being a pain in the arse.” An average day might see Ghalm clearing 10 tonnes of timber.

Asking him to move left, using the sailing term ‘lee-oh’, and then right, with ‘gibe’, Drew directs Ghalm up the hill to retrieve the trunk. He brings it down with no bother, taking a huge turning circle like a long vehicle turning. When he is un-clipped his head is straight back down to munch on whatever is worth eating.

Drew cleans the tree of branches with his chainsaw right next to Ghalm, he doesn’t seem to notice. He is then clipped back onto the trunk, he gets told to listen and then to walk on, and he pulls the wood down into the field where the rest of the wood had been cut and stacked. He could easily pull four or five times this weight. You can see how much trust hangs between these two. Ghalm’s ears are flicking back and forward listening for commands, and as soon as he is off duty, he is back to munching.

Drew learned his forestry skills from an experienced wood man he met when he was working at Fordie Estate. Now an old friend, Steve Hunt is a forestry man who learned his forest craft from traditional craftsmen when an axe was the cutter of choice before chainsaws were the norm. He was a warden at Sherwood Forest, with a wealth of knowledge he was happy to share with a keen amateur. Drew says he owes a lot to Steve though he continues to learn. He is doing a course in forestry planning. Ideally, he would love a job as an estate manager to oversee the planning and development of forests.

Farmers, estates and gamekeepers are Drew’s regular customers. They like the no fuss, efficient service. He is often asked to come in and lift windblow trees, or to clear areas that estate’s want to use for pheasant shoots, it helps provide ground cover for the birds.

Though Drew would work every day if there was work for him, that’s not the case and Ghalm is typical of his hardy breed, even when there is hardly any grass he can put weight on, so Drew makes sure he is kept fit when they aren’t working.

That means walking him around fields or riding him. He’s not a perfect riding horse, a pretty bumpy trot and a dislike of cantering has Drew hoping that regular work keeps them both in top condition.

When the work is done, we walk back to the gate, Ghalm is unharnesses and he trots off back up the hill to see his donkey friends, until he gets the next call.

There are not many people doing this full time and Drew has his concerns about other people dabbling in this field.

“There are many people playing at this, which does the professionals a great disservice. This is a very dangerous job, you can have your legs swept away with a rogue log and you are left with broken legs. They have little forestry knowledge, and appear to be dabbling with horses rather than providing a professional service. It’s not good enough. It’s all about doing good forestry work, that is the main objective in this job.”


It’s not an expensive option to go low impact; to hire a winch it would cost around £400 a day, Drew and Ghalm cost £200 a day. And if you are happy to allow Drew to take any hardwood he cuts when thinning he will manage your wood free of charge.

Strathearn Logging specialities:



Historical sites

Steep ground

Working near water courses

Working close to urban areas, footpaths, parks