Country & Garden: Country Matters: You're looking swell, Dolly

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THe Weekend review

Meet Dolly the logging horse and her handler/ trainer/ dancing partner Dr Paula Sells. Dolly is 11 years old and 16 hands tall, and turns the scales at about 1,500lb. Paula is in her early fifties, slender as a whippet, and by profession is a researcher into snake venom. But the two, although physically so dissimilar, share various attributes, among them a tremendous enthusiasm for work. They make a pretty effective pair.

I met them on the Eyarth House estate in north Wales, where they were hauling logs out of a wood on a steep flank of the Vale of Clwyd. The timber had to be brought down across a grass field and piled beside the lane, where a lorry with a mechanical grab could reach over the hedge and load it without churning up the meadow. The best feature of the operation was that Dolly was inflicting far less damage on the environment than a tractor would have caused; even after numerous trips up and down, the turf was hardly marked, and inside the wood she had been turning on a sixpence.

With her husband Robert - a kidney transplant surgeon - and two teenage sons, Paula lives in Liverpool, where she works as senior research assistant in the snake venom unit of the School of Tropical Medicine. She does not handle the cobras, mambas, vipers and other poisonous reptiles the unit keeps, but she is familiar with the process of "milking" them every month: "You just put a Petri dish covered in cling film in front of them, hold them behind the head, and they strike automatically." Her current tasks are to develop an assay to evaluate anti-venoms, and to look for new proteins in venom that might be useful in human medicine.

Horses have long been her hobby. In earlier days she competed in one- day events and more recently, during a conservation meeting at an agricultural college, she picked up a leaflet about logging courses. Having taken such as course and loved it, she acquired Dolly a year ago.

The mare, bred by Gypsies, is half shire horse and "half something else", perhaps Welsh cob. The result is that she has great strength, but is not so large as to be unmanoeuvrable in steep woodlands. She is also blessed with an ideal temperament, being eager to go, but at the same time admirably calm.

"Some horses hate working, and some love it," Paula says. "Dolly adores it. If she didn't feel like pulling, there'd be nothing on earth I could do to make her." Apart from a weakness for chicken sandwiches, and a fear of gunshot, the mare seems to have no vices. She had done a bit of logging with her previous owners, but in the past year she has made "terrific progress", and I suspect that much of her latter-day prowess derives from the rapport she has established with her gentle new owner.

She lives on a farm at Bodfari, near Wrexham, looked after by Paula's mother. Last winter, when the mud was too deep to work outside, Paula took her to an indoor school, set out a lot of traffic cones and trained her intensively to stop, start, walk on and go left or right. She now understands seven or eight words of command, and responds to them promptly. As Paula says, "she has to do things absolutely when I say, because if we're hauling a lot of timber, it can be quite hazardous. If she moved at the wrong moment, she could trap one of my hands or feet - so obedience is vital".

"One of the joys of training her has been the way we've developed a real partnership, rather as you would with a dancing partner," says Paula. "You have to keep practising so that you trust each other. I have to know that Dolly won't suddenly take off with a load. She has to know that I won't ask her to do something dangerous that might frighten her."

Out in the forest, Dolly's secret weapon is a Norwegian device called an arch - simple but beautifully designed, with steel shafts, a slightly hooped arch with four small winches ranged along it, and skids and wheels on either foot. Guided by her owner, the mare positions the arch above the timber to be shifted. A chain can then be slid under each log, or bundle of logs, and cranked up on one of the winches so that the front of it is clear of the ground. Because only the rear end is trailing, the horse can pull far more, and damage to field or forest floor is minimised. Another bonus is that the rigid shafts stop the load running forward on to the horse's heels. Because everything is under better control, the operator can drive the horse from behind with long reins, rather than having to lead it from in front.

According to Paula, "This is real progress. This is modern horse-logging - what makes it different from the Sixties." The arch cost nearly pounds 1,000, but, equipped with it, Dolly can shift up to 10 tons of wood in a day, earning pounds 100. The little winches certainly save a great deal of lifting, but I was not sure I believed Paula when she said: "You don't need brawn muscle for this job. You need technique." In the background her son Edward muttered, "I've had to tell her how to lift: bend your knees, stick your bum out and keep your head up." Even Paula admits that after an eight- hour day "it's great to get back to a hot bath and a whisky".

Her colleagues in the laboratory consider her crazy and some members of her family refer to Dolly as "the white elephant", but no matter. Paula's enjoyment of work in the woods is infectious - and fortunately she is one of a growing band. The British Horse Loggers' Group now has more than 100 members, and grants from various sources are enabling them to return to managing forests that have lain derelict for years. It is estimated that in Wales 70 per cent of traditional hardwoods have been abandoned as uneconomic for as long as anyone can remember. Now, with ecological awareness growing by the day, and horses returning to the scene, things are taking an upward trend.

The British Horse Loggers' Group can be contacted through the Forestry Contracting Association on 01467 651368