New Williow Harvester

Somerset business looks to reap benefits of new willow
harvester

A Somerset company is hoping to reap benefits after developing a
willow harvester to help modernise its manufacturing business.

C B Coate & Son grows willow on the Somerset Levels and
supplies it to its sister company P H Coate & Son Ltd. From
there, it is either sold to customers in its raw state or hand-made
on site into baskets or other willow products for sale in its shop
or via its website, English Willow Baskets. Between them, the
companies employ 36 people.

For several years, the business, which is based at Stoke St
Gregory, used an old machine to harvest the willow. But its
unreliability meant time was wasted on repairs and maintenance. At
the same time, the machine crushed around 10% of the willow,
causing rutting and other damage to the softer ground.

Two years ago, Director Jonathan Coate, decided there had to be
a more effective and efficient way to harvest the willow. As a
result he came up with the idea of developing a willow harvester
with a unique detachable head and handling method. He wanted to add
the head to an existing low ground pressure skid unit the company
had bought. He thought that if the ‘head’ could incorporate a
non-damaging weed rake, it could harvest more usable willow as well
as being more cost effective and better for the environment.

“Due to climate change, the willow harvesting season is becoming
both shorter and wetter and we knew there had to be a more
effective way to work through it,” Jonathan Coate said.

“As we’re located within a Site of Special Scientific Interest
(SSSI), an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA), a European
Community Special Protection Area (ECSPA) and a Wetland of
International Importance (RAMSAR) we had to become less reliant on
herbicides.

“We realised that by incorporating a weed rake, we could become
more efficient, cause less damage to the willow as it was being
harvested and reduce our use of herbicides.”

The company had heard about the Rural Development Programme for
England (RDPE) from Business Link and were referred to Somerset’s
RDPE Facilitator Alex Stevens to see if he could help.

“Alex met with us several times to talk about the RDPE in the
South West and to advise us on the application process,” Jonathan
said.

“We applied for a grant and were delighted when we were awarded
£32,880 for a tracked, low ground pressure, prototype willow
harvester.”

Following approval of the grant in October 2009, construction of
the machine and initial tests of the prototype took place during
2010. It was then used during the 2010/11 harvesting season.

“There were a few initial teething problems as you might expect
with any new machine and we’re now working on these that it can be
put to full use for the harvesting season later this year,”
Jonathan said. “It seems a far cry from all those years ago. I can
hardly imagine what it must have been like years ago when
harvesting was done by hand with a hook – cold and backbreaking no
doubt!”