People driving through the Ashley Creek subdivision in Violet Township did a double-take last week when they saw two Belgian draft horses pulling logs from the seven-acre woods off Ashley Creek Drive North.
The scene was not an historical re-enactment of 19th century agrarian life. It was the real deal. The horses were replacing unwieldy heavy machinery, instead of the other way around, to harvest more than 70 infested ash trees.
"We're trying to avoid completely destroying the place," said Mike Donley, an urban forester and owner of Donley Complete Tree Care, who is removing the 70-foot tall trees from the wooded preserve at the behest of the subdivision's homeowners association.
Donley hired a Delaware, Ohio, man named Charlie Adams and his two horses to help do the job.
"We use the horses to drag the trees out," Donley said.
"People ask why do that if we've got all of this great machinery. The machines make deep tire ruts and then nothing will ever grow here. The horses don't damage the soil," said Donley.
This "low-impact" harvesting of Ash trees will help preserve the woods by minimizing the damage to healthy trees, thus enhancing future recreation opportunities for area residents.
"If we do our job right, all of those healthy trees will keep living and you won't be able to tell that we've been here," said Donley.
Though they appear healthy, the Ash trees have to come down. Time is of the essence, however, because waiting any longer to harvest the trees will decrease their value in the marketplace.
"These trees, most of them are dead or near dead, because of the bug that's killing them," said Donley, referring to the emerald ash borer that has decimated Ash trees throughout North America.
The trees will be sold to an Amish sawmill operation in Holmes County.
"It's all going to a mill, that's how we get paid," he said.
The wood will be made into commercial products such as "flooring and cabinets, and the low quality stuff will be turned into railroad ties, blocking and pallets," said Donley.
Charlie Adams, who retired from the Delaware County Highway Department, has been working his horses for the last 15 years for jobs just like this, when animal is preferable to machine.
"I got them when they were two and they're fifteen now," Adams said.
"They work whenever I get a job. This spring there will be some work, like plowing and hauling manure," he said, adding his retirement job suits him well.
"I'm not old enough to quit this," Adams said.
Neither is Donley, who took up urban forestry 10 years ago after a career in his family's home building company.
"I started late in life," Donley said.
"I never climbed a tree until I was 49, then I climbed trees every day for seven years," he said.
Now he prefers to supervise from the ground, but couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"I'm wired the right way for this," Donley said.
"Every day is different," he said.
"It's considered one of the most hazardous occupations, but every day is different," he said.
Enlisting a team of Belgian draft horses to pull 2,000 pound logs out of the woods certainly qualifies as something different.
"It's not often you see that," said Donley, adding the horses have created quite a stir in the neighborhood.
"You can't believe the amount of attention these horses get," he said. "People get out of their cars and take pictures and want to pet them."
One thing machines can do is work through lunch.
All day hauling logs requires a mandatory break for the horses.
"They got an hour for lunch, to drink and eat and have time to relax and recover," Donley said.