A rural business helping to conserve Savernake Forest – and making ‘equine obstacles’
It's the last obstacle of the feature race at Cheltenham, a long distance chase, the horse lying second ploughs through the top of the fence - and a little bit of Savernake Forest flies out of the jump. What would the Gold Cup be without Savernake birch?
The Willis Brothers are a family firm based in Malmesbury and they've been cutting young birch in Savernake Forest for decades - Ken Willis, now in his seventies, says he's been coming to the forest for 47 years.
The Forestry Commission, which holds the lease on most of Savernake Forest, needs the young birch cut before it gets out of control strangles hard wood trees and the Willises need it to make jumps for racecourses and horse trials.
Savernake Forest is a good source for spruce which is another raw material used in jumps. It's either self-seeded growth or trees that need thinning out.
It’s all about conservation of a much loved and walked through forest: the Commission's forester gets the Willises to cut young birch growing round the Forest's ponds - so the dragonflies get better access to the water.
The Willises provide birch from Savernake - and from other woods around the South West - for jumps at Cheltenham, Chepstow, Taunton and other racecourses. Their bundles of birch went to Greenwich Park for the obstacles on London 2012 Olympics’ cross country course.
The day before MNO met Ashley Willis and his father Ken in Savernake, they had been down to Portsmouth cutting young Christmas trees. Not, they explained, for next Christmas, but to make guidance wings for jumps at the Bicton Horse Trials in East Devon (April 25-26.)
And with the Badminton Horse Trials approaching (May 7-11) they are getting busy to make sure the obstacles on that world famous cross country course and the jumps in the arena are in tip top shape. They have also supplied birch to Barbury Castle and Gatcombe Park.
They supply many point-to-point course and dozens of trainers - including Nicky Henderson at his Lambourn yard. They don't supply Aintree, but they do make Grand National style and size training jumps so trainers can give likely entrants a taste of what's to come.
The business was started by Ashley's great grandfather. Ken and his three brothers (Brian, Gerald and Alan) have four sons: Ashley, Richard, James and Tom.
In great grandfather's day their mainstay was making traditional sheep hurdles from split chestnut or hazel. And they still make them for the National Trust and, amongst other clients, for the Priddy Sheep Fair. Sadly this long-running Somerset fair has been cancelled this year for financial reasons. It moved from Wells to the Mendip village in 1348 because of the Black Death.
In great grandfather's day they sold for a shilling each. Now they fetch £34 each. The Willises taught Matt Baker to make a sheep hurdle for the BBC's Country File and he was so pleased with the result he took it home to use on his farm.
More recently, relatively speaking, the firm has branched out from their staple of steeplechase jumps and hurdle fences for the racing industry, to make all manner of jumps around the world. The organisers of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Sydney and Barcelona have relied on the Willises' expertise.
They provide a service that supplies portable cross country jumps - from the traditional to the colourful and the whacky. These can moved when a field is coming under cultivation.
And the Willis Brothers will remove, maintain and store jumps at the end of the season. All their jumps are made with the safety of horse and rider in mind.
When MNO saw Ashley at work in Savernake, he was cutting two year-old birch that had grown to shoulder height. Birch for steeplechase and hurdle jumps must be no more than the thickness of your little finger so it has the necessary 'give', but won't get broken by the horses' hooves.
With practice you can cut about 35 bundles of young birch in a day. So it takes a lot of hard work to supply Cheltenham racecourse's 1,000 bundles a year.
There's a ready market for this natural resource and they are always on the look-out for fresh areas of young birch that need clearing.
Below: Ashley Willis cutting and bundling birch in Savernake Forest: