The art of tree extraction

Today Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous artists of all time. But he died in poverty. I can’t really judge his art, but recently some of his works sold for several hundred million dollars each. During his lifetime, however, he only managed to sell one painting. There are still people like him around.

- Advertisement -

Recently I met an ex-farmer from the Eastern Cape, now retired and living in East London. I suspect that he was a better inventor than he was a farmer, because some of his innovations were absolutely astounding, but he didn’t sell many. One of them was a vehicle fuel supply system that, when tested in the US , enabled a five-litre V8 Ford Thunderbird to achieve an astonishing 49,7km per litre. It was 30 years ahead of its time, and was ignored.

The name of this remarkable inventor-farmer is Dick Venables and, although he is already in the twilight of life, he recently came up with what should be a winner – an implement for which there is presently a dire need – namely the Ex-it, designed to get rid of unwanted woody vegetation.

Alien plant invaders such as wattle, lantana, Port Jackson, rooikrans and chromolaena, to name a few, create huge problems in many areas of the country, but under incorrect veld management indigenous bush can become just as invasive. I recently criticised the massive bush encroachment in the Kruger Park and the detrimental effect it has on biodiversity, the moisture content of the soil and the carrying capacity of the park.

- Advertisement -

However, I’m painfully aware that the same sad situation exists on most, if not all, game farms in the bushveld areas of South Africa and beyond. To be able to offer a viable solution, I reviewed the options available to both game farmers and Sanparks to alleviate this desperate situation. The best option by far is to prevent bush encroachment in the first place by not exceeding 60% of the carrying capacity of your land and by using fire in the right way – the natural way. Unfortunately, the situation in large parts of the Kruger and hundreds of game farms is already way beyond the point where it can be put right by fire, and either mechanical or chemical control is unavoidable.

Safer than herbicides
The side-effects of chemicals, however, are not always predictable and I have seen many cases where it failed miserably or created health hazards. My experience over many years leaves me in no doubt that mechanical control is the way to go. Chemical control can also lead to serious accidents. The Ex-it actually owes its creation to one that occurred 20 years ago, involving Dick Venables himself. As a vegetable farmer he was ploughing his field next to the fence between his and his neighbour’s farm.

Unknown to him herbicide was being sprayed on bush along the border. A strong wind was blowing in his direction, but due to the fumes of the tractor, he could not smell the chemical until he switched off the tractor. By then he could have inhaled it for hours. That night he got sick. The symptoms became more acute but eventually disappeared. But as the years passed, although he never smoked, he started to have trouble breathing. Medical treatment brought no relief. Tests showed that 70% of his lung capacity had been destroyed by chemically induced scar tissue. If herbicides can do that to a human, what about smaller animals in the bush? Dick resolved to find a better way. He walked around with an idea for years, got to work and finally created the Ex-it Tree and Weed Extractor.

Economics alone – an affordable price, speed of operation and the limited labour required – make the Ex-it, in my mind, the top plant-control contender. It comes in three hand-operated and two tractor-operated models. These are very durable, as even the largest models have only two moving parts. It is a remarkably simple implement which looks and works like a human leg. When the “leg” is fully bent, the “toes”, that act as the clamp gripping the plant, will be at ground level. Moving backwards the “knee” will be pulled down, the “foot” will pivot on the “ankle” and the “toes” will move upwards, extracting the plant. The hand model has no “knee”, and is simply pushed down to pull out any invasive weed or shrub with stem diameters of up to 5cm. The tractor model, which can remove up to 40 trees per hour, has a pull power of over 100 tons and can extract trees with a stem diameter of up to 20cm without undue strain on the tractor. Dick is currently working on a downscaled version of the tractor model to fit utility-type quad bikes, as many game farmers do not own tractors.

Awards and rewards
Although simple, this is no Mickey Mouse implement. In February, Dick was awarded a gold medal by the International Foundation for Science, as well as numerous awards at various shows, including Nampo. We can also consider the satisfaction expressed by its users, like York Safaris of Thabazimbi, which is currently freeing its farm from the stranglehold of invasive roseintjiebos. The best thing about the Ex-it is its affordability. Prices range from only R400 for the smallest model to R9 000 for the largest. But even once the trees or bush have been extracted, the job is only half done.

The fallen trees and shrubs should be utilised rather than piled and burned. Some branches should be used to cover or barricade bare or overgrazed land. The correct way to do this will be discussed in future. The hardwood, like sicklebush, rooibos and mopani, can be cut and sold as braai wood to pay for the cost of the operation. A kiln to create charcoal or a wood chipper to turn the timber into mulch are also viable propositions. Mulching machines are expensive but Arbor-Care, the company that has served the forestry industry for two decades, will bring a machine and do the mulching on your farm. It plans to turn the mulch into biofuel pellets that can be sold in bags – even to the Kruger Park, which uses imported fossil fuel instead of wood for cooking in their camps! Kortbroek van Schalkwyk recently said on 50/50 that “hundreds of millions” have been made available to Sanparks.

As taxpayers, we should demand that some of this money be used to restore the disgrace that the Kruger has become and utilise the tons of sickly wood that deface this gem. In the future there will be no excuse for a bush-encroached game reserve or game farm. The technology is there – use it! – Abré J Steyn Contact Dick Venables on (043) 726 1934 or visit, or contact Deon von Benecke of Arbor-Care on 082 418 4702 or visit