“Thirty years in wilderness wood” by Chris Yarrow

“Thirty years in wildness wood” is the long story of the Yarrow family’s purchase of a 63 acre woodland, how they lived in it, managed it, and made a living from it. The book has strong parallels with “A wood of our own” by Julian Evans: both Evans and Chris Yarrow are trained foresters, buying woodlands privately and then managing them for decades, improving the mix of species with long term objectives in mind. Their stories are set against the same backdrop of English forestry in the last few decades, and both had to deal with the aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987. But Yarrow’s project was more ambitious: to use the woodland as a primary source of income,  and to demonstrate the idea of multipurpose forestry by harvesting wood and timber, producing and selling wood products on site,  and admitting a paying public.

We begin in the late 1970s, with Chris and Anne Yarrow searching the south of England for a suitable woodland for their project. They almost succeeded at Balneath in Sussex, but after openly discussing their project with the local press were confronted by a “Stop the Yarrows!” campaign and the vendor pulled out of the sale. Soon after the woodland was grubbed up and turned into an unremarkable field.

In late 1980 they bought Wilderness Wood near Hadley Down in East Hampshire. Now more cautious, they proceeded step by step without ever revealing the grand vision until it was achieved. As far as possible, changes served both short term visible forestry goals and longer term non-forestry aims which would come into use later.

The wood is variously given as 24 hectares  or 63 acres, with a mixture of pine, beech, and poplar plantations, and chestnut coppice. The various compartments had been either neglected or managed for short term gain. The plantations were mostly full of self seeded birch and the coppice had been cut five years previously rather than in rotation: the fifteen hectares of coppice should have been cut at one hectare each year to provide a continuous supply of fifteen year old poles. However, they could see that wood had the potential to be what they wanted.

Only time would tell if we had bought a “Goldilocks” wood: not too small, and not too big. Its compact shape, easily-worked coppices, potentially valuable plantations, and ride system, would mean we could practise self-sufficient forestry. The beautiful setting and hilly landform boded well for attracting the visitors we would depend on for the success of our venture. Clearly it had been a productive woodland for many centuries, providing a changing range of valuable products, and now was our chance to make our mark.

Step by step the Yarrow’s set about returning it to a productive state, tidying up the plantations and reestablishing the coppice rotation. They built a traditional timber framed barn, and additional buildings as needed. Their careful cultivation of links to the local community paid off when the got planning permission for a house within the wood virtually without objection. They diversified into Christmas trees, garden furniture, and firewood which they sold direct to the public from their woodland shop.

One of their overriding goals was education, both to provide a place where families could reconnect with our woodland heritage, and where school trips could come. As part of this they needed access and parking, and their dual purpose approach to planning helped here as well: “it was always our intention to have school visits, so access by 56-seater coaches would be essential. Fortunately, the specification for coaches would be met by an entrance for timber lorries.” With the infrastructure in place education was a natural first step in diversification as they judged it less risky:

Someone had remarked to us that if you provided education you were on the side of the angels, meaning, in our case, that few would object to kids learning about the countryside. With our recent Balneath experience in mind, schools seemed a safe place to start.

The same parking and buildings that supported school trips were eventually also used by visitors to the cafe and shop, adding further streams of income.

Chris Yarrow’s views on forestry are on display throughout the book, and he has important points to make.

As a forestry consultant, I would often be asked to advise on the “right” way to manage a woodland. But it’s not that simple – it all depends on the aims of the owners and managers, whether they be small landowners like us, or a state forest holding.

He’s also a proponent of continuous cover forestry and echoes some of Peter Wohlleben’s comments in “The hidden life of trees” about the effect on timber quality of allowing trees to grow too quickly.

When a large area of trees is felled, “forest conditions” are lost: the water table rises, and the ground is exposed to full sunlight, resulting in rampant growth of weeds such as bracken and brambles which swamp the replanted trees, requiring expensive weeding. Out in the open, the newly planted trees grow coarse, heavy branches, and have wide annual rings, yielding poor timber until competition with neighbours slows down their growth rate.

Whereas  with continuous cover, not only is the appearance of woodland maintained for paying visitors and other users, but it also has benefits in more strictly forestry terms:

CCF has many advantages over the clear-cut system. Firstly, trees are always present, and visual changes are minimal; it creates an attractive mixture of tree sizes and a wider range of niches for wildlife, with far less habitat disturbance. The uneven tree heights give the trees greater stability in windy conditions, and older trees can seed regeneration, sheltering it from drought and wind. In terms of production it has been calculated that, in well-established CCF forests, 85 percent of the timber comes out as the more valuable sawlog sizes, with better ring-widths and fewer knots, compared with only 50 percent in the conventional clear-fell system. Finally, CCF is more flexible than even-aged systems, where the product size range is limited, and you must never delay a thinning.

The book also features a first hand and rather tense description of living through the night of the Great Storm of 1987 and then dealing with its aftermath of fallen trees, and it concludes with a list of lessons learnt during the whole 30 year process of owning and developing Wilderness Wood into a viable, diversified business.

In the end, the wood was sold to the Morrish family who still own it and have a website with news about how it has continued to evolve, and directions if you want to visit.

To be blunt, “Thirty years in Wilderness Wood” is one of the most inspiring woodland books in my library: the way the Yarrows conceived a vision of what can be done with woodland, and then set about achieving it step by step.

Chris and Anne Yarrow

 

 

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