Cutting hazel for firewood

One of my aims for 2021 is to be more organised about firewood, now that we have a wood stove at home too. I’m concentrating on the hazel that grows in the thin shade of the plantation poplar trees, since it’s a better firewood, and coppices well so it’s an easily renewable source. This post has some photos and a bit more about my plan for it.

First, here’s a slider comparison showing before and after pictures of one of the hazels on the edge of the Glade at the centre of the wood, which I cut this month.

Since I established the Glade, every few years I’ve cut back overhanging branches like this when they start to encroach. The next picture shows a close up of what the hazel looked like afterwards, with the thicker stems cut for firewood, a few smaller stems cut for overhanging, but most of the smaller stems left to thicken up. The cuts are sloped to tip the stems over in the right direction and to direct rainwater away from the centre of the stool or clump of stems that form these trees. I make brash piles out of the ends of the thicker stems, which are good for wildlife but here help define the edge of the Glade.

What I’m trying with this approach is “Coppice Selection”: you pick a minimum diameter for the stems you want, harvest all stems larger than that, leaving most or all of the thinner stems in place to thicken up.

Coppicing in Britain tends to be dominated by “Simple Coppicing”: you remove all of the stems of all the trees in a particular area. There you are typically aiming for thin, straight poles and rods. Hazel stems have a tendency to curve over to get more light if other stems shade them, but by starting all the stems at the same time, there is more chance they will grow up from the stool in straight lines.

However, as I’m just aiming for firewood, and short 10 inch (25 cm) lengths at that, I’m not worried about stems with a bit of a curve. I don’t have a use for thin stems, and I’m not producing enough to try to sell them. Coppice Selection allows me to avoid cutting and discarding those thin stems. Instead, they have a head start towards becoming logs I can use for firewood, and their green leaves are already there producing sugar to build more wood right from the first spring.

Up to now I’ve been cutting and seasoning hazel as firewood for the Log Cabin wood stove. These were mostly hazels that I needed to remove for establishing the rides and clearings, and I cut some for fence posts too. Here and there I’ve noticed how they’ve grown back, which is what suggested the idea of Coppice Selection.

These two pictures show one hazel stool that I cut in 2009 as part of tidying up the boundary of the Glade. It wasn’t planned at the time, but as you can see in the second picture taken this month, there are new stems several inches in diameter, mostly growing from the stumps I left, which have also thickened up.

Robert Scott Troup described the system in his “Silvicultural Systems” in 1928:

In principle the working of the coppice selection system is similar to that of the selection system in high forest. An exploitable girth or diameter is fixed according to the size of the material required, and an estimate is made of the age at which material of this size is produced; this age determines the rotation, which is divided into a convenient number of felling cycles, and the area is divided into annual coupes equal in number to the number of years in the felling cycle. Each year coppice fellings are carried out in one of the annual coupes, but only shoots which have reached the exploitable size are cut, those below this size being left.

Since the fraction of the hazel I’m intending to harvest is so low, I’m not going to be so organised about coupes and cycles, and will just be “cherry picking” trees to apply this to by eye, based on the number of sufficiently thick stems they have.

I’ve been stacking this batch of wood ready to take home in my trailer and season in a wood store I’m building. I took the opportunity to split some of the logs with the Fiskars X25 splitting axe I got in the recent B&Q half price clearance of Fiskars kit. Much better than the rather blunt splitting maul I’ve been using for years.

I’m planning to continue documenting how it goes this year, including the log store at home, the wood tractor and trailer for moving logs in the wood, and how the seasoning progresses.

Firewood numbers

There are a lot of numbers associated with firewood and I’ve tried to collect best estimates relevant to small woodlands, here in one place, along with enough context to use them. They’re not a substitute for what you actually see in your own circumstances, but they’re the kind of thing you need if you’re putting together a woodland management plan, prior notification for a drying barn, a business case, or even deciding roughly what you can do.

I’ve organised it in the same order as the firewood processing sequence: how much grows per year, what lengths to cut, when to split, how drying works, how much heat different species produce, loose vs stacked, and bag sizes.

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Regulating wet firewood

Woodfuel has been in the news the last few days following the government’s announcement about restrictions on selling firewood to domestic users in England. What they’re trying to do is worthwhile, but the proposals raise some issues for owners of small woodlands. I believe there need to be exemptions for people selling less than about 50 cubic metres of firewood per year. Otherwise the regulations will inhibit small woodlands’ role in fighting climate change and attempts to bring half of England’s native woodlands back into management.

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“A wood of our own” by Julian Evans

I read “A wood of our own” by Julian Evans before I bought Century Wood, way back in 2007. I was already pretty sure I wanted to own a woodland, and Evans’ book helped confirm it. It’s become the book I compare other woodland owners’ books against, and I’ve looked through it again after reading and reviewing “A wood of one’s own” by Ruth Pavey.

Back in 2007 I had already read Evans’ book “Badgers, beeches, and blisters”, which is out of print but still available as a free PDF from woodlands.co.uk. That is very much a How To book with a lot of practical advice. At the same time as “A wood of our own”, I bought Chris Starr’s “Woodland management: a practical guide” and Ken Broad’s “Caring for small woods”. Both of these are more formal (very formal in Starr’s case: it’s a textbook) How To books in the vein of “Badgers, beeches, and blisters”, whereas “A wood of our own” is autobiographical. A first person account of Evans and his wife and her brother purchasing and managing the wood.

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Cutting brambles with a hedge trimmer

I’ve written before about mowing rides and glades with a scythe mower and a brush cutter before that. Six foot high nettles, cow parsley and saplings present no obstacle to this machine, but brambles are another story. Their branches run horizontally, tangle together and root when they touch the ground, creating a strong mesh. They need both horizontal and vertical cuts to cut them up and separate them from their roots. Last year I bought a petrol hedgetrimmer and yesterday I used it on big thicket of  brambles blocking a ride: its first proper outing.

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Trail cameras

I’ve been using trail cameras at Century Wood for the last couple of years. To start with I got a camera for security: to see if people were coming in to the wood following occasional thefts from my neighbours over the years. It quickly became clear that wildlife was a much more interesting use of the camera, and I’ve accumulated a good sample of images of the wood’s wildlife.

The first camera I bought was a Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Max with 8 megapixels. I bought it a year or so before starting to use it properly, and it lasted just over a year before it was stolen. I placed it on the edge of the main clearing in the wood, and I never saw evidence of people on the images. So it may have been taken the first time someone came across it. Then I bought a cheap Apeman camera from Amazon, at 12 megapixels, which is still there – in a harder to spot location – 18 months later.

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Renaturing vs rewilding

For several years rewilding has been one of the influences on how I manage Century Wood. It’s never been an entirely comfortable fit though, since “wild” is quite an extreme goal. I’ve contented myself with encouraging elements of wildness but now I think it would be more productive for me to talk about “renaturing”, and I imagine a spectrum with wildwood at one end and very controlled plantation forests at the other.

Rewilding started to enter the public consciousness in Britain about the time I bought Century Wood in 2008, and in 2013 George Monbiot’s book “Feral” gave it a lot of publicity and provided a popular manifesto. I was already thinking about ways to encourage large scale reforestation, and Monbiot’s book crystallized the way in which British uplands are kept bare by sheep, deer, and EU Common Agricultural Policy basic payments.

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Flood information sources

This is now my third post about flooding, and it is raining again. First I posted about flooded lanes near Mill Meece and the ditches by Century Wood almost bursting their banks, and then two weeks later when the water level was much lower. During this time I’ve gathered some useful links with live information and predictions about water levels in England, which I describe in this post. I hope this will be useful to other wood owners and woodlanders in general. There are similar resources in Wales and Scotland.

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