Woodlanders Ep7: Off grid forestry

I’ve just watched the beautiful Episode 7 of the Woodlanders series of films. This episode is about Tinker’s Bubble in Somerset and how they do forestry without using fossil fuel: felling with axe and saw, extraction with horses, and a saw mill powered by a wood-burning steam engine.

The Woodlanders series is made by Costa Boutsikaris and is crowd funded. Please consider supporting his work if you like the film.

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Small woodlands: the Long Tail of forestry

The long tail concept is now commonplace in business and computing. It’s the idea that most subjects are dominated by a very large number of small categories. That the “big hits” are actually outsold by all the niche songs or films or books that sell in ones and twos. Some of this thinking can also be applied to forestry, and how small woodlands can be brought into management.

The Long Tail was introduced by an article in WIRED magazine in 2004:

What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.

How does this compare to woodlands in England? The most recent comprehensive survey we have is the Forestry Commission’s report “National Forestry Inventory 2011 woodland map”, and the picture is strikingly similar.

Tables 7/7a have the figures. 69% of all the woodland in England by area meets the original UKWAS definition of small woodlands: less than 100 hectares or 250 acres. Looking at woods smaller than 20 hectares or 50 acres, the percentage of the total area is still 41%. If we turn to English broadleaved woodlands, woods smaller than 20 hectares cover 51% of the total area.

So it’s obvious that smaller woodlands really matter. People in the small woods community have been saying this for years but it’s still not properly reflected in our national debates about forestry, especially in the media. The image is of rolling hills and valleys draped in conifer plantations and their patches of clear fell.

What lessons do Amazon and the rest have for policy towards small woodlands? What does their success with the Long Tail tell us?

To answer this we have to think about how they manage to turn all those niche titles into dollars and pounds. In the past, out of print books and forgotten films sat on shelves or were boxed up in the corners of warehouses. Out of sight and hard to find. “Unmanaged” as it were. To bring those titles back to life, companies like Amazon harness the enthusiasm of customers to find them and to recommend them to other people. Star ratings and the words “Customers who bought this item also bought” suggest what else might be worth looking at. This means the enthusiasts of the Long Tail of niche titles power the whole process themselves. Amazon staff don’t have to decide what to show people or guess what is worth looking at.

The small woods problem is very similar. How can the government, or the Forestry Commission, or even a hundred unitary and county councils help manage 200,000 small woods? They can’t, obviously. What they can do is provide an environment where the owners of those woods can get on with it themselves. But they don’t: legislation and planning rules which are tailored to big forestry aren’t appropriate for the half of English woodland in small woods. The rules are focussed on timber production and don’t scale down to the management of small woods, both those run with a commercial aim or those managed for “Natural Capital”, as part of flood defences or for conservation or amenity value – such as an ancient woodland site with a plan to remove invasive species and encourage native ones.

There are three planning issues which come up time and again amongst small woodland owners and managers:

  1. The existing permitted development rights for forestry buildings aren’t applied consistently or fairly by local planning authorities. Some councils are very reasonable. Some are obstructive. A family managing a small woodland at weekends isn’t the same as a self-contained contractor turning up with all their highly automated equipment on low loaders to start clear felling.
  2. To make small woodlands economic, many people want to do some finishing of the wood and timber they are harvesting. To go beyond just preparing it for sale as wood or timber. For instance making things into finished retail products like furniture, hurdles for fencing, even wooden sculptures. Simply including a line in the government’s planning guidance saying that all crafts using wood grown within that same woodland are always counted as ancillary to forestry would largely solve this problem.
  3. Lots of people want to live in the woods they work in. Maybe full time like Ben Law; or maybe part of the week or part of the year. You can already live in a “caravan” in woodland you work in, and a “caravan” can be a prefabricated log cabin brought on site in two sections. But you can only do this for “a season” at a time, which is “less than a year”, and outside of that time you need planning permission to leave your caravan there. If people are happy to live in their caravan where they work all year round, in a country with a housing shortage, they should be allowed to do it.

Brexit is turning everything upside down. Changes to grants. Changes to foreign trade agreements and tariffs. Changes to what we think it’s all for. If we want to make the most of what we have and do in this country, we need to think about what is underused. And in our corner of the debate, which has the label Forestry, it’s the half of woodland that is in small woodlands which is underused.

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Red deer in Windsor Great Park

These are some photos I took in Windsor Great Park in July. The park has been royal forest and attached to Windsor Castle itself since the time of William the Conqueror. As well as general pictures of the park, its open spaces and woodland, I took photos of very well established rhododendron (showing just how bad it can get unchecked) and the park’s herd of red deer.

I spent about three hours walking from the Virginia Water visitors’ centre to the middle of the Long Walk and back. I noticed some striking fungal brackets and decaying trees; fencing made from machined posts and roughly worked rails from the park itself; a table dedicated to woodland books in the Saville Garden shop; a curving walk with rhododendron bushes either side, some of which had grown into small trees, with dense rhodo undergrowth going back 10 or 20m on each side; in the deer park, the herd of red deer established by the Duke of Edinburgh, showing their division into a small male group and a much larger group of females and younger deer before the rut starts at the end of summer. Red deer are really woodland animals, with adaptations like the stags’ roar to call to females that are out of sight. The deer park has a mixture of open spaces with trees (like wood pasture) and woodland, and is probably closer to their natural environment than the denuded uplands that they now inhabit in the Highlands of Scotland.

In this gallery click on the thumbnails to get a larger version. After the gallery there’s a short video of red deer stags.

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Brown bears at JuraParc

Around the same time I photographed lynx, wild boar and wolves at the La Garenne zoo in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, I also had the opportunity to see the smaller JuraParc with its group of brown bears.

JuraParc is essentially a restaurant in a mountain pass which added a herd of North American bison, and then wolves, bear, and deer in a sheltered valley. The bison aside, all of these species are native to the Jura and Alps and exist in the wild to varying degrees. From the end of the ice age into the Middle Ages, wolves and bears were common in British woodlands too. Reintroducing them is less realistic than bringing back boar and lynx, but it’s certainly being suggested in fenced areas.

You can see in the first two pictures the layout of the site in the valley, with raised walkways which also form boundaries between the different enclosures. It’s much bigger than La Garenne, and they make use of the cliffs at the edge of the valley for the wolves and bears. I’ve included a short video which gives a better impression of the bears moving around the space and interacting.

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Creating the Glade

The glade at the centre of Century Wood was the first major feature I established after buying the wood almost ten years ago. I photographed the process as I went along and in this post I’ve brought the story together.

When I started there were no open spaces in the wood and just a short ride running from the gate but going nowhere near the wood’s centre. So I pretty much had a blank canvas. I roughed out some ideas for how to lay things out at the same time as completing the purchase in the first winter, but didn’t start work until the autumn – almost a year after first viewing and photographing the wood. In online woodland forums one of the first pieces of advice people now get is to wait a year before doing anything, and back then I knew I certainly wasn’t going to commit to any significant changes until I’d seen things in high summer.

In that first winter, I worked out the OS grid reference of the centre of the wood and then located it on the ground with a GPS receiver. I used this area as the initial “base of operations”, and the place where I kept the stuff I left on site, including a trolley, some hand tools, and a couple of benches. You can see this area in the photograph, with larger plantation poplars interspersed with natural regeneration including hazel, sycamore, and elder.

When I was ready to start felling, I worked out the placement which would require removing the least number of trees and bushes, which had the centre point of the wood near the north boundary of the clearing rather than at its own centre. My plan was to edge the glade with sections of the poplar trunks, and to drag all of the smaller branches and trunks past the boundary and allow them to rot away. I wasn’t going to burn any – apart from some hazel trunks I cut up and stacked as firewood. Having a definite, easily identifiable edge has made it easier to maintain, whether when mowing the ground vegetation or cutting back bushes which start encroaching. It gives you a clear line to work to.

To minimise the amount of hung up trees during the felling, I started near the centre and went round in a spiral felling the trees towards the centre into the increasingly large space I was creating. Doing this created the big mess shown in this photograph but it meant that when I came to cut the trees up on the ground, I did so from the edges inwards, with clear ground to drag branches across to the edge once I’d cut them free. Elsewhere in the wood I’ve cut up each felled tree as I’ve gone along as I’ve not been faced with the same scenario again. I still think it was the most efficient approach overall, but it was messy at the time.

The next pictures show some of the process, with the smaller branches removed first until I was just left with trunks, which were then cut up and used to edge the glade.

At one point I was joined by this mousey friend who I found hiding in amongst the logs waiting to be cut up.

I tackled the big trunks by making spaced cuts in the top sides, using wedges where necessary to stop the chainsaw getting pinched and trapped, and then turning the trunks to expose the uncut lower side. I didn’t have a cant hook for manhandling the trunks at that point, so I tended to turn them by getting them rocking back and forth until I could turn them over by giving a big heave at the right moment.

These next two pictures show the glade with the trunks cut up and used as edging, and only the stumps left. I cut all of the poplars at this height for safety (it’s easier to get away if you’re standing upright) and because I knew I was going to cut their trunks up into sections anyway. Over the next year or two I removed the stumps too, first by cutting them to ground level and then digging round them to be able to cut them down to below ground level. That’s a messy job that also blunts the chainsaw chain as you hit things in the soil, and it would probably have been easier with a stump grinder.

Finally these two pictures show the glade at the start of its first spring and in summer. You can see a couple of the poplar stumps with green shoots of regrowth in the summer picture. Now that the light could get in, a different mix of ground vegetation took hold. Still nettles, but increasingly being out competed by grass encouraged by mowing.

Posted in Tools, Woodland Skills | 1 Comment

Cheshire steam fair

Last weekend I was at the Cheshire Steam Fair, and one of the stands had a collection of vintage chainsaws and a portable steam saw. You can see some photos and video of them here.

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Mowing woodland rides and glades with a scythe mower

I started sketching out routes for the ride network when I bought Century Wood but only started work seriously about a year later. Before then as the first summer bloomed I was faced with ground vegetation, especially nettles, which threatened to become impenetrable. Over the years I’ve employed various techniques for mowing the rides and glades, or even just getting around. Eventually I settled on a scythe mower which is still serving me well seven years later.

The first few times I was faced with getting through stands of nettles above waist height I grabbed a stick and whacked the stems to break them. It’s surprisingly effective as long as the nettles aren’t too dense, and was ok for wading through as long as I had decent jeans to deal with the surviving stumps round my shins. Later I bought a machete and set about it in a more professional manner, but it’s a very labour intensive way of going for a walk through your wood. These tracks did last a week or two though, and so could be used for cutting out a route that less intrepid visitors could use. I still use this kind of approach if faced with nettles barring my way somewhere off a ride.

I experimented with using a garden roller, with its drum not yet filled with water, sand, or cement. That worked a lot better than you’d think too as nettles and cow parsley have stems that break rather than just bend as long grass does. You do feel like you’re walking on a rather springy bed make of the stems though, and it sounds like a ridiculous idea when you try to explain it.

I stepped up to a cheap no-name petrol brushcutter which was my first proper solution. With this I was able to cut all the rides to about eight foot wide, by making two trips over their one kilometre or so distance, and mow the glades and car park too. This took me about two days of work, so was feasible to do bit by bit more than once per season.

However, I knew a better solution was a petrol scythe mower. This is effectively a hedge trimmer set horizontally just above ground height and mounted on a pair of driven wheels with handles for you to steer and work the controls. These are extremely effective and tackle small woody growth in addition to anything green you put in their way. Since there are just two wheels with the cutter itself on skids, they also deal with uneven ground and small obstacles like logs that hide in the undergrowth.

The mower I bought is made by Al-Ko in Germany, and I managed to get a much better price by buying it online from France. I took a bit of a risk about the complications of returning it if faulty, but for ongoing maintenance and servicing buying a brand name rather than a “no name” machine from China was worth it. Plus the engine is Briggs and Stratton which most lawnmower workshops are familiar with already.

One of the key things about a scythe mower is that there’s lots of vibration. The springy handle bars don’t transmit it uncomfortably to my hands (unlike my no-name brush cutter) but you need to check for loose nuts and bolts each time. I lost one key plastic part of the cutter by not checking this enough, and the rapid side to side motion of the top blade threw it off into the undergrowth never to be seen again. Back home I tried welding together a replacement piece, but that started wearing down the adjacent pieces and I had to get (inexpensive) replacements from Germany. It’s worth getting more spares than you need, and carry spare nuts and bolts too in case things rattle free on site.

This year I decided to repaint the body of the mower, which started life at silver grey but inevitably got scuffed and rusted at the corners. I chose black to match the engine block and handle bars, and because it’s a discreet colour for equipment parked in woodland shade. Not that I leave it at the wood overnight. I also attached a small toolbox for things like a bottle of water and some bug spray.

The cutter consists of a fixed bottom blade and a moving top blade, each with triangular teeth about 5cm apart at the points. These slide over each other to cut, and that defines the thickest stem which can be cut through in one go. That’s about the size of a fat thumb, but in reality thicker ones can be cut by letting the blades chew at the sapling from one side. I’m cautious about doing this aggressively though, in case I overheat the engine.

For the nettles, cow parsley, saplings, grass, and other ground vegetation that I mostly deal with, the mower works very well. It’s also fine with isolated brambles which give up after a few passes over the year, but isn’t effective where the brambles have formed clumps woven in and around other plants. In that case slicing away at ground level doesn’t disturb the brambles very much, and they tend to spring back once the mower has gone past. So it’s necessary to do something else (machete, bill hook, secateurs, chainsaw?) to disconnect the brambles from their root and then start shredding them with the scythe mower.

These two pictures (click for bigger versions) show a before and after in the main glade of the wood last week. You can really see the height of the vegetation which the mower dealt with in a single pass. It hasn’t been mowed since 2015 so the grass has been suppressed by the other plants. I hope by the autumn it will have reasserted itself again.

It really deserves its own post, but I’ve also observed significant recolonisation of the rides by grass after repeated mowing. I also vary the edges of the rides that are mowed to encourage a variety of ground plants, but in some areas I just want grass for the amenity value.

These pictures show two sections of ride after mowing, and again you can get a rough idea of what the mower cut through from what’s still on either side.

In terms of protective equipment, the requirements are less than a brush cutter because you’re safely standing behind the handle bars while the engine is running. Especially, while the clutch for the cutter is engaged and the blades are moving. With the two clutch levers for the cutter and the driven wheels on different handles, it requires you stay safely at the back. All this goes out the window for other people around you of course and so it’s really a machine to be using without other people nearby.

I just use rigger gloves and a chainsaw helmet with visor and ear defenders beyond what I normally wear in terms of decent boots and thick jeans. I find gloves and visor to be essential when tackling nettles and cow parsley that are up towards eight foot high and tend to topple over towards me as they are cut at the base. The helmet itself protects me from any other surprises.

My reason for moving up from the brush cutter to the scythe mower was to reduce the time and effort taken to maintain the rides and glades, and this worked out very well. It’s less tiring but also faster, certainly in my amateur brush-cutting hands. What used to take me two days if I mowed everything, now takes a long afternoon and early evening, and when I was establishing the rides I did it all once a month for two summers.

I found that the least tiring pattern is to walk in straight lines or long lazy curves. Good for rides, and something that works in glades if I go in a spiral. What is very hard, harder than the brush cutter, is tight corners where you need to manhandle the mower round. So up and down stripes like you might do with a lawn mower aren’t a good idea. Reversing out of a clump of nettles that is just too thick and heavy to push through becomes very tiring too: it works better to keep trimming away at one edge so you’re always walking forwards.

All in all, the scythe mower has been one of the best investments I’ve made, especially for the amenity value of maintaining the grassed rides and open glades.

Posted in Rides, Woodland Skills | 1 Comment