Burning trees is good for the planet

The British Charcoal Group (BCG) is adamant that burning timber benefits our woodland ecology. "Any woods left to go rampant become a mess," insists Don Kelly of BCG. "Using the excess for charcoal, ultimately helps to open up the canopy and improves the environment for wildlife."

However, over the last few decades the ancient woodland industry of charcoal burning has been relegated to museums, while we have imported charcoal from tropical rain forests and mangrove swamps. Meanwhile British woodlands, formerly cut to the ground on a regular 10-15 year cycle, have tended to become dense forest. Certainly, this provides a valuable haven for some flora and fungi but it is detrimental to the growth of young saplings, and many wild flowers and insects.

Today, the DIY chain, B&Q, is helping to put this declining industry back on its feet. Trial sales of British charcoal undertaken at a handful of B&Q stores in 1994 were so successful they were extended to 30 more stores in 1995 and are to spread this year to 120 of the company's 277 outlets. B&Q maintains that customers are appreciating the superior quality and green credentials of the British product. And, indeed, charcoal burners have increased in number from 50 a few years ago to 300.

To make charcoal, you burn wood in conditions with insufficient oxygen for complete combustion - basically it's cooked. In the days before the introduction of steel kilns, charcoal burners bulked their wood into conical stacks, covering them first with straw and then with ashes and earth.

Burning charcoal was dropped down the chimney at the centre of the clamp followed by dry sticks to ignite the wood. When the fire had spread through the stack, the hole at the top was plugged with mud. The burner would then watch the smouldering fire for about a week, and earth would be added to dress any weak places. If a strong wind occurred and the fire broke out then the whole batch would be lost. Charcoal burning was therefore practised only during summer when the winds were not too ferocious.

Today the process is a great deal easier: charcoal burners stash the wood in steel kilns with conical lids. They still need to watch over the smouldering wood to ventilate it and make sure the burning is even. Some traditional methods are still used, though: where it is necessary to prevent air entering from the top and bottom of the kiln, the lid is sealed with earth.

The British Charcoal Group estimated that in 1995 shoppers bought around 50,000 tonnes of charcoal, of which only 3000 tonnes came from British burners - a huge potential scope for expansion. In addition, around 20,000 tonnes of charcoal went to industry for such products as filters and chemical processing as well as agriculture and horticulture.

British charcoal, though, isn't cheap. It costs up to 200 per cent more than the imported product. Sales are largely based on claims of superior quality and on a "green" appeal. But despite the expense, B&Q says it cannot get enough British charcoal - what is holding the company back is supply.

B&Q orders its stock through the Bioregional Charcoal Company, which has a network of charcoal burners around Britain. The British Charcoal Group, meanwhile, has part-time burners from all walks of life. "We've got everyone from a retired airline pilot to practising solicitors," says Mr Kelly. He insists that therenewed appeal of British charcoal lies in its quality and says that now big concerns such as B&Q are entering the market, more people are taking up charcoal production. "But even so, we're not using anything like the amount of wood available," he says. "Even though modern steel kilns have helped increase the quantity available."

Bryan Wilson, a blacksmith based in Mid-Wales, is one of the largest producers of charcoal kilns and graders in the country. "We're now making kilns for people from Argyle in Scotland to the Isle of Wight - anyone who's got access to lots of wood," says Mr Wilson. "We started making the odd kiln five years ago, sold 25 last year, and should at least double that in 1996."

Before the last war, Britain's woods were a hive of activity with coppice workers in abundance: greenwood furniture-makers turning poles on foot- driven lathes, wattle hurdles made from woven hazel, stakes for the local hedge-layers and any unsuitable wood being used for charcoal production. Perhaps this scene will become commonplace once more.

Since separating from her husband three years ago, 35-year-old Colette Mead has taken up a career in various woodland skills to support herself and her two children. "My aim was to find work which involved wood, so I took chainsaw proficiency tests and a charcoal burning course, where I met Phil who is now my business partner," says Colette.

"Initially, Phil employed me to work alongside him contract hedge-laying until we decided to take up tree thinning, coppicing and charcoal burning as a business together. When we realised that offering a service to extract timber using heavy horses was a viable proposition, we bought two - an Ardenne and a Dutch draft," Colette explains.

"We pull timber out of woods which is either too inaccessible for big machinery, or under SSSI (site of special scientific interest) protection where only selective thinning is allowed," says Colette. "Transporting large machinery long distances is often uneconomic for owners of small remote woodlands. Here, Phil and I compete favourably on price as well as being faster with the horses."

Another factor is the minimal damage horses make in the woods. When thinning is required, machines can only remove whole lines of trees regardless of size and quality, whereas horses can extract individuals.

During the summer months Colette also cuts hazel coppice at her home on the Flete estate in South Devon.

Phil and Colette have three, 7ft 6in steel charcoal kilns. Each one has the capacity for around one and a half tonnes of wood taking over two hours of hard graft to cut, split and load. Such work is tough going - too tough, some think, for women to do well. Tony Morgan, a forestry contractor, feels there are few women who could well work with timber: "Our work is far too punishing for many men let alone a woman."

However, Richard Edwards of the Coppice Association believes women should be encouraged: "Women make brilliant coppice workers, they often have a better eye and a gentler touch with timber than a man," he says

Colette, meanwhile, is determined to succeed in this business. The hours are long and the work exhausting. "Felling trees and hauling timber out of woods is tough manual labour and demands a high level of fitness. However, I am thriving on it and it's wonderful for the figure."

Helen Lewis

Charcoal burning in Devon

Coppicing in the Cotswolds

In a clearing in Upton Wood, high on the edge of the Cotswolds, Michael White is hard at work. He's usually up and about by 5.30am, and half an hour later he's already working, lighting fires to make charcoal. He doesn't have far to travel in the morning - he lives in a tent pitched in an old barn a few hundred yards away.

Michael is a coppice merchant. He cuts the new growth from trees such as ash, hazel and willow, and uses it in a variety of traditional woodland crafts such as bodging - furniture making.

Coppicing is an ancient practice, with evidence of its use in Britain dating back to Neolithic times. Certain trees can be cut back periodically allowing them to regrow. New wood can be cut every five to 20 years, and trees can be cut in rotation to yield wood every year. By the 1960s coppicing had all but died out, but now it is making a comeback.

Bearded, burly, and constantly drawing on a roll-up, "Bodger" White, 50, looks a typical rural character. But he's actually from Fulham. After a stint in the army, he tried his hand at just about every manual job going. And in the Eighties he became disillusioned with city life.

"I used to go out on my Honda 90 motorbike, up to Yorkshire or wherever, and just stop and talk to country people. I started learning their country skills. I thought well, society's gone so far now, this is the end of the road. I'm getting out."

He went on to work on big country estates - Bowood, in Wiltshire, and Bathhurst near Cirencester, Gloucestershire - and became convinced there was a growing market for woodland products. He approached Gloucestershire County Council, who were impressed with his ideas and offered him the use of Upton Wood, near Cheltenham.

Now he has set up the UK Underwoodsman's Association to encourage others to learn these forgotten arts. The scheme has the backing of Gloucestershire County Council and Business Link Gloucestershire, part of a national DTI- sponsored organisation which promotes small and medium-sized businesses.

Gloucestershire's countryside management officer Mark Connelly says: "The time is right. There's much more interest now in sustainable products, particularly British charcoal. There's also much more interest in garden- type things, like hurdles and furniture."

Paul Bevan of Business Link Gloucestershire firmly believes coppicing and associated crafts can be commercially viable. "We wouldn't be doing this if it was just a pastime," he says. "We are involved because we see the potential for a sustainable business to be created out of this."

But as Michael says, it's a hard way to make a living: "A lot of unemployed people coming into my courses were trying to gain a skill and a lot of them thought being out in the woodland would be very good, but when they get out there and find out just how difficult it is, many give up. I would say 50 per cent of them fall by the wayside after a few months."

Martin Whittaker

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