Country Matters: That Scots pine has a terrific dbh

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AN AUCTION with nothing on view in the saleroom may sound a rum do; but that is what you expect if you buy raw timber, especially when most of it is still standing.

So it was on Tuesday when 100 prospective bidders packed into the Hare and Hounds hotel at Westonbirt, near Tetbury, to compete for 50 lots being offered by the South and West England branch of Forest Enterprise, the Forestry Commission's commercial arm.

Just down the road, the Westonbirt arboretum was blazing red and gold in its autumn glory, but at the sale there was nothing livelier than unillustrated catalogues to look at. Yet these were crammed with information, much of it rendered in cryptic initials.

Anyone could see that SP stands for Scots pine, EL for European larch, WH for western hemlock; but newcomers needed a little help with dbh (diameter at breast height) and DMP, which indicates that Dendroctonus Micans, or spruce-bark beetle, is present in the crop.

No matter, the level of expertise was extremely high, starting from the top.

The auctioneer, John Jenkins of the Monmouth firm Rennies, has conducted sales of this kind for 20 years, and during the past weeks he had driven hundreds of miles to inspect every lot on offer. Short, stocky and dark-haired, with a cheerful round face, he led off at breakneck speed, with just the right combination of serious information and banter.

The first lots were of saw-logs which had already been hauled to roadsides at points scattered between Cannock Chase and the New Forest. Prices ranged from pounds 28 to pounds 86 a cubic metre - and as some lots exceeded 1,000 cubic metres, large amounts of money were involved.

Each time the hammer went down, a sealed envelope was opened to reveal whether or not the reserve price had been reached. Several lots fell short and remained unsold.

My own special interest was in Lot 23 - three blocks of Douglas fir and western hemlock still standing in Purslow Wood, out in the wilds of Shropshire.

It was not that I had any intention of buying: rather, looking at the wood a few days earlier in the company of Dick Rogers, operations forester for the Marches district, I had become fascinated by the skill with which the growing timber had been assessed, and by the care with which the replanting was being planned.

In a block to be clear- felled, a team of men had moved through the trees, each shouting 'Mark]' as he scraped a blaze of bark off the trunk, with the booker, or record-keeper, calling 'Girth]' whenever he wanted a sample tree to be measured at breast height.

By this means the team had established that the compartment contained 1,264 trees, with an average dbh of 38 centimetres, and a computed volume of 1,382 cubic metres. Also included in the lot were extensive thinnings from two neighbouring blocks.

How much should all this be worth? The timber was excellent, but there were snags. The buyer would be responsible for felling the trees and hauling them. The site, on a steep hill, was not an easy one. In some places the extractors would not be able to use the roadside, as it harboured rare plants, among them stagshorn moss. If any Schedule 1 bird (such as a goshawk) took up residence in the wood during the spring, operations would have to be deferred until the nesting season was over.

As for the replanting, this had been planned not merely from maps, but also from panoramic photographs, with elaborate overlays to illustrate the effect of the new tree cover.

From a vantage point across the valley, Mr Rogers explained how he proposed to deploy a mixture of species so that the rejuvenated forest would blend more smoothly into the contours of the land.

But first the sale. Mr Jenkins did his machine- gun best. 'Lovely lot here.

Anyone say 65? Sixty, then. Sixty. Come on, fellows. I'm in your hands.

Sixty. I'm not going on repeating it. Sixty thousand it is. Sixty-one on the aisle. Two. Three.

'The bid's on my left at sixty-three. Four. Five. Thank you, sir. You keep waving, I'll keep counting. Six. Seven. Eight. Sixty- eight at the front of the room. Sixty-eight it is . . . sixty-eight thousand.'

BANG] went the gavel. An envelope was opened. Immediately the auctioneer announced, 'That lot is NOT sold, sir.'

The highest bidder now has the chance to negotiate with the Commission to see if a deal can be struck. If talks fail, the trees will be offered again at a later sale.

I shall be glad if they have won a short reprieve - but it is no use being sentimental when it comes to forestry. The cycle of planting and felling, life and death, must go on and I am confident that, over the next generation, the new Purslow Wood will grow up more beautiful than the old.