The woodbegoods

Helen Lewis has a dream of owning a wood
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The Independent Online
Buying your own patch of land as an investment - and as a bit of space you can call your own - has become increasingly popular for those with a bit of spare cash. You buy, not to build but to manage nature. And, for my part, the thought of owning a small area of woodland has a distinct appeal. But how do I set about it? Don't get me wrong; I am no sentimentalist intent on giving nature a free hand to run amok. My aim is a well maintained area of mixed hardwood trees interspersed with paths and the odd clearing to sit in for family picnics. I want to cut firewood for my log burner at weekends. but still provide a haven for wildlife. I understand that this is the basis of environmental woodland management, but I need some sound advice.

My first port of call is to Chris and Ann Hughes, who have impeccable qualifications for advising anyone with an interest in woodland. Together they run a centre for instructing practical woodland skills and advise on woodland conservation for the Countryside Commission for Wales. They also own a small wood - and have learnt a great deal from their own experience.

Nine years ago, Chris and Ann bought 10 acres of mixed deciduous woodland, once a conifer plantation which had been felled during the war, burnt over in readiness for the next crop of trees, then never replanted. The conifers did not regenerate naturally and deciduous trees took over.

"When we bought the wood it was so overgrown we could only get into it in one corner - no one had touched it for more than 30 years. However, with patience, careful planning and a lot of hard work we have created a pleasant, stable environment," explains Ann.

Looking around their wood, I am struck by the variety of tree species. Oak, ash, sycamore, poplar, alder, willow, lime, holly and field maple all thrive in a relatively small area surrounded by hedges of indigenous blackthorn, hazel, hawthorn and bird cherry. This was just what I was looking for, but where do I find my own leafy sanctuary, and how will I put a realistic value on it?

"A land agent is the best source, but try local estate agents, too," Ann advises. "The sale particulars will contain a description of where the wood is, its aspect, the main tree species within it, their age, and the woodland's potential - the yield class.

"This gives a guide to the productive capacity, how much timber per hectare you can extract each year, with it continuing to produce the same amount. Obviously, if the timber is valuable then the asking price will be higher," she explains.

However, Chris points out, the ultimate value is what a wood is worth to the person buying, and not everyone has the same reasons for purchasing. "Some people acquire a wood because they look out of their window on to it every day and want control over what happens to it, while others just want a piece of wood for environmental reasons. There are those who buy woodland just because it is a relatively inexpensive form of land investment, whereas others have plans for the trees' productivity and want to make their mark on the landscape."

Whatever the reason for buying, access is an important consideration. Before buying my wood I must decide whether timber-felling and tree-thinning are going to be done by myself with my Land Rover and trailer, or by a contractor who will want to bring tractors and possibly lorries in. At the very least I will need a gated entrance, somewhere to park, and paths to walk round. And being a novice, I will also need a plan of action.

"Once you have purchased, contact the local forestry authority and ask for the private woodlands officer. He will survey your wood - free of charge - and advise on a five-year management strategy and the available grants."

Chris brings the discussion around to the matter of insurance. "In exactly the same way as owning a house or any other piece of land, you must have third-party insurance on a piece of woodland because you may be liable if someone has an accident, especially if you have a dangerous tree which should have previously been removed."

Achieving anything worthwhile with a piece of woodland, I am told, is a long-term commitment. Take the endless free advice available, be prepared for a winter storm to ruin your best plans - and leave room to adapt.

Chris and Ann Hughes, Woodland Skills Training Centre 01597860574