Owning a plot of forest isn't just for the wealthy

For a new breed of nature-loving investors, it's a chance to give something back to the land – and preserve it for the next generation.

Meg Carter
Thursday 25 October 2007 00:00

Mike & Tracey Pepler

When the Peplers, who are both in their thirties, decided to relocate from Oxford earlier this year, they first scoured the country for a piece of woodland – and then made sure their new home would be close by.

"I used to work in silicon design and electronics," Mike Pepler says. "Then, around three years ago, I got very interested in energy issues – and worried about the coming oil crisis.

"I did an MSc in renewable energy and the environment, then got a job with the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy. Then, with some money I inherited, I decided to invest in land rather than bricks. So I bought my own wood."

With the couple's focus on a lower-energy future, they didn't want to take on a wood that needed to be managed with huge, heavy machinery. So they set out to find an area that they could manage in a small-scale, low-impact way, with just a chain saw. They looked for a wood that could be coppiced.

"Coppicing is a traditional way of managing woodland, involving the cutting down of selected young tree stems to near ground level," Pepler says. New shoots emerge and the tree grows back until, eventually, it is ready to be cut back again. By coppicing different sections of a wood in rotation, a variety of habitats can be created to boost the wood's biodiversity. Overgrown wooded areas often have more restricted plant and animal life because less light reaches the woodland floor.

Eventually, the Peplers found an eight-acre slice of woodland not far from Rye for £39,000. They bought it earlier this year. Pepler now works part-time and spends a couple of days a week in his wood, clearing tracks and making preparations for coppicing to get under way this winter – the best time to cut trees back, because leaves are shed and sap levels down. The wood has 125 oak trees, many of which are overshadowed by sweet chestnut trees, which he plans to thin out. It is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including adders and even a few wild boar.

Martin Garwood

This former headteacher and education adviser lives in Tonbridge, Kent, with his wife Marilyn, an art therapist. He bought 6.5 acres of woodland, not far from where he lives, for £29,000 when he was made redundant two years ago.

"It was a neglected piece of woodland that had had nothing done to it for 20 years, so it was a great family project," Garwood says. "With advice from a woodland consultant and the Forestry Commission, we began what has turned out to be a slow process of gradual coppicing."

Garwood works in his wood with groups of friends and family, and has held working woodland parties to share the load. He aims to fell half an acre of sweet chestnut a year, and is planting selected shrubs and trees to boost biodiversity.

"Sweet chestnut is not good for wildlife. It is not a tree that supports insects, so we are planting hazel and opening up the woodland floor to natural light. Even a small amount of felling can make a tremendous difference," he says.

"I get a small income from the wood from selling timber and logs, and I make and sell a small amount of charcoal to farm shops. It's also a sensible tax move, because not only is its value increasing as more people buy up woodland, but if you have managed a wood for at least two years, it is excluded from calculations for inheritance tax."

That said, Garwood insists that for him and his family, the real value of their piece of woodland lies in the opportunity it has given them to do something positive for the environment.

"The other issue, especially for someone who lives in the South-east, is about finding solitude," he says. "It is wonderful just to walk around and enjoy, and sitting there on a midsummer's evening with a bunch of friends and a few glasses of wine... nothing beats it."

Dan Skinner

An actor and teacher, Skinner lives in east London, but spends a couple of days each month in Kent tending the 10 acres of woodland he bought three years ago for £45,000.

"I'm building a solar wood kiln using chestnut at the moment," he says. "Green timber is worth little, and it can take a year for freshly cut wood to dry out fully. Drying it in a solar wood kiln, however, accelerates the drying-out process to four or five weeks, is low-impact and pretty much free."

Skinner bought his wood so that he could look after a piece of the environment himself. "I wanted to manage a piece of land in as ecologically friendly a way as I could. And I'm extremely glad I did."

He chose the site as a possible destination for day-trips for urban schoolchildren, and has already hosted a few visits. Now, he is working to make a small but regular income from selling wood and woodland products – money that he will put back into the cost of managing his wood.

"Attitudes to woodland are contradictory," Skinner says. "On the one hand, there is outrage at how tropical woodlands are being over-logged. On the other, planning rules closer to home are so restrictive that you can't even spend more than 28 nights a year on your own woodland while you look after it. There are tight restrictions on how many trees you can clear and how much wood you can sell, too. But surely it's better to sell locally sourced wood products, such as wood chip or charcoal, rather than imports, so long as it has been sustainably produced?"

Skinner's wood has sweet chestnut and Scots pine trees growing in it, but neither are native so another ongoing project is to thin these out. He is also working to open up a footpath that runs across his land and is about to work with a local expert to map the wood's fungi.

"Buying this wood is the best thing I've done," Skinner says. "It's there for me and for my five kids and two grandchildren to enjoy for life."

Branching out: how to buy and manage your own patch

* For decades, selected woodland areas have been divided into smaller plots and sold to private buyers. Demand for such chunks of woodland has grown sharply in the past few years, as interest in the environment has soared and urban sprawl placed a premium on undeveloped land.

* One company taking advantage of this is www.woodlands.co.uk, whose "Woodland For Sale" signs line many country roads. It packages woods into small plots for individual buyers, encouraging each to work with forestry experts to ensure proper management.

* Woodland owners are restricted by law from cutting down more than five cubic metres – one or two mature trees – in each quarter of the year without a felling licence, although coppicing is allowed. They are also prevented from putting up permanent buildings on their plots and restricted to spending 28 nights in their wood each year. Owners have a duty to maintain public rights of way.

* Re-foresting the UK has been a priority for successive governments since 1919, when the Forestry Commission was set up to re-establish the national timber reserve. Today, just under 12 per cent of the country is woodland – more than twice the land area that was wooded just 100 years ago.

* Despite this, the UK's long history of wood clearance for farming, development and fuel means that it is one of the least-wooded nations in Europe, where the average woodland cover in EU member states now stands at 37 per cent. This is why there is a growing emphasis not just on planting new woodland, but on better managing existing wooded areas that have been neglected by uninterested landowners.

* Working on the frontline, alongside the Forestry Commission, is an array of specialist organisations, including the Royal Forestry Society and the Small Woods Association. Companies such as www.woodlands.co.uk, who sell woodland to individual buyers, advise their clients to turn to these experts for advice.

* Opinion is divided on the merits of carving up woodlands into smaller plots and selling them off to different owners. Some people argue that a wood is more effectively conserved when it is managed consistently, as a single entity. Many smaller owners claim, however, that their efforts have a positive impact on the environment. Besides, the woodlands are protected by legislation.

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