LOOKING BACK – 250 Metres x 15 metres average, scalloped edges



STILL TO BE DONE – Oak to be pollarded


JOB DONE – Tractor turning point, Piccadilly Circus

Our work with the wood, this year, was harder than usual. There was the constant rain and mud. I had hurt my back in a fall. The PTO winch which runs off the back of the tractor broke, so we could not drag the timber out which was actually probably a good thing because the ride (track) was too muddy anyway.

From a self-centred perspective, I have produced about £4000 of firewood and a few thousand hazel thatching spars worth about £200. I have paid two helpers and we can take pride in a good job done in very difficult conditions.

From an inclusive flow perspective, the woodland has more light being let in, which will enable the natural regeneration of oak, ash, birch and hazel seedlings. If the future is like the past, then the oak will grow for hundreds of years, the ash for 100+, the birch for 70 and the hazel for hundreds of years, that is, if it is cut (coppiced) every eight to 16 years. For this to happen, the area must be protected from browsing deer which is why the next job will be to erect a deer fence.

Tragically, our ash and oak trees are under the threat of multiple diseases, such as Chalara Fraxina (ash-dieback) which are being spread as never before by the #globaleconomy . So small leaved Lime trees (not the citrus tree) and Wild Service trees, which were common thousands of years ago before humans favoured  and selected oak, ash and hazel, will be planted, next year. Since Lime and Wild Service trees have been very rare in woods for thousands of years, my wager is that they may not be affected by the diseases which have evolved to inflect oak and ash. While the flow cannot be controlled, it might be possible to deflect it it in a different direction. It is definitely worth a try

Please note that the coupe is ‘scalloped’ to make the edges as long as possible. The reason is that it is the edge environment — the space between the high forest and the clearing — where the greatest diversity of life occurs. The same is true in the human world. There is much more scope for cultural creativity in the both-and spaces around the edges of communities, rather than the either-or spaces at their centre.

Letting in the light for regen by the thousand

Letting in the light for regen by the thousand

The deer fence has been ordered. We plan to erect it next week. The space already has scores, if not hundreds, of half-inch ash seedlings.



The time of charcoal burning, like everything else this year, came late and in a bit of a rush. Last year’s surplus was sold all sold off in a week. The demand is there to be met. So burning needed to be started, even though clearing the brash (branches which are too small to use) in the natural ash nursery has not yet been finished.

One of the great things about charcoal burning, in theory at least, is that it goes on by itself in parallel with other productive activities, such as clearing brash, sawing timber or writing books. With this idea in mind, I brought my old laptop computer to run off the solar power in the cabin space, so I could work on the long promised third edition of Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge.

Full steam ahead

Full steam ahead

Since it was, for me, the first burn of the season, I thought it would prudent to light only two barrels concurrently, instead of the usual four. The lighting and the loading of the bins went perfectly. The smoke billowed out copiously, made almost perfectly white by the steam coming from the carbonising wood. One of the crucial factors in a burn is how long it takes for the moisture and the gases to be cooked out of the wood before the charcoal starts burning itself, risking a little pile of white ash at the bottom of the bin, rather than it being half full of beautiful black charcoal. A quick burn is about four hours. A slow one can take six.

So three and half hours practising parallel processing with the computer would leave some time in hand in case the burn went faster than expected. Back at the cabin I spent nearly three hours trying to connect my lovely old Protec computer screen to my vintage Dell Latitude before realising that I would need to get a driver, impossible without an online connection. Considerably wound up by this time (including the “silly me” feeling inflicted by the machine), I thought I would go out early to watch the last clouds of white smoke before the end of the burn.

It takes about 10 minutes to walk from the cabin to the burn site. After about five minutes, I began to worry. I could see no smoke. Had the charcoal been made, and was it now burning itself up? When I arrived, there was no smoke. Even the piece of wood which I used to prop the lid open to let air in was black with one end beginning to glow red. It fell on the ground, near a pile of charcoal I had unloaded from Mike the Druid’s first burn, the week before. My priority was to close the lids and smother the fire by removing the bricks from under the barrels, starving the now burning charcoal of oxygen.

It may have been two minutes later, certainly not more than three, that I looked up and noticed one tiny wisp of smoke coming from a corner of the pile of Mike’s charcoal. It must have been ignited by the smoking end of the ventilation prop. No problem. I put out a minuscule red glow, and went back to making sure no air could get into the bins. When I looked again after another minute or two, there was another tiny wisp, and then another even smaller one. Damn. I began to spread out the pile of charcoal to find the glowing bits to extinguish. But unlike with a wood fire, I realised to my horror, that by spreading it out I was just letting more oxygen get to to more of the charcoal, while pushing the the tiny glowing embers out into the dry woodland full of brash tinder. For a while, I thought I could just pick out out the smoldering bits of charcoal by hand, and save the rest. I couldn’t. The only thing to do was shovel up every last piece into the (luckily) metal wheel barrow to sort out it on a large slab of concrete surface back at the cabin.

By the time I arrived there were still only two or three wisps of smoke coming from a wheel barrow which was piled high with lovely black charcoal. I emptied it on the concrete floor still thinking I could separate the burning bits from the non-burning bits. Wrong again! Without a lot of water, the charcoal proved to be impossible to put out. I had to pile it into all available metal buckets and charcoal burners rendering about £30 worth of charcoal into a few cupfuls of white ash.

Just in case, exhausted and fraught as I was, I went back to the burn site, to check whether any minute grains or fines I might have left behind could have re-ignited. They had. I had to bury it all eight inches deep where the clay is was still damp..

Although it cost me £30 and a couple of hours extra work, of course, the lesson about the dangers of charcoal burning was priceless.

The lesson is:

  • Do not spread glowing charcoal to put it out as with a normal wood fire.
  • The ONLY way to make sure it is safe is either to burn it all, or soak it with water
  • ABOVE ALL, take all precautions not to light English Coppice Charcoal outside a metal or stone burner.

There is a second lesson, too.

  • British Coppice Charcoal is very easy to light, it burns for a long time and it does not go out
  • It is just what is needed for a BBQ.
Charcoal bags

3 kg bags


The next day I returned, having learned my lessons. Obviously, I could not practice parallel processing with the charcoal burning in the cabin. I would need to be there watching all the time. So I took the laptop with me, and hence also a folding chair. The frustration and controlled panic of the previous day was replaced with the ever-moving, rustling, buzzing and singing calm of a sunny woodland on a warm day. On the principle of always coming back stronger the second (or third) time after a setback, I lit all four barrels. In half an hour, the white smoke was billowing again in its endlessly fascinating curvaceous patterns. I set up the chair in deep shade of a huge split oak tree and a grove of young hornbeam.

The office

The office

Burning Apprentice

Burning Apprentice

I opened the laptop and found the file I had been working on, when out of the smoke bounded a black dog, followed by Clifford, the Actor, who had said he had wanted to learn to burn charcoal. Naturally, I shared the safety lesson of the previous day first. It took a relaxed 45 minutes to show him how the whole process works, that is, except suffocating the fire down at the end. After another hour of chat and rehearsing a comedy routine, Clifford departed, leaving me alone with the portable … and the rest of the woodland and rolling white smoke.

This day’s lesson is that with proper safety precautions charcoal burning does not have to be a hard, dirty and hot two day long industrial job done by sweaty labourers with coal-black faces. It can be relaxing, genteel and even heavenly. It is something that anybody can do with a used oil drum or two. There is a ready market for the product. British Coppice Charcoal burns far better than the lump-wood imports. And most importantly, it gives people another motivation for managing derelict woodland for bio-diversity, not to mention the pure pleasure of doing it.

The day’s burn yielded seven bags — about £40 worth which is better than a “slap in the belly with a wet fish”, as my father used to say.

As for the parallel processing work with the computer, I cannot claim much success. I found that mere mental work could not rise beyond being a mere distraction from simply being there with all the other beings, although some useful thoughts did cross my mind.

This year, the winter’s work graduated from the young hazel coupes to the high forest. The objective was to fell 85 per cent of the trees, leaving only the very best oak trees, about 20 of the best ash and a few lucky birch trees to add a bit of variety. Of course, all the dastardly Holly had to be removed, too.

Felling thickly wooded high forest is a tricky business, requiring a lot of thought about which direction to fell a tree and which trees have to be felled first to make the space for it to come down in. They may not be Giant Redwoods, but most of the trees were about five stories high, plenty big enough to kill if you make a mistake.

New open space for 1000s of naturally regenerated seedlings

New open space for 1000s of naturally regenerated seedlings

I couldn’t have done it, but for one of those pieces of reverse bad luck. On the first day, by dint of a mix up in fuel containers, I completely ruined my “little” Husqvarna 357XP by putting in pure petrol. (I will never do that again!!) About two years earlier, a Defra grant helped me buy a Husqvarna 372XP, but I had always thought it was too big for me, especially with a 24″ bar. Now, I had no choice, so I put the 357’s 18″ bar on it, and, suddenly, it was like being superman. If I had continued using the 357, I would still be out there, instead of telling the story.

Last week, the felling objective was met. Now, we are stacking the massive amount of prime oak, ash and birch fire wood, while making huge, bird, snake and invertebrate friendly brash piles. We also have five or six nice lengths of oak for the sawmill, and even some birch big enough for planking.

In two years, a crop of thousands of ash seedlings will sprout into the new light. Then all we have to do is keep the Holly regrowth in check and KEEP THE DEER OUT with a fence. The experts are saying that one in 10 trees are resistant. Lets say I have 10,000 seedlings … we would still have too many ash trees for the area. So let’s say, it is only one in a 1000 that are resistant, then we would still have 10 resistant trees, wouldn’t we? And that would be priceless.

See also: FROM ASH TO ASHES – How to deal with die-off and ecocide

A couple of weeks ago, I was characterising holly as a cancerous blight advancing over the woodland floor shading out all other life.

The dark Hollylands

BEFORE – The tangle which kills diversity

Cutting down the thick tangle of these 30+ year old trees was described as particularly hellish, chaotic and prickly. I was wondering then whether I had been mad to sign a holly clearance contract with the Forestry Commission when my woodland officer, David Rowe (now posted to the Cotswolds) told me the Commission would share the costs because Holly was classed as an invasive species.

Now the job is done, I can only thank the Forestry Commission officer for persuading me to do it. After the first couple of days, the chaotic and frenzied nature of felling such heavy and hung up trees (never the right state to be in with a chain saw), became much more like a surgical operation. As with all felling, rule number one is clean up the brash as you go.

As the open space began to grow, the real wood began to emerge. Great oak trees whose towering presence had been somehow obscured by the 30 foot holly trees hemming them in from all sides — literally thousands of pounds worth of sawn timber, just from the oaks which need thinning out … and literally shed loads of birch and ash firewood.

The light comes in

AFTER – Birth of a new world of light I (note huge brash piles)

Of course, most important of all is the light which for the first time in at least 30 years penetrates to the forest floor creating the potential for a new world of plants and animals, a radically richer ecology. Of course, the first thing that will happen is that the holly will try to grow back, but that can be dealt with in a couple of hours with a bill hook, rather than eight days with a chainsaw.

So now we must rise to the occasion. This winter we must fell the firewood and the timber, move it to the ride side, and then put a deer fence up before the Spring. While we may plant some hazel for spar making, the real excitement is to see what the soil remembers after so many years. When we see what sun and soil regenerate, then we can decide to nudge the potential in one direction or another.

And if this work is done every year at this time, there is the added advantage of being able to sell the holly berries.

All the great character trees in the wood have a name. This Ash is called the Welcome Tree because our visitors love to sit in its mossy hand and marvel at his enormous strength of the thumbs up. Ash is not merely an “iconic” English tree, it is an awesome tree in so many ways. It serves us with the most wonderful firewood and the most lovely knot-free timber. Its beauty is towering and delicate at the same time. Its curves are so graceful, so feminine, yet so strong, its wood so pure white and pink.

The Welcome Tree: The great Thumbs up is on the left, the Palm and Finger are on the right.

As a small woodland owner and tree-lover, my heart is being torn to shreds by the all-too-imminent threat of Ash Die-off (Chalara fraxinea), but I also know that I must make crucial decisions in order to best protect our community of trees and wildlife without going financially bankrupt. For once, my skills as an intelligence analyst and curator might be useful to the woodland. Because this crisis is happening in real time, a proper intelligence collection and analysis is necessary. I start here by framing and structuring two key questions.: 1) Who is responsible, and 2) What we must do now.

1) Who is responsible?

UK Government: Here are two bits of evidence which point towards government policy, combined with insane EU free trade regulations, as being to blame. An article in the Guardian quoted Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary,”The government also ignored the Forestry Commission’s warning that there was no money to tackle tree disease and cut its cash by 25%, forcing seven offices to close and cutting 250 staff.” About the Labour record on the issue, it has to be said, they did nothing about the threat for their whole time in office. From my own experience of the Forestry Commission, their staff were already desperately overworked having to deal with the imported fungal pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, which is devastating larch forests.

The EU: According to a knowledgeable and well connected informant, “The basic weakness is that the free trade, required of EU members, does not allow the control of plant imports. However there is then the exercise of control once a disease is discovered. Often the controls are brought into place too late.” Sometime in the early 2000s there was a new disease of alder, mainly in Cornwall, of which I have heard little recently. In the last few years  there have been discoveries of Asian(?) longhorn beetle in Kent, another new disease of sweet chestnut from the Continent, oak wilt from roughly the California region and red pine needle blight. With ash they are claiming the disease could have arisen naturally in E Anglia from wind or bird carried spores from Poland. You can draw your own conclusion, it would not have happened in NZ, where strict entry controls are enforced on plants, animals, equipment and both clothing and foot wear.” My conclusion is that EU free trade policy (not to mention globalised free trade ideology) has left our trees wide open to infection, as never before, and that without a massive change in ideology and subsequent policy, the open door will continue to admit more and more pathogens. My expectation would be that the necessary changes will not happen.

The Press: The press has made hardly a mention of a disease wiping out Ash trees all over Europe since the early 1990s. Any journalist worth his salt would have been telling the story of the “catastrophic ecocidal risk” from the Continent to Britain’s “iconic” woodland heritage and the scandalous, indeed “traitorous” disregard [by whom? – fill in candidates], at least two or three years ago. If, as The Telegraph alleges, the government has been burning infected Ash plantations secretly for months, has there been some kind of wider cover up to protect some interest lobby? Or is it just journalistic incompetence? When I was a journalist, the work used to be about getting “scoops”, breaking new stories. Now journalism seems to be about waiting around until the story comes out, and then doing it to death, tearing it apart and everyone associated with it, like hounds setting on a cornered fox.

The ‘Public’: People believe they must travel all over the world for business and pleasure, that they must sources their goods from places with the lowest costs and wages. “Economies of scale” was said to be the reason we sent our own ash seedlings to Holland to grow on, and re-import them in an infected state. These days, the movement of people and things from place to place all around the world is nothing short of frenetic. As the number of movements increases, so do the risks, probably exponentially. Of course, if people used Web technology intelligently and thought of the trees (and the rest of creation) before they thought of themselves, then much of this movement would be unnecessary, and the threat risk might then decrease. possibly exponentially. Nothing less than a change of heart would be necessary. In this case, my expectation would be that the necessary change of heart would be unlikely, but more possible than a change of government policy. People can have a change of heart. I know because I had one, and stopped globe trotting 15 years ago. The immediate bonus is that the change gives you time. It gave me the time to devote to the woodland. The other immediate benefit is it gives you more money to spend on what is important.

2) What we must do now

Welcome Tree: Endangered from this day forth

Woodland Owners: The first priority must be strict bio-security measures. Public access to woodland containing Ash trees will have to be curtailed … perhaps drastically. This measure would be especially difficult, perhaps impossible, for bodies such as the Woodland and National Trusts who depend on footfall for their income. I suspect that they may have the added problem that they may have planted infected trees in their own reforestation programmes and they need to come clean on this issue. As for myself, my expert informant advises, “Fungal spores usually require still humid conditions to infect the vulnerable host. This is a more likely condition in dense un-thinned stands than in more open stands where the wind can go through.” I have drawn a further inference which is that the spores are liable to travel on the lorries used by bulk firewood (and timber) buyers, especially when the weather is damp. It is possible that the government will restrict wood movements, too. I will therefore have to expand our direct to customer firewood market, and stopping all sales to professional buyers which means building more shed space and marketing expense, but more potential profit. I will also change my priority from thinning oak, to thinning ash which means developing a different sawn timber market.

UK Government: Be honest and open. Admit mistakes. Share knowledge and responsibility. Mobilise people. Provide the financial resources necessary for optimal Forestry Commission response. Do not interfere with professional decisions. Make a high profile push to change EU policy and legislation.

The EU: Adopt policies which prioritise environmental issues, and using the EU’s founding principle of subsidiarity (the most power possible to the most local body possible) to give local communities the power to protect themselves from the consequences of free trade. Above all, the precautionary principle must be made to trump economic interests in all policy making, so the EU will not continue to repeatedly close barn doors after the horse has bolted. For the longer termdraft legislation outlawing and punishing ecocide following the principles of

The Press: Attack this story like hounds to the fox. Tear it apart. Expose the hidden agendas. Find what is really significant. And let us know what’s next, instead of dishing it out after the fact. Above all, ask the difficult ‘why’ questions, not the simple ‘what’ ones.

The ‘Public’: Have a change of heart. It is not for nothing that in Norse Legend the Ash was the Tree of Life upon which the existence of the whole world of heaven and earth hung from its branches and came from its roots. All our ancestors have lived with this tree for tens of thousands of years. Can we let them go, first, without doing our utmost to protect them from ourselves. Do not complain if access to the woods is denied, but consider it to be your personal contribution to their survival. And if the Ash should come to an early and unnecessary end, then do not let it and its rich woodland world pass away without, at least, a change of heart. To paraphrase JFK, it’s not what our woodlands can do for us, it’s what we can do for our woodlands.

Before: Nothing grows in the dark

Nothing at all grows under Holly trees. They take all the light and and extend their darkness in all directions. The Forestry Commission helps with the expenses of culling what they classify as an “invasive species”.

The Holly thicket is extra prickly and dense. The wood is very heavy and one tree is always hung up against another which means a lot of pull and pushing. Not only is it extremely uncomfortable, awkward and backbreaking to fell, but like all small trees it can kill you for being stupid and careless.

The amount of brash Holly produces is also enormous. We make great piles of it as safe habitat for whoever wants to use it, rather than burning it. It takes two brash men, in this case Andrew, our Coppiceman, and his son Jay on his mid-term holidays, to clear up and one chainsaw man. The big question is now that the light has been let in, what will come up in the Spring? It could be bluebells and / or foxgloves, new food for the bees, maybe some ash, oak or hazel seedlings and no doubt brambles.

We will never be able to “control” all the Holly. Indeed, it has nearly five acres of giant oak sized Holly trees in the real Hollywood. But at least we can restore a “fairer” more diverse balance of nature in places.

After: With light comes the promise of new life

A little known fact about Holly wood is that it burns best, “like wax”, when it is green.