Stick Farming
In times of fuel poverty we cannot afford the luxury of planting trees, writes Richard Edwards, allowing them to grow for 100 years to store carbon


any people reading this article will be aware of the importance that the UK Government attributes to trees in tackling climate change by methods of carbon sequestration and storage. The Forestry Commission (FC) has recently published its thoughts on the subject (Combating Climate Change – A role for UK forests (1)). The document suggests that ‘Woodlands planted since 1990, coupled to an enhanced woodland creation programme of 23,000ha per year over the next 40 years (2million acres), could, by the 2050s, be delivering, on an annual basis, emissions abatement equivalent to 10% of total GHG emissions at that time. Such a programme would represent a 4% change in land cover and would bring UK forest area to 16% which would still be well below the European average.’ To quote the eminent botanist and historian Professor Oliver Rackham OBE: ‘For its practical effect, telling people to plant trees {to tackle climate change} is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.’ There is another way, and it involves making better use of what we already have. We need to improve the way that our broadleaved woodlands are managed, we need to make firewood/woodfuel competitive in terms of value, ease of use and efficiency when compared to fossil-fuels (the cause of fuel poverty), and, in doing this, cut carbon waste, create rewarding jobs and increase biodiversity. A tall order? Of course, but a twin approach to care in woodland management and use of the resource could produce some remarkable solutions. Who knows? We may even be able to ‘save our forests’ along the way.

The business of wood energy

If you want big trees you’ll need to pollard, like this willow

The costs of gas, coal, electricity and oil are never going to come down in price because these resources are getting more difficult to exploit and more costly to supply. Wood, on the other hand, if managed properly, can continue to provide energy for centuries to come, with gains in biodiversity outweighing the minor detrimental effects of the urgent changes required in UK woodland management policies. There has never been a better time to develop a business around the supply of woodfuel. The Government wants a low carbon economy, and an industry based on efficient methods of growing, processing and burning woodfuel can help deliver this aim. Given that 35% of the UK population are currently experiencing fuel poverty, then this is the time for wood – but not as we know it.

An ‘average’ three-bed house in the UK requires between 7-12 tonne of firewood a year – to heat water and room-space. According to FC data (2), around 500,000 tonnes of firewood was burned as woodfuel in 2010. If we suggest that at least half of this firewood was used to generate comfort fire (heating nothing more than one room) it follows that fewer than 25,000 households in the UK rely totally on firewood for heat/warmth/energy. Given that there are 25million households in the UK, it would appear that there is considerable scope to increase this market share! For firewood/woodfuel to become more attractive in the energy market it needs to compete with the ease of a switch: every other source of domestic energy can be turned on at the wall, and people are comfortable with this. From where it is today, firewood is very unattractive as a form of domestic fuel when compared to the ‘norm’. The greatest problem to overcome before we can skip down this particular yellow-brick-road is that there are too many BIG trees in the way. Big trees demand the attention of big machinery, lots of oil, energy, time, handling, processing, mess, noise and they hold too much water. Cutting big trees for firewood is nothing more than madness, but it’s the norm in our broadleaved woodlands today. Processing and burning woodchip simply doesn’t add up and warrants no further comment here. The future of wood energy is in small trees, natural regeneration, coppice and short-rotation-coppice.

The Business of wood

Most would agree that we need more woodland cover in the UK, and, of course, trees will capture carbon dioxide and store carbon, but when there

are more than 500,000 acres of ‘neglected’ broadleaved woodland in the UK, with more than 500,000 deer roaming through them, often unchecked – chewing bark (killing trees), eating plants (oxlip, primrose, etc...) and any natural regeneration – then it seems hypocritical to create more woodland when so much lies neglected. Deer grazing is a bigger threat to ‘our forests’ than Government sell-offs! The term ‘neglected’, when applied to broadleaved woodland, often indicates lack of management. The term is also widely used for old coppice that has not been cut for more than 40 years. Sadly, it also describes woodland to which no current economic value is attached. If woodland owners are unable to market their wood then that woodland, more often than not, becomes neglect of any attention, other than subsidised gardening. The fact that we have vast areas of ‘neglected’ broadleaved woodland in the UK tells us that the markets that were once demanding coppice and hardwood poles, in the main, no longer exist, and while a lot of energy (talking) has gone into trying to reinvent these markets, the area of ‘neglected’ woodland increases year-on-year, with the support of Government subsidy! This subsidy sustains deer, which will, eventually, be the sole reason that neglect reaches its natural climax – death and loss! It is wrongly assumed by the vast majority of people in the UK that all trees, whether planted or self-sown naturally, have to be allowed to grow into big trees. We are a population raised on images of rainforest destruction in the Amazon, and the demise of the orangutan habitat in South East Asia, caused in the main, by our demand for beef and oil. In the UK, we can appease this ‘loss of forest-guilt’

Ancient oak pollards on Exmoor, Somerset (top, photo courtesy of FC Picture Library). Richard Edwards believes that coppiced birch (above) is the future of woodfuel


July/August 2011

July/August 2011



with the Tree Preservation Order and the right to protest when trees are felled (coppiced?) in woodlands, and when conifers are planted on the sides of mountains. The fact that we have Tree Preservation Orders and ‘carbon-offset’ projects based on planting trees is due to the majority of people living in the UK having no knowledge of our woodland heritage. The most aesthetically-pleasing method of creating a big tree (after it has been in the ground for 20 years) is to ‘be-head’ it at 6ft from the ground. Give it 20 years to produce a great mass of branches and then cut them off. Do this once more and then get the family to continue the habit, making it a requirement of inheritance, perhaps. After 15 generations, we’ll have a lot of really nice big, gnarled trees about the place. Let’s make it a requirement that every broadleaved tree planted in the UK, that has been subsidised by Government grant, comes with a plan, which requires regular cutting: plant, cut, cut again, cut again and again. We will find that not only have we stored more carbon in the soil and roots of the tree, but also we will have increased biodiversity massively, and produced a stump/stool/bowl that has the chance of living for 900 years – now that’s carbon capture! There are, of course, reasons for growing big conifers in the UK: they provide the building industry with poor-quality timber from which it can build poor quality housing! In order to obtain big conifer trees one has to grow and harvest a lot of little conifer trees along the way, which end up as poor quality fence-posts, paper and packaging, wet fuel (in the form of woodchip), pallets, sheds and fence-panels that last for 12 months (without ‘chemical help’), and chipboard that holds new houses together! Government, via the Forestry Commission, cannot afford to grow conifers and should hand that responsibility over to private landowners. The Forestry Commission can then set about felling vast areas of conifer, slowly, and allow these areas to regenerate naturally, which they will do in the vast majority of cases. After 10 years it will have a saleable crop of small conifer and broadleaved trees, which can be utilised as woodfuel, and thereafter it has land that contributes profit to its coffers on a more regular and sustainable basis.

Better ways to burn wood
Stop this habit of trying to burn water


ost firewood/woodfuel suppliers in the United Kingdom take great pride in promoting the fact that their firewood is either air-dried, barn-dried or kiln-dried to between 20-35% moisture content, which indicates that there is an understanding that wood needs to be dried before it is burned. Some firewood suppliers guess the wet-weight moisture content of their wood; some don’t know and will just tell you that they have had it ‘under cover for a year.’ A few actually use a meter to determine the moisture content of their firewood, however sticking a 3mm probe into the end of the log will never give you an accurate account of the moisture content in the middle of a 250cm-long log, which may be 20% higher. There are firewood suppliers who do actually test moisture at the middle/heart of the log, and such endeavour deserves high praise. However, even they are still selling too much water in wood! Transporting water around the country, in the form of firewood, requires fossil fuels and produces carbon dioxide (CO2). If, for example, as a nation, we burn 500,000 tonnes of firewood a year, dried to 20% moisture content, then we have paid for and wasted 100,000 tonnes of water! If wood is £100 per tonne then £10million has been wasted on needlessly transporting water. Burning wood at 5-10% moisture content provides 5000kWh of energy per tonne. Burning wood at 20% moisture content provides only 4000KwH of energy per tonne (3). For every tonne we burn at 20% instead of 10%, we are wasting 1000KwH of energy: 100,000 tonnes of water = 100million kWh of energy wasted annually. The never-ending drive to improve woodstoves is due to the fact that firewood contains too much water, and logs, more often than not, are too big for a small firebox to deliver the process of efficient and complete combustion. Most claims associated with stove efficiency relate to the way that the stove Putting wet logs on embers is inefficient

Burning dry wood efficiently

burns the wood – if there is nothing left after burning tests are made then that stove is said to be 100% efficient. To achieve 100% combustion in inefficient woodstoves you need to drive a lot of air through the fire, via primary and secondary air inlets. Your chimney will pull this air from the places inside your house that your stove has been unable to heat, making the room colder all the time, and leaving you to keep filling it with logs that are too wet and too big for it: never-ending! When dried properly, most softwoods have a higher calorific value than most hardwoods when burned (4). Providing that the wood is dry then there is little difference between burning hardwoods and softwoods, which may add even more tonnage to the annual resource available to burn for heat/energy. The sale of woodstoves in the UK has increased by 25% consecutively over the past three years. People obviously want to burn wood, but time after time after time they are being let down by business practices based on up-to-date models of piracy and deceit. We can’t go on selling freshly-felled firewood to people and then expecting them to store it indoors for two years in order to get most of the water out of it. Similarly, we can’t go on telling people that burning firewood is good for the environment, because, in the majority of cases it is not! Firewood is not carbon neutral - we’re not carbon neutral until we stop breathing!

Leaf-growth in the early years after coppicing (willow, above) is more vigorous than on new trees. Richard Edwards writes that we should be focusing on overstood or neglected woodlands before worrying about planting new woods. If we can’t manage what we have already, how are we going to care for the new woods? (Photo left courtesy of

New directions

During the past 12 months staff at Red Pig Farm have spent considerable time and effort talking to combustion engineers across the globe in a genuine effort to forge new directions of experience for the increased efficiency of firewood. From the masonrystove builders in Eastern Europe and Russia, to the charcoal stove builders in Thailand, and makers of improved radiant and convection stove in the new-age communities in western USA. We have taken, (with genuine fair trade), the best of all these systems and then added our knowledge of woodland management and woodfuel preparation, in order to develop an approach to burning firewood that is quite revolutionary – in modern times. We believe that the issue of gaining efficiency from wood lies in the way that woodfuel/ firewood is grown and then prepared for burning. Consistently-dry firewood prepared to consistent dimensions, burned on efficient woodstoves, designed specifically to burn drier wood. During the next five months Black Mountain Woodfuels, based at Red Pig farm, will launch two

types of woodstove that have been designed specifically to burn wood of below 10% moisture content. To facilitate the promotion and sale of these stoves, we need to establish more than 100 regional suppliers, who can manufacture and supply this fuel to stove users locally. This new type of woodfuel/ firewood will be marketed vigorously throughout the UK and will be known as PAR-CHAR™, a term familiar to most charcoal burners in the UK. This fuel is produced using equipment developed by engineers at Black Mountain Woodfuels, will dry both standard firewood logs and the new fuel needed for the stoves – to be marketed in the UK as The Coppice Stove™. The fuel needed to operate The Coppice Stove is based on small diameter poles, ranging from branchwood to small trees 48in in length and less than 6in diameter. The use of drier wood on most models of woodstoves manufactured in the UK and the EC will provide improvements in efficiency, however the maximum gains are made when dry, and small diameter poles are burned on The Coppice Stove™ (will feature in the next edition of Living Woods).

Carbon Synq seeks to raise £1million in order to create 100 new jobs in UK woodlands. Each of the 100 jobs will receive £10,000 in financial support. The £10,000 will enable the purchase of equipment and training that will create, once again, an industry based around coppice and small poles. Research carried our here would suggest that woodlands and plantations in the UK could supply, on principles of sustainable harvesting, more than 5million tonnes of firewood annually, and if we were to include wood from hedgerows in this calculation, then there may be as much as 6million tonnes.

1 Combating Climate Change – a role for UK forests. An assessment of the potential of the UK’s trees and woodlands to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The synthesis report. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh. Read, D.J., Freer-Smith, P Morison, .H., J.I.L., Hanley, N., West, C.C. and Snowdon, P (eds). 2009. . 2 UK Production and Trade (provisional Figures) ( infd-7zhk85). 3 Wood as Fuel; A guide to choosing & buying logs (bio 4 Wood as Fuel; Technical Supplement (biomass

Saving our forests

Carbon Synqing

In March 2010 we set up the Carbon Synq Project (, which, we believe, is the first natural carbon-reprocessing project in the world to be based on cutting trees down instead of planting them. The Carbon Synq Project details the common sense approach to increased carbon dioxide capture. Anyone who has cut down a tree and marvelled at the regrowth the following spring will know that the leaves of young coppice poles are big; as much as five times the size of those on a newly planted tree during its first ten years in the ground. Bigger leaves mean a bigger leaf area, which means increased carbon capture by increased levels of photosynthesis. Added to this is the increase in biodiversity achieved when coppice is created, which is rarely achieved when new woodlands are planted on agricultural land.

The 600,000 people who petitioned the Government to withdraw plans to ‘sell our forests’, were really trying to save our woodlands. Forests, as in Forest of Dean, New Forest, Sherwood, Savernake, Rockingham, etc.., are vast areas of mixed farmland, villages (towns), commons, heathland, ponds, rivers, streams, hedges and woodland (broadleaved), which Norman Kings designated in the 11/12th Centuries as places to hunt deer. The other recognised form of forest in the UK is predominantly made up of conifers, with scatterings of broadleaved species on the margins, or natural regeneration amongst more mature stands of conifer. These are plantations – the stuff of farming trees based on agricultural principles To save our woodlands – those areas said to be predominantly native broadleaved species (hardwoods) – the owners of these areas need to see a demand for their product, wood. To save our (publicly-owned) woodlands, the people who petitioned Government need to support efforts to manage them and to do this they need to buy wood. Simple? Details PAR-CHAR™ and The Coppice Stove™ are registered UK trademarks (2565580 & 2569855) owned by Black Mountain Woodfuels.

Further reading
A Study on Potentiality of Carbon Storage and CO2 Uptake in the Biomass and Soil of Coppice Stand. A. Khademi, S. Babaei and A. Mataji. American Journal of Environmental Sciences 5 (3): 346-351, 2009. ISSN 1553-345X. Woodlands. Rackham, O. Harper Collins, New Naturalist, 2006 (ISBN – 13 978-0-00-720244-x) The Carbon Neutral Myth. Jutta Kill (


July/August 2011

July/August 2011


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