Managing our woods

by Michael Smith, RFA, RFS, EcoFor

Britain, for thousands of years, had one of the finest woodland management systems; one that is hardly known and used elsewhere, namely coppicing.

Many misguided people honestly believe that woods and countryside need not to be managed but they do in order to be beneficial to both man and wildlife. And in Britain we have done a great job in doing so, especially as far as woodlands are concerned, for thousands of years. However, since World War Two neglect has set in and that for a number of reasons.

One being cheap imported wood, often tropical hardwoods, hazel beanpoles being replaced by cheap bamboo canes or even plastic ones, and the aforementioned misguided environmentalists what have insisted that trees and woodlands must remain unmanaged as 'Nature manages itself'.

But Nature does not manage Herself and besides we need and want wood for many things and if we replace handles of tools and utensils with plastic we are using a non-renewable resource, predominately oil.

Wood, properly managed, is a resource that continually renews itself and especially if and when the wood is harvested from sustainable coppice operations, and this wood is not just for firewood.

Firewood should never be the first consideration in woodland management when it comes to woodland products as there are many more things that can be created from the timber of much greater value, in more than one sense, than simply firewood or beanpoles.

Using the wood harvest for firewood should be the last resort although it is often seen as the primary one and as an easy way to make some income from a woodland. But it is far better to put the thinking cap on and ass a higher value to the timber produced by turning into other, longer lasting, products that into something that just goes up in smoke, literally.

In the first instance, when the management of a (long) neglected wood begun the timber may, unfortunately, be suited for little else than firewood or charcoal. But even in such cases of neglected woods thought come into play as to whether there is not more that can be made out of the timber; as in value-added products.

A large tree that is felled in the opening up of a neglected wood, be this sycamore, beech, ash oak, hornbeam, birch, or whatever, or a large stemmed coppice stool, has definitely and definitively more uses that just firewood. Marketing the wood, though, may at times be a chore and that is why many shirk from it.

Our woods produced the timber for all our needs centuries ago and most of those woods were managed as one or the other form of coppice. And those woods supplied all, or at least almost all, of our timber needs and they can again, or at least to a large extent.

The wood for tools and tool handles came from our woods, as did the wood for our kitchen- and eating utensils. Also for our fencing, our farm and garden gates, for our wattle and daub walls, and much more.

Today, because of the decline and lack of proper management of the British woodlands, small and large, the wood for our tool handles and sports equipment is, almost all, imported from abroad, such as American Ash for tool handles and cricket stumps, etc. And, despite the fact that English or British Ash is superior and preferred. Lack of wood from British sources, however, forces manufacturers to source timber from abroad.

The same, it has to be said, even applies to firewood and in 2011 Britain imported logs from afar afield as Poland, Western Russia and the Ukraine. Certainly not a sustainable way to go about it and that all because (no, not “because the lady loves Milk Tray”) in Britain the (proper) management of our woods has fallen by the wayside.

Time for a change and to bring our woods, small and large, privately owned or in public hands, including those in parks, back into production. Wildlife and the Planet will thank us for it.

© 2013