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the village idiot

An Idiot's guide to Ancient Woodland management

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Village Idiot, just want to say thanks for a really great introduction to your world. 
My wife and I have almost accidentally fallen into possession of a 40 acre hilly wood, about half more or less ancient broadleaf, about half 8 year old oak ash and birch plantation, and just a couple of acres of quite big spruce. It’s not had much (or any) management over the last few years. We’re looking to manage it principally for its environmental value and as a retirement project. 
We have no background in woodland management at all, and at the moment I am the worst sort of expert, having been obsessively reading over the last few weeks, and your candid in describing your progress from ignorance to confidence is an inspiration. The essays are a joy to read and tremendously informative. Keep it up! 
I paste a few snaps herewith, not bet carefully selected

 

 

82C71143-19F4-40C8-8BF1-5248348B53DF.jpeg

BA0EE808-1D7A-4680-B9E6-5D1C3519B024.jpeg

779CD1AD-BFA4-4D19-821E-91D84325E900.jpeg

789AC2B4-A7EC-496B-A360-57DDAFEBCF28.jpeg

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1 hour ago, Mr. Ed said:

Village Idiot, just want to say thanks for a really great introduction to your world. 
My wife and I have almost accidentally fallen into possession of a 40 acre hilly wood, about half more or less ancient broadleaf, about half 8 year old oak ash and birch plantation, and just a couple of acres of quite big spruce. It’s not had much (or any) management over the last few years. We’re looking to manage it principally for its environmental value and as a retirement project. 
We have no background in woodland management at all, and at the moment I am the worst sort of expert, having been obsessively reading over the last few weeks, and your candid in describing your progress from ignorance to confidence is an inspiration. The essays are a joy to read and tremendously informative. Keep it up! 
I paste a few snaps herewith, not bet carefully selected

 

 

82C71143-19F4-40C8-8BF1-5248348B53DF.jpeg

BA0EE808-1D7A-4680-B9E6-5D1C3519B024.jpeg

779CD1AD-BFA4-4D19-821E-91D84325E900.jpeg

789AC2B4-A7EC-496B-A360-57DDAFEBCF28.jpeg

WOW! That's a fair old stroke of luck. What a fabulous looking place.

 

You've already got some fantastic habitat there by the looks of things but there'll be lots you can do to improve it further.

 

Where abouts are you?

 

And thanks for the kind words!

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CHARCOAL II, OR MAYBE IT'S III ? I'M AFRAID I'VE LOST TRACK, I'LL GO BACK AND CHECK. NO, THAT WOULD BE SILLY. BUT THESE THINGS MATTER TO SOME PEOPLE. BARE WITH ME A MINUTE. OH JUST GET ON WITH IT! I THINK I'LL JUST GET ON WITH IT.

 

In the previous main post I described the mechanics of a charcoal burn with the Exeter Retort. There is a little further work involved before you have nicely bulging bags of finished product.

 

The kiln takes quite a few hours to cool down. I always left it overnight. by the time you come back to it the next morning it is almost always down to ambient temperature. You can check the temperature on the digital thermometer, if it tallies with the atmospheric temperature outside you know it is safe to open up.

 

The Exeter retort makes fantastic charcoal. I never had any unconverted wood in the whole time I was using the retort. Upon opening the outer and inner door on one end you are greeted with a kiln just over half full of gently tinkling charcoal. The volume drop is due to the fact that most of the constituents of the wood (primarily water) have been driven off, leaving behind surprisingly pure carbon.

 

The wood looks exactly the same as when you loaded the kiln only it has shrunk and is jet black. The bark and all of it's texture is perfectly preserved. You can actually convert any organic matter into a pure carbon form in a retort. For a while I was sticking all kinds of things in to see what would happen including flowers, skulls and bananas😄. Even a feather comes out in pristine carbon form, although it disintegrates as soon as you touch it.

 

Of course at this point any normal person's brain turns to dead bodies, my brain was no exception. It would be perfectly possible to convert Granny into charcoal and then use her (literally) to cook the sausages for her wake. If anyone has ever had a better idea for a business model, I am yet to hear it.

 

One of the many benefits of a retort over a ring kiln is that you don't have to climb in to empty it. The charcoal can all be scraped out into a receptacle using a modified long pole. The process only takes a few minutes. You can then re-load the kiln and do another firing the same day. In theory you can do a burn a day with a retort kiln, although I found that a burn every other day was more realistic. With a ring kiln, this quick a turn around would be nigh on impossible.

 

Before the charcoal can be bagged up it needs to be graded. This is a simple process of passing the product over a mesh screen. The small chunks (fines) fall through and the lumpwood charcoal makes it's way to the end and drops into a waiting bag. The bags are then stapled or stitched up, and you are done.

 

The Exeter Retort has in internal volume of 1.7 cubic mtrs and returns on average around £150 worth of charcoal per burn. This does not compare very favourably to firewood so it is best to convert wood that you have no particular other market for. Overstood Hazel is ideal as although it is fantastic firewood it is relatively difficult to sell as customers have been conditioned into expecting split logs.

 

There is more to report on the retort kilns (including an intriguing scientific experiment we were party to) but be warned it is not all totally positive. In the next post I will give you my personal opinion on whether I think they are unilaterally a good investment. Also some info on biochar, a very interesting by product of charcoal manufacture.

 

 

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2 hours ago, the village idiot said:

WOW! That's a fair old stroke of luck. What a fabulous looking place.

 

You've already got some fantastic habitat there by the looks of things but there'll be lots you can do to improve it further.

 

Where abouts are you?

 

And thanks for the kind words!

Yes it seems a very interesting and attractive place. SW Ireland - in Kerry close to the border with Cork. We get a length of river too. 
A photo of part of our frontage pasted below - as you can see, not exactly optimised for the angler!
We’d been trying to buy a retirement base in Ireland and were disappointed twice so were able to move quickly. 
When I get my head around this quite varied property I will frame some questions on this forum for the hive mind in a new topic and will let you get on with the real stuff. 
We’d also love to meet some low impact forestry people in the area. 
 

4073FCF3-F8A4-4885-955A-87DEFF4DDF78.jpeg

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4 minutes ago, Mr. Ed said:

Yes it seems a very interesting and attractive place. SW Ireland - in Kerry close to the border with Cork. We get a length of river too. 
A photo of part of our frontage pasted below - as you can see, not exactly optimised for the angler!
We’d been trying to buy a retirement base in Ireland and were disappointed twice so were able to move quickly. 
When I get my head around this quite varied property I will frame some questions on this forum for the hive mind in a new topic and will let you get on with the real stuff. 
We’d also love to meet some low impact forestry people in the area. 
 

4073FCF3-F8A4-4885-955A-87DEFF4DDF78.jpeg

Cor! What a beautiful spot. I foresee a very fulfilling retirement.

 

Presumably those are your spruce in the background?

 

I look forward to reading your updates. My personal knowledge is fairly specific to the type of woodland we manage, but there is a huge resource of tree knowledge on this forum.

 

You certainly won't need a gym membership, not with those slopes!

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I am a bit worried about my knees since you mention it, but we’ll get along somehow. 

Yes that’s one of the three patches of spruce, and a bit baffling since access is very difficult. It’ll certainly be the hardest to get out. They’re nice big trees, up to 50 centimetre at titty height. Mrs Ed wants to float them down the river Canadian style, but I’m not sure how well that would go down! 

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3 minutes ago, Mr. Ed said:

I am a bit worried about my knees since you mention it, but we’ll get along somehow. 

Yes that’s one of the three patches of spruce, and a bit baffling since access is very difficult. It’ll certainly be the hardest to get out. They’re nice big trees, up to 50 centimetre at titty height. Mrs Ed wants to float them down the river Canadian style, but I’m not sure how well that would go down! 

Titty height😄

 

Encouraging to see you are already adopting officially recognised forestry terminology.

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CHARCOAL.  THE VERDICT.

 

I had a lot of fun making charcoal for a few years. It can be quite a good option for a woodland worker as it uses up resource that you haven't got another use for and you can be doing other jobs such as splitting logs whilst the charcoal kiln is running, as long as you stay in the vicinity.

 

I stopped making charcoal in 2016 (although I still have the retort kiln). There were a couple of reasons for stopping. When young Steve came on board I had to get a bit more business minded to ensure that we could both earn a living. It became very apparent that in our circumstances our time was much more profitably spent producing firewood rather than charcoal. In the time it takes one person to complete a full burn cycle producing £150 worth of charcoal this same person could have processed somewhere in the region of £800 worth of firewood.

 

The other main factor involved in the decision to stop was the fact that the kiln had started to take on a rather different shape and was becoming harder to operate. This is a problem, to a greater or lesser extent, with all metal kilns on the market. When mild steel continually heats up and cools down you get warping. I had nearly exhausted my second inner chamber before the kiln had paid back it's initial capital cost.

 

It is only fair to point out that my retort kiln was one of the first produced and it may be the case that newer incarnations are built more robustly. It is also the case that the first Exeter retort ever produced is still in working order and must have paid for itself several times over by now. I'm not sure how the owner has managed to achieve this, I always abided by the manufacturer's usage guidelines.

 

It is my personal view that the Exeter I purchased in 2012 is not strong enough to be the backbone of a successful commercial operation. Other owners may disagree.The Pressvess retort kiln is more solidly built (using thick boiler plate for the charge chambers). The fact that it is not portable (the Exeter retort can be mounted on a trailer) will though be a deal breaker for some. Treewood Harvesting (remember Jake Fish taking out the conifers) had a Pressvess retort and that too was showing signs of warping fairly early on in it's life.

 

The Pressvess retort:

 

Wed163046-A13.JPG

 

Ring kilns also warp over time but they are very significantly cheaper and cost effective to replace.

 

There are people out there who have managed to maintain a viable business on the back of charcoal production. I was not able to but evidently it can be done. 

 

There is an additional product line which, if it takes off, could tip the scales significantly towards viable profitability. This product is Biochar and it has a few nifty tricks up it's sleeve.

 

A lot of you will be familiar with Biochar already, but I will outline it's nature and it's promise in the next post for those that haven't heard of it.

 

 

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BIOCHAR.

 

Whatever your personal take on the role played by our species in the alarming rise in global temperatures, what cannot be disputed is that global warming and levels of carbon in the atmosphere are intrinsically linked. If we are going to halt the increase in global temperature and prevent an unprecedented amount of future suffering we are going to have to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

 

Trees and Woodland can be a huge help here. As you all know trees contain a large amount of temporarily stored carbon removed from the air as carbon dioxide. This carbon is released back to the atmosphere when the tree decomposes or is burned to ash, making trees effectively 'carbon neutral'. If more of the Earth's surface is planted up with trees or left to naturally regenerate and is kept as tree cover into the future the size of this 'carbon bank' will increase. If carbon is in trees it is not in the atmosphere.

 

What would be even better is if the carbon stored in trees was not released back to the atmosphere when the tree dies. This is where Biochar comes in.

 

Biochar is essentially just charcoal broken down into smaller pieces and sometimes 'charged' with nutrients. Charcoal is a very stable form of almost pure carbon. If it is incorporated into the soil it does not break down for hundreds, even thousands of years. Organic material converted into charcoal and buried will not release it's carbon back to the atmosphere for a very long time indeed, giving the atmosphere some much needed breathing space and us humans a chance to get our act together regarding our choice of fuel sources.

 

Biochar incorporated into soils also has the additional very important benefit of improving soil quality, especially where soil fertility is poor. Under a microscope you can see that charcoal is composed of a multitude of tightly packed tubes (the tree's water and nutrient channels, the xylem and phloem, are preserved in the charcoaling process). Once in the soil these tubes attract water and micro-organisms that benefit plant growth. The tubes also hold onto fertiliser, stopping it leaching down to regions below where the plant's root systems can access it.

This means that less fertiliser needs to be used to achieve good crop yields, another huge carbon saving.

 

Trials with biochar are still ongoing, and at present it is only really marketed to gardeners and hobby growers. If scientists do prove that charcoal/biochar can live up to it's promise then production could be scaled up massively, improving crop yields, reducing fertiliser use and just maybe saving the planet.

 

Not bad going for the boring old black stuff that burns your burgers on the BBQ.

 

That concludes this thread's delve into the world of charcoal. It's high time we headed back into the trees!

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On 03/12/2019 at 09:14, Gimlet said:

They aren't felling or thinning and I doubt they'll even bother to make use of fallen ash. It'll just be left to rot. 

Probably be the best thing to do for the wildlife..

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