Bringing their skills together

Nora and Keith making charcoal  Picture: Marie-Claire Kidd
Nora and Keith making charcoal Picture: Marie-Claire Kidd
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A firewood delivery scheme is encouraging investment in responsible woodland management. Marie-Claire Kidd reports.

First there was community supported agriculture, then community supported bakeries, the first of which was the Handmade Bakery in the West Yorkshire village of Slaithwaite. Now a West Yorkshire co-op has introduced Britain’s first community supported forestry scheme.

Firebox CSF is the brainchild of Blackbark, a workers’ co-op based in Hebden Bridge. Its customers pay for their firewood a year in advance, before it is cut and seasoned. In return they get a good deal and the satisfaction that they are helping regenerate local woodland and bring traditional skills back into practice.

Co-founder Keith Wilson said: “Woodlands in Calderdale were once essential for many people’s livelihoods, but they haven’t been worked for a very long time. By joining the scheme, our customers provide a secure income for local woodland workers as they bring neglected woodlands back into production.”

Firewood comes largely from woodland Blackbark manages on behalf of Calderdale Council. The partnership allows the co-op to take produce in return for managing the woods and offering volunteering and training opportunities.

At North Dean Wood, Greetland, for example, Blackbark has coppiced two areas over the last two winters, and identified another eight sites suitable for coppicing.

“We’ve been working in partnership to bring sensitive, regenerative management into one of the youngest parts of the wood,” says Keith.

“This kind of young woodland is perfect for coppicing. The young trees are likely to resprout vigorously and there are plenty of seedlings and saplings to fill any gaps.”

Blackbark has taken over 100 cubic metres of timber from North Dean in the last two years. “Because the woodlands we work in haven’t been managed to produce useful timber or coppice products, we have a lot of low quality wood on our hands, hence firewood,” says Jacques Crowther, another co-op member.

The first deliveries arrived last winter, and all 50 Firebox customers have come back for more. This winter Blackbark plans to sell about 130 cubic metres of firewood.

A small amount of the wood harvested from North Dean escaped the fire pile. Some birch logs were straight-grained enough for turning bowls. Other poles made hedge laying stakes and Keith turned a small amount of oak into riven fencing.

Blackbark also produce brash bundles or fascines, which the Source project uses as part of its project to minimise flash flooding and erosion in the Calder Valley. Source pays Blackbark to install the fascines along vulnerable hillsides, particularly around Hebden Bridge, which has flooded repeatedly in recent years.

At more than 100 acres, North Dean is one of the largest areas of woodland in Calderdale, stretching 3km along the north-facing side of the Calder valley. Blackbark manages around 12 acres of it, the part that is owned by the council. Blackbark’s plan is to coppice at least one section of North Dean each winter. After about 15 years, coppice stools will be cut again for straight wood; the raw material for gates, fencing, turnery, furniture, charcoal, firewood, baskets, kindling and more. Eventually the wood will consist of areas at all the different stages of growth.

Leaving as much dead wood as possible encourages wood-rotting fungi. “Brash from the felled trees is left in piles,” says Keith. “It creates a valuable habitat for insects and birds including wrens. Economically viable woodlands are also ecologically viable.”

“We’re really keen for people who live around and use the woods to get involved,” he adds. “If woodlands, natural materials and the skills that go with them are valued, they will have longevity.

“The Rotarians have been drafted in by the council, who have their own volunteer schemes. For the last two years we’ve run volunteer weeks, where people can gain first-hand experience of woodland management.

“It’s mostly helping us with extraction. Some volunteers have been trained to use winches, even felled trees if they have their chainsaw certificates and want some practice.

“They’ve made fascines, carved spoons, built fences, sharpened tools, built shelters, made dead hedges, kindling, charcoal. All the things we do.

“We try to encourage people to sign up for a week and give them a range of experiences. We’ll give them a space to sleep in and warm meals in exchange for their time and labour, a bit like the Willing Workers on Organic Farms scheme.”

One big issue at North Dean is vandalism. Blackbark is constantly repairing fences. “Because there are browsing deer, you need to make your coops deer-proof,” says Jacques. “There’s a growing problem with deer management.”

The first coop at North Dean, a half-acre triangle of birch with oak, willow and holly, will be protected for three years, until the regrowth is tall enough to be out of reach of deer.