Felled ash areas restocked with mixed species.

Throughout the UK, woodlands present an important natural resource, and many of these woodlands are currently managed and maintained for a variety of reasons such as commercial timber production, small-scale timber production, woodfuel, sporting, recreation, habitat conservation, landscape and amenity.  However, sound woodland management methods can achieve all of these objectives in balance, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Sadly, a large number of woodlands in England remain unmanaged and this can be for a variety of reasons.  In some cases, woodland owners are simply unaware of the opportunities, or instead choose not to manage their woodland, but rather concentrate their efforts on other more lucrative land management and estate enterprises.  Lockhart Garratt Ltd, Environmental Planning and Forestry Consultants, specialise in the management of woodland helping to identify opportunities and oversee timber harvesting operations that yield woodfuel products. These products can then be converted to a profit for landowners, or can instead be used to supply and source woodfuel grade timber to meet the annual feedstock requirements for a system(s) installed on a property.

Woodland produces a wide variety of timber products.  In recent years new and emerging forestry machinery and equipment, in response to the growing woodfuel markets, has made management of previously ‘uneconomic’ woodland areas more viable.  There are now forest machines in a range of sizes that are fitted with hydraulically powered tree shears and accumulators that can cut and hold multiple stems, meaning low grade and previously unmarketable material, such as low quality (and low volume) plantations, coppice, understorey growth and ride-edge growth can now be managed economically.  This low-grade material is very suitable for conversion into woodchip, and can additionally be used in biomass boiler systems.  Consequently, we are now seeing a more positive approach to woodland management and maintenance being taken forward.  As with any commercial operation, we advocate the importance of grading timber, to not only continue supporting long-standing markets, but to also encourage the development of niche markets in order to maximise returns and otherwise partly, or fully, address any cumulative financial deficits. By way of an example, it does not seem moral to convert prime oak logs into woodfuel, denying the traditional construction and furniture markets of suitable material, and thereby creating a negative impact on the overall stand economics.

There is no question that in recent years, emerging biomass markets have made a tangible difference to the financial outcome of many woodland management projects.  Outlined below are two specific examples.

Best Outcomes – The Good News Stories

13 tonne excavator plus harvester head clearing ash areas. Photo credit to Sarah & Phil Whatton, Woody’s Logs

Case Study 1

A mixed estate near Coventry had a commitment to deliver a large programme of woodland ride widening and non-commercial crop maintenance, as part of their biodiversity-based woodland improvement programme.  The estate had to deliver all of the work areas without a pre-agreed budget, within a two month working period (to avoid shoot disturbance) and as part of a wider suite of commercial thinning work – without engaging a raft of different contractors.

The ride programme involved felling trees and cutting back encroaching woody vegetation.  A further project, within the same area of woodland, involved removing an understorey of small diameter regenerating rowan from beneath a developing crop of mid-rotation oak.  The operation was undertaken by an external professional timber harvesting company who deployed a Bracke head to cut multi-stemmed coppice growth along the ride network edges of a 40ha block of woodland.  When combined with the rowan understorey beneath the oak plantation, there was a sufficient volume of material to justify the machinery movement, and the resulting material was chipped at roadside, discharged into purpose built chip-carrying lorries, and taken to a biomass customer(s) based in the Midlands.  Without this market, as well as the efficient means of cutting the material, the work would have otherwise proven quite costly to undertake.  This material turned a small profit of £1 per tonne however, through use of an easily inter-changeable machine-head; higher quality timber was graded out when processed and sold on into firewood, fencing, horse bedding and construction markets at higher unit prices.

Within the required window of opportunity: the commercial block of timber had been thinned to increase future yield; a developing block of oak was managed to promote future quality, with an under-storey which will regenerate and keep the stems free from side branching, producing yet another crop of wood-fuel in the future; and the rides were managed and widened at no cost and at full benefit to woodland wildlife. All works were undertaken by a single contractor.

13 tonne excavator plus harvester head clearing ash areas. Photo credit to Sarah & Phil Whatton, Woody’s Logs

Case Study 2 

A large mixed estate in south Northamptonshire wished to become less dependent on oil for heating estate properties.  The estate holds 280ha of woodland, legally protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI): these were managed for high-quality ash milling timber and firewood, with some hedging products from the hazel coppice.

A biomass boiler was installed in 2012 to replace the existing oil boiler, and the decision was taken that this should be fed with woodchip from the estate, rather than bought in.  As the estate’s forestry consultants, Lockhart Garratt was asked to ensure that the estate woodlands be managed as a sustainable source of biomass feedstock, as well as the existing objectives.

The estate woods contain 65-90% European ash and are vulnerable to Chalara ash dieback, which has devastated ash populations on the continent and in eastern counties.  As the woods are important, both to the estate and nationally as a SSSI, Lockhart Garratt researched and applied sound scientific advice to minimise disease effects as follows:

  • Aim for a mix of species and ages of trees in the woodlands – through felling and restocking with more varied species, the age mix of woodlands across the estate has also been re-balanced.
  • Ensure all areas are thinned – felling licences were obtained for a substantial programme of thinning and felling, ensuring the woods are producing at an optimum level.
  • Grow trees as fast as practicable – densely grown, stressed trees are more susceptible to the disease, and the thinned and restocked areas stand a better chance against Chalara.

As a testament to these efforts, and following a tense round of judging, the estate was  awarded Silver in the 2017 Royal Forestry Society’s Duke of Cornwall Award for Resilient Multi-Purpose Forestry.

Lockhart Garratt now meets annually with the estate to present the previous year’s budget, and to establish a programme of thinning and felling for biomass feedstock.  In preparation for this, our forestry consultants will have surveyed the standing timber in blocks for thinning, calculated what these sites and species can yield sustainably (no more than 70% of each year’s growth to be harvested), and consequently when we can return to thin the stand again.  This meets the updated Renewable Heat Incentive requirements for sustainability, and greatly simplifies the audit process.  Felled areas must be restocked, and Lockhart Garratt’s knowledge of the nursery trade gives access to the best genetics available for timber production.

By preparing the above strategy in high-level meetings with both Forestry Commission and Natural England, Lockhart Garratt were able to make the case for substantial grant assistance with the initial programme of restocking, which is challenging at this scale.  Input from a wide range of experts, both within and outside Lockhart Garratt, also ensured that each decision was checked to ensure best value for the estate.

As Chalara continues to spread across the UK, we anticipate biomass production from infected ash to increase.  However, it is not financially sustainable to simply burn everything, as this takes material away from markets which offer better returns.  On this estate, Lockhart Garratt will continue to ensure the woods can supply a diverse range of markets, whilst maintaining this historic ecosystem and landscape.

Conclusion

The biomass market has increased opportunities for low grade timber and has brought more woodland into management, where previously the economics may have not stacked up.  This is positive news all round, and it is important that we continue to promote and support the woodfuel market, whilst ensuring that all timber harvesting programmes remain sustainable and everyone involved (including growers, managers, processors and producers), takes responsibility to minimise overcutting in stands.

If you would like to discuss the subject of woodfuel in any more detail, or in terms of woodland management and potential markets for both supply and sourcing, demonstrating sustainability for Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) reporting purposes, then please do not hesitate to contact either of our two Senior Forestry Consultants, Cheryl Lundberg on 01536 408840 / [email protected] who covers areas south of Corby, Northamptonshire and Matthew Willetts on 01536 408840 / [email protected] who covers areas north of Corby.


Article prepared by Rob Stockley, Assistant Forestry Consultants with support from Senior Forestry Consultants, Cheryl Lundberg and Matthew Willetts; for Bioenergy Insight magazine, July/August 2017 edition.

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