We shall soon be turning to weightier matters here at Small Farm Future, so let us pause for breath and take a stroll around the woods of our home turf at Vallis Veg this fin(ish) morning. Here, have some musical accompaniment, and relax.  After all, it’s not as if there are any other important political events to discuss today.

It was nearly fourteen years ago when La Brassicata and I bought our little eighteen acre slice of Somerset. At the time, it comprised permanent pasture in its entirety, with just one mature tree on the site (plus a couple of hedgerows). I was very enthused by the idea of planting trees in those days, after a brush with the law (Ben Law, that is), and over the next four years we planted more than seven acres of the blighters – fruit orchards, nut orchards, short-rotation willow coppice, alder/hazel windbreaks, hawthorn and blackthorn hedges and – most of all – large blocks of mixed native deciduous trees.

A few years after that, I read some of the critiques of arboricentrism that were arising within and without the permaculture movement – Patrick Whitefield’s strictures against the carefully-curated facsimiles of ancient woodland springing up around the countryside like so many out-of-place lollipops borne aloft on ugly plastic sticks, and Simon Fairlie’s broadside against permaculturists for turning agricultural grassland capable of producing high value food into low value woodland1.

These, I think, were worthwhile critiques – people can indeed get a bit over-enthusiastic about trees, and it’s always good to ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ of any farming choice. But ultimately I have few regrets about doing what we did (well, maybe the blackthorn…) The ugly lollipop phase only lasts a few years, and nothing gives me more pleasure on our holding now than the beauty of the well-established young woodland mantling the site.

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Patrick himself admitted that the entire British countryside is a largely human fabrication, so I see no particular reason to take umbrage at the ‘artificiality’ of tree planting. Perhaps there’s more merit in Simon’s critique, but the per hectare productivity of purely grass-fed livestock isn’t that impressive. A vegetable garden with a few rows of potatoes of the kind we’ve planted here more than compensates nutritionally for the loss of productive pasture to the trees. Besides, it’s possible to stack functions as the English commoners of old did with their wood pastures – a practice I’ve mimicked here with my sheep in and around the woodland.

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The woodland we’ve planted has brought various tangible and less tangible benefits. Fruit and nuts, tree hay, wind and sun protection, privacy (which surely helped in our successful planning application for a dwelling), children’s dens, and wildlife habitat – I can’t prove anything on the latter front, but the bird and invertebrate life in our woodland does seem to me richer than that I’ve observed in the surrounding arable and pastoral fields. The woodland has also proved a hit with our campers, who like their individual tree-dappled pitches – not a venture we anticipated when we planted the woodland, but one that certainly supplements the unpromising economics of food production, and that we probably couldn’t have done without the trees.

But I guess the main economic contribution of trees is their wood. With older woodland than ours, and with the requisite skill and machinery, of course it’s possible to make construction timber – which we’ve already done in a minor, homespun way around the site. An easier use, touched on in recent debates here about sustainable energy futures, is to burn it for space or water heating, or for mechanical power.

The original idea of our planting back in 2005/6 was to cut a large part of it for fuelwood (and, perhaps, craft-wood) coppice, in time-honoured local fashion. But for various practical and aesthetic reasons we’re not so keen to coppice it now. Almost all the trees were originally planted on a 3x3m spacing, as required by the Forestry Commission contract under which we did the planting. So now the time has come to start thinning them – this past winter of 2016/17 being the first one in which I did any appreciable amount of it. The picture below shows your humble blog editor posing in front of this winter’s thinnings.

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And this one, the same wood after a few minutes’ madness with the chainsaw (I wouldn’t recommend the resting position in the picture to anyone but a seasoned woodsman like me).

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Now then, a quick bit of home economics. Our current palatial residence comprises a prefab wooden cabin c/w woodstove, along with the static caravan that furnishes the stunning architectural backdrop to the last picture. The woodstove provides space heating in (most of) the cabin and hot water via a back boiler throughout the winter (hot water in the summer comes from solar tubes). The caravan is only used as a bedroom, which we heat in the winter with a butane stove – just a quick burn before we go to bed to stop our breath from misting too much as we dive under the bedclothes. Still, I know what you’re thinking. Butane! Plus the insulation in the caravan is almost non-existent, so it feels like all we’re really doing is adding another little bit of entropy to the universe. Ah, such are the vagaries of the British planning system and its insistence upon ‘sustainable’ development. But we only get through about one 15kg butane cylinder each winter (plus about half a dozen 19kg propane cylinders for cooking through the year – another candidate for a wood-burning solution). We’ll be building a permanent – and properly insulated – house to replace the caravan this year or next, so I suspect there’ll be another wood-burner. But how best to heat the new house with it – masonry stove, central heating, underfloor heating, or the same warm living room surrounded by chilly bedrooms that we’re used to? What’s that you say? Passive house? Yeah, OK, OK.

Anyway, I reckon the pile of wood you see in the picture should pretty much be enough for our heating and hot water needs over next winter. I’ll let you know next year whether I turn out to be right. In addition to the wood pictured, I cut a 44m row of willow coppice, displayed on the back of the tractor in the next photo (well, strictly pollard rather than coppice – deer and rabbit pressure being what it is, I generally cut the poles at 4 feet).

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I have a six year rotation of willow, comprising Salix viminalis in 6 x 44m rows (sorry about mixing imperial with metric measures…it’s only going to get worse as our confusion in Britain about which side of the Atlantic we’re on intensifies). This is the eighth year I’ve cut it (so the wood in the picture was the second cut from the second row). I cut it a bit late, at the end of March, and left it stacked outside through a pretty warm, dry spring as whole poles until last month when I finally got around to sawing it up – at which point it weighed 240kg in total. So would it be fair to guess a final air-dry weight of at least 140kg? That’d work out at about 6 tonnes per hectare of air-dry wood – quite low for short-rotation coppice where yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare are reported. Though to be fair my willow coppice gets the full force of the strong prevailing southwesterly winds on the site (it doubles as a windbreak) and has never had any appreciable added fertiliser.

Next year, I’d imagine we’ll be cutting a lot more thinnings than the amount shown in the picture above. And I’d guess that if we had a mature coppice system established we could probably get more out still. I’m aiming to plant a bit more fuelwood coppice in my upcoming agroforestry project. Meanwhile, I experimented with cutting a micro-cant of ash pollards in the pig enclosure (pictured, first just after cutting in early March, and now in June with the regrowth).

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I’m not sure if it’ll work on that scale – it’ll be interesting to see (the light shade cast by ash will surely help…) But the point I’m moving towards here on the basis of the experiences described above is that I think a reasonably well-wooded smallholding like ours can probably grow enough wood to provide heating, hot water and cooking for a household, maybe two households. There may be a bit left over for construction and farm timber, and for providing mechanical power such as the steam engines we were discussing here a few weeks ago – but I suspect not a whole lot. So there may be a significant limitation there in terms of my self-sufficiency aims for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, in the absence of abiotic forms of energy capture such as photovoltaics. That, at any rate, is my proposal for debate. Britain is a densely populated country, but it has a lot of farmland – probably enough to feed the population tolerably well, as I’ve argued in my cycle of Wessex posts. The corollary, however, is that it doesn’t have much woodland – maybe enough for heating, cooking and hot water, probably not enough for construction or energy.

I reckon I probably used about 10 litres of petrol in the small chainsaw pictured above to fell, limb and then cut up all the trees pictured above (I’d probably have used a little less if I wasn’t such a laggard with the file…) Next year I’ll try to measure it properly. All the trees were hauled out by hand to the track bisecting our property and then taken up to the house by tractor, using a pretty negligible amount of diesel. I might use Spudgirl’s pony next year for some horse-logging and make him earn his keep a little more. Anyway, even with the chainsaw it felt like a lot of damned hard work (perhaps the more so now my bones are a little creakier than they once were). The thought of doing it with a bowsaw makes my hands go clammy. I know, I know, I’m not a proper populist and I’m not a proper peasant either. Still, the lesson I infer for the latter-day peasant republic in Britain is that if we want to fund even a low energy input agrarian society with renewable energy, I think we’ll need to be looking beyond biomass and towards technologies like wind and photovoltaics. These technologies are now cheap enough, and I’m not persuaded that the trapped asset argument on the radical green side of the political divide makes a whole lot more sense than the foot-dragging of the fossilheads on the right. Still, in the short-term every peasant household in Wessex gets a ration of 25 litres of petrol per annum for its chainsaw and 2-wheel tractor, and until our economic policy wonks have figured out how to develop a local import substitution industry, we’ll be prioritising trade deals with Germany and Japan so that Mr Stihl and Mr Honda can ease our aching arms.

PS. I’m going to be hunkered down somewhere well away from any internet connection over the next few days, so if you’re kind enough to comment on this post please forgive me if I don’t respond until some time next week.

Notes

  1. Whitefield, P. 2009. The Living Landscape. Permanent Publications; Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Permanent Publications.