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Rockingham Forest Blog

  • Writer's pictureBarrie Galpin

A wood-chopper would chop wood

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

By Barrie Galpin

Barrie has lived in Fineshade for half his lifetime and is a volunteer for Rockingham Forest Vision, with prime responsibility for the website. He is also a member of the Easton Hornstocks coppicing group and here he describes one of their motivations - gathering wood for fuel.

Since 2016 a group of us have been cutting down trees in a National Nature Reserve. That sounds very drastic, if not actually illegal, but it has been done in Easton Hornstocks at the invitation of Natural England (NE) and with their full support. For most of us the prime motivation has been to take home wood to heat our houses, so reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. But for NE the reason is to restore the coppiced woodland to its former state, with a range of habitats to benefit wildlife.

This article is an un-ashamed attempt to encourage you to get involved with cutting, storing, preparing and burning your own wood fuel in Rockingham Forest. For hundreds if not thousands of years the forest provided local people with the sole source of fuel for heating and lighting. That changed in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the ready availability of fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas. Today very few people find time or energy to gather wood for burning and as a result many of our previous coppiced woodlands have become overgrown, or been cleared altogether.

In 2016 Tim Sutton, the Nature Reserve warden, allocated us a coupe in Easton Hornstocks. It consisted of a patch of tall trees, mainly about 40 years old, which had grown up since the area had last been felled. There were some large Silver Birches – a quick growing tree and often the first to appear when land is cleared. But the main growth was from Small-leaved Lime trunks growing up from stools: the roots and stumps remaining from where the trees and been previously felled.

This picture shows the uncut part of the coupe

That first winter six of us set-to with enthusiasm and began felling, using the tools that we had in our sheds – mainly bowsaws and billhooks, though one of us had a chainsaw with the appropriate licence. It didn’t take me long to realise how unfit both I and my tools were for this work. I soon discovered that my rusty old bowsaw needed to be replaced and I discovered the joys of working with a super-sharp Silky. But how I wished I could replace my creaky limbs and back as easily!

One day I was hand-cutting the new growth from the ancient coppice stool pictured below, which is probably hundreds of years old. It occurred to me that this very stool had been cut in a similar way by generations of people living here in Rockingham Forest. It gave me a sudden strong personal experience of heritage and history - wow!

Felling one of the trunks is the relatively easy part though it is always a bit of a thrill. We learned how to make the trunk fall where we wanted it (usually!) and shouts of "Timber.r.r.r.. !!" are often heard. Once the trunk is on the ground it has to be cut into manageable lengths – but what is manageable? For me it’s a length that I can lift on my own and will fit easily into my car – about 5 ft long.

The top part of the tree, consisting of small branches and twigs, is known as brash and that needs to stay on site. For the first couple of years it was suggested that we should build and burn large brash bonfires like this.

This seemed wasteful - both of our time and of the natural resource, so we moved to piling the brash on top of the cut stools in an effort to deter deer from eating the regrowth. Gradually we realised that the brash piles could be laid in windrows across adjacent stools, both further deterring deer and allowing us easy access to the uncut areas in future years. This really does seem to make a difference. The decaying pile of brash enables new growth from the stools to get away for at least a couple of years.

At the end of the first winter we had collectively cleared an area of about 20 metres by 30 metres. Hmm... that's 600 sq. metres, yet the whole coupe is about 12,000 sq metres – it would take us about 20 years to clear the whole coupe and by then we would be able to start at the beginning again! Which, of course, is exactly the way coupes like this would have been worked in former centuries.

Getting the wood ready for burning doesn’t stop when the lengths are driven away from the site. First it needs to be seasoned – left to dry so that the water content reduces considerably. Some of the adverse publicity that wood burning has attracted, particularly in cities, occurs when wet wood is burned. It causes nasty deposits in your chimney and the grey smoke causes harmful air pollution.

Some types of timber dry out much more quickly than others and some people say that Lime and Birch can be burned after just one year’s seasoning, but I like to leave it two years. I’m lucky that I can stack the cut lengths at the bottom of my garden and it will stay like that for 18 months. Some people cover their stacks but I’ve not found it necessary at this stage.

This stack of lengths should see me through two winters

The felling season runs from September to March while the trees are dormant, stopping during the summer when the trees are in full leaf, when birds are nesting and the woodland floor comes alive with flowers. So summer is the time when I like to process the timber lengths, using an electric chain saw to cut them into logs for burning. If the trunks are more than about 12 cm in diameter they will finish off the seasoning process and burn better if they are split as well.

Maybe you have an image of a traditional woodcutter wielding an axe and the logs flying apart in beautifully uniform wedges? It doesn’t work for me I’m afraid! Fifteen years ago I bought a pneumatic log-splitter and it’s been a great investment. I wheel it out every summer, install it onto a recycled picnic bench, and it works like a dream. It’s a very satisfying process as the logs are cut and split and gradually my two log stores fill up with logs ready for burning.

But to quote the old tongue-twister:

if a wood-chopper would chop wood, how much wood should a wood-chopper chop?

We’ve discovered that in our house we burn 5 or 6 cubic meters of logs in an average winter – and that’s the capacity of my two log stores if they are packed properly. As you can see the outside walls of the stores are formed by carefully positioned logs – a very satisfying process. Behind the front wall is total chaos – but nobody needs to know that!

By the end of August the log stores are full, the stack of lengths at the bottom of the garden has halved, with only timber felled the previous winter remaining and the coppicing season starts again, back in Easton Hornstocks. All very satisfying! And of course the greatest satisfaction comes in early autumn when the first fire is burning in the wood-burner.

Our coppicing group has grown over the years and there are now 18 of us with a more-or-less-regular commitment. Not everyone takes timber away for burning. Some take sticks and stakes for short-term use in the garden. Others are interested in reviving other woodland crafts, particularly making rope from the lime bark. I think all of us enjoy and get much satisfaction just from being there in the wood and working together. If you’d like to learn more and perhaps come along to give it a try, please do get in touch - as you can see we're a friendly bunch!



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