Woodland Co-operation - restoring woodlands and providing volunteers with cheap woodfuel

John Bell
Sunday, 11th December 2011

John Bell describes how a East Devon co-operative links people who want to work in woodlands with derelict woods. As more people install woodburning stoves, this innovative idea ensures that woodlands are properly worked for future generations and guarantees a source woodfuel at a fraction of the open market price for the volunteers. Now that's a beneficial relationship!

A call to billhooks! Next time you’re out in the woods take a look around the forest floor and count the number of seedlings for a certain area. Look up and notice how much space surrounds the canopy of each tree and whether the trees are crowded and perhaps stunted for it. Now count the number of trees that if cut away would allow a dominant individual the space to carry on developing and flourishing.

A year ago National Geographic put a feature together on how the giant redwoods in North America absorbed exponentially more carbon than their smaller counterparts. The same applies to our veteran’s and our ancient specimens in the UK. Welcome to the principle of halo thinning and the huge benefits it brings to generating new seedling’s new saplings, new life for the woods and abundant woodfuel for our domestic heating and the key to all of it – is working together.

Allan and Gordon practise the ancient rite of housebote – free access to arm sized branches if you help the coopIt’s difficult not to love timber especially when you’re cold. It’s difficult not to love the powerful attraction of wood heat and the gathering force of a contained flame on a cold winters night. Interestingly a wood burner throws out up to 85% of its heat whilst an open fire consumes 85% of its heat when the timber has been seasoned. In Scandinavia and cold continental Europe the tradition of working woodland and burning wood has been firmly established. In the UK, all kinds of people want the chance to burn wood but find the costs of home insurance, log prices and access to woodland so stacks against them that a simple, cheap heating policy is the stuff of gaga land. However, if we work together to provide the necessary insurance and safety tickets the environmental charities are beginning to wake up to the idea of breathing life back into our woods by getting the work done and allowing the workers to benefit through woodfuel supply.

Three years ago following a lot of help from the East Devon AONB team and the Forestry Commission, a small group set up Axewoods, a woodfuel consumer co-operative in East Devon with permission to work woodland owned by the National Trust. To date we have two working clusters in two woodlands, six chainsaw operators and forty or so members of the cooperative. We host open days for families and nippers, we support forest schools but more directly we bridge the gap between those wanting to work in the woods and woodlands in need of work. In return anyone who joins the coop and contributes to what we’re doing is able to source woodfuel at a fraction of the open market price. Not a bad deal we hope.

A sense of community

At our last working gathering I asked for folk to put into their own words what they thought of the coop. Here’s what came back;

Gordon the Grower; “A day in the woods is worth three in the gym! A few days in the woods puts my therapist out of a job! Where else can you enjoy physical exercise, meet strange people, sit around a fire drinking coffee, eating cakes, telling tales, turn those strange people into friends, and have a bootful of firewood to take home.”

Diana the editor; “Spending time in the woods lets me leave behind all the usual things you fuss over. Sometimes the sun slants through the leaves and it is really beautiful. Sometimes it is noisy as the chainsaws bring down another miss-shapen, small or overcrowded tree. But now the fire is warm and welcoming and we sit around over tea and a sandwich and rest our weary bodies. Rising again to the task we see the results of our work – more open space to walk in, more light for the trees to grow, and a high feel good factor.”

Richard the physiotherapist; “working with family and friends new and old, having fun and teaching my children where their heat comes from."

Lizzie the artist; “For me, providing for myself in terms of heating, frees me from concerns about escalating fuel bills, but it’s also about joint effort. I might not be able to wield a chainsaw but I can do other tasks. I love being out in the woods, meeting interesting people, working as part of a team - it’s great fun and hugely satisfying."

Axewood aims and goals are to provide:

The means by which co-op members in East Devon are able

* to secure their own woodfuel needs, improve their understanding of woodland ecology and work together for collective community benefits

* to connect local woodlands with local installed wood boilers thereby addressing carbon emissions

* to learn woodland craft skills, woodland team working skills and offer woodland training events

* to physically and financially contribute to Woodland Trust/ National Trust by working and purchasing their fuel wood from sites owned by the above and managed by Axewoods. co-op.

This co-operative model could be replicated anywhere in Britain where there are unmanaged woodlands and people who want cheap woodfuel.

Just one day a month

If you live in East Devon like wood and want to help and maybe get involved have a look at axewoods.org and if it’s all you do join us for a working day. We only ask for one day a month. You knows maybe we can let some light into your world?


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This is for everyone who loves trees and woodlands. Written from the heart by an innovative woodsman who is deeply committed to sustainability, this radical book presents an immensely practical alternative to conventional woodland management. Ben Law clearly demonstrates how you can create biodiverse, healthy environments, yield a great variety of value added products, provide secure livelihoods for woodland workers and farmers, and benefit the local community. He argues the case for a new approach to planning, encouraging the creation of permaculture woodlands for the benefit of people, the local environment and the global climate. Full of b/w photos and 13 colour plates. 

gardengrow |
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 19:50
Got all excited about the special offer but I found the price was £14.21....:( Nice article and encouraged to go out and manage that woodland. Many thanks gardengrow.ie