Home Milling is a little like Home Baking

By which I mean, in both cases once you have acquired some basic skills and equipment you can turn your hand to making a variety of products (whether bread, rolls and cakes; or beams, flooring and lintels).

This indeed is often the main benefit in training and equipping yourself to process your own timber – the ability to produce what you need, when you need.

This point was brought home to me many years ago when we demonstrated chainsaw milling at a local agricultural show. During the course of the day we converted a number of logs into boards and beams of various dimensions. People were transfixed – it is a very powerful experience seeing a round log being transformed into useable timber right in front of you – but more often than not their first question was: ‘how does the cost compare with going to the builders merchants?’

I suppose we should have expected this but I have to say this caught us somewhat by surprise. Of course price is a factor, and for some products mainstream merchants will be cheaper, but that isn’t really the point of the exercise. The issue is, if you rely on those merchants you will be restricted to a certain range of products, in a certain range of dimensions. If your project or need falls outwith that range, then you have a problem.

By contrast, should you for example be installing a fireplace and fancy a heavy-duty mantelpiece, say from Douglas Fir, 8 feet long, 14” deep and 6” thick – no problem. You can cut to exactly the dimensions you require, in the species you want.

As well as this flexibility, the apparent inefficiency of milling individual items in this way is less marked than you might think. True, it will take a bit of time, but consider this: every useable piece of timber in your log can be sawn from it, and even the remainder is not waste, but will go into your fire.

Mobile bandsaw

Mobile bandsaw

This is an area where ‘appropriate technology’ comes in. There was a time when home sawmilling of the type described above would have either involved very basic equipment producing fairly crude results, or equipment so costly as to render the exercise beyond the means of most. Nowadays, however, there are a plethora of chainsaw mills, mobile bandsaws and swing-blade circular saws all producing excellent results.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses but depending on your priorities you will almost certainly find something to meet your needs. Prices range from a couple of thousand pounds for a chainsaw sawbench (assuming you have a beefy chainsaw already) to well over ten times that much for an all-singing, all-dancing mobile bandsaw with hydraulic log loading etc.

Such equipment is invariably imported – typically from Scandinavia or North America – as you might expect, as most other countries have a much stronger forest culture than we do. As an example of this, there is a great magazine available in the USA called Independent Sawmill & Woodlot Management, so large is their ‘family forestry’ sector (there are 10 million family forest owners in the US).

I get a digital subscription to this, and out of idle curiosity counted up the number of adverts for mobile sawmilling equipment in the latest issue. There were eight different manufacturers – and that did not include firewood processors, sawblade suppliers, kilns etc.

Indeed, one of the magazine’s more entertaining projects is their annual ‘Great Portable Sawmill Shoot-Out’ where different sawmills line up against each other against the clock, to convert a standard parcel of logs. Each is scored on speed, and quality & quantity of timber produced. By all accounts it is a great day out and the mills perform most impressively.

Readers of this blog now hankering for a mill of their own could do worse than read the Shoot-Out event review. Happy milling!

Sutherland Show

A brief post to mention that we will be at the Sutherland Show this coming Saturday 20 July in Dornoch.

This is the first time the Woodland Crofts Partnership has attended such an event and we are looking forward to meeting in person anyone interested in woodland crofts.

It is particularly appropriate that our first visit to an agricultural show is in East Sutherland as it is a pioneering area when it comes to woodland crofts. The first new woodland croft created under the provisions of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2007 was created in Edderton, whilst the first community to gain National Forest Land Scheme approval under the specific woodland crofts measure was Embo. This latter project remains to be progressed so we would be especially pleased to meet anyone from that community looking to secure a woodland croft.

There are also crofters in Sutherland who have woodland crofts by virtue of earlier mechanisms for their establishment – by planting up ‘traditional’ crofts for example. However they have been arrived at, we look forward to meeting occupiers of existing woodland crofts, as well those who aspire to one.

We are also keen to talk to private landowners who – as in the visionary example from Edderton above – recognize the benefits to both themselves and their communities of this new model of woodland tenure.

We’ll be on the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust stand so come and see us on Saturday!

The best thing in my vegetable patch is – a tree…!

aspenAfter the weighty themes of recent blogs I thought we should return to getting some dirt under our fingernails, so to speak.

The title of this post is not meant to imply any inherent superiority of trees over vegetables, but rather reflects the inadequacy of my own efforts to grow vegetables. Year after year seeds fail, slugs rampage and tentative growth falters, much to my disappointment.

In contrast, my efforts to grow trees generally succeed. True, there are always some failures, but a good mix ensures there is always something to plant out in due course. Sometimes success can be spectacular – sowing elm seeds straight from the tree in June and seeing them germinate the same summer, if you pick the seed at the just the right point.

But as my tree nursery is by no means commercial, but literally a corner of the vegetable patch, I like to try growing trees and shrubs which are a little bit unusual. Native Scots pine from local trees, Guelder rose from a roadside bush, and this year’s experiment – aspen.

Aspen is a favourite of mine and a very interesting tree in all sorts of ways. Firstly, it is very beautiful, with interesting bark and attractive foliage throughout the growing season: coppery in spring, and bright yellow in autumn, with flattened leaf stalks that cause the characteristic flutter of its leaves in the slightest breeze.

Furthermore, its life cycle is fascinating: aspen clones (though not individual trees) are amongst the longest lived organisms on the planet, through their ability to perpetuate themselves through vegetative reproduction.

Though formerly neglected, there is now an upsurge of interest in aspen and a huge amount of information can be found on the websites of the Scottish Aspen Project and that of Trees for Life, which has taken a special interest in aspen. I would recommend you visit these sites for much more comprehensive information.

Back to the vegetable patch…….

One of the challenging aspects of aspen is its reproductive habits. Trees are dioecious meaning they are either wholly male or wholly female (some species of tree can be both). So for aspen to set seed needs a male tree and a female tree in close proximity. This in itself is a challenge for a tree that is uncommon. However, worse than that, aspen in Scotland flowers only very rarely so in practice it is extremely unusual for it to manage to set seed.

Fortunately, it has a vigorous suckering habit and this is the key to propagating it. There are sophisticated ways of growing large numbers of plants from root cuttings and these are described on the Trees for Life website. However, the simplest way is to simply dig up and transplant suckers (with the landowner’s permission of course).

There is a slight trick to this though. The temptation is to dig up the larger, more vigorous suckers, but these are typically closer to the parent tree and sustained almost entirely by it (through growing from its larger roots). When transplanted these often struggle as their own root systems are not sufficiently developed to support themselves. Much better is to go to the limits of sucker growth and dig up smaller plants, which survive better when transplanted.

To maximize your chances further still, you can line out the suckers in your nursery (or vegetable patch!) for a year to give the plants a chance to develop their root systems free from competition from other plants and the attentions of herbivores of all kinds, and then plant out the next spring. This is what I have done this year – the photo at the top of the post shows one of them.

Why bother? Apart from the opportunity to restore aspen to its rightful place in the landscape and enjoy both the aesthetic and biodiversity benefits, aspen has its uses. As ever, in this country we have tended to dismiss it (and other poplars) as simply matchwood.  However, in regions where the tree is more common such as Scandinavia or North America aspen is used to make a variety of products, including medicines, paper and furniture. It can also be used as a structural timber once graded, and traditionally was an important fodder crop in some areas.

All in all, then, a true multi-purpose tree: attractive, ecologically important, and useful. Every woodland croft should have one.

What do we mean by community?

As sometimes happens, the theme I had in mind for my next blog post was overtaken by events, namely the publication this week of the Land Reform Review Group’s (LRRG) Interim Report. This is clearly an important moment, as it begins to hint at what the result of the Group’s deliberations will bring, or not, as the case may be – time will tell.

Although there are many significant individual statements within the report, the main message I took from it was the view that land reform should be about community ownership – and this rather troubles me.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a passionate supporter of community ownership and believe my community credentials are as good as the next man’s – I am a director of my local community company, a former director of the Community Woodlands Association and a committee member of a local community hydro project.

It’s just that I don’t think that community benefit need only be delivered through constituted community bodies, and that land reform is therefore much wider than this.

A ‘community body’ is rigidly defined in law for the purposes of community right to buy, under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (indeed many responses to the LRRG argue that a more flexible definition would be helpful).  Many other ‘official’ bodies have also adopted this as a de facto definition of a community body as a result.

One interesting feature of this is the way that the community itself is defined.  The community is those persons ordinarily resident in the defined area and eligible to vote; ie they are local residents. This is important as it highlights that under present arrangements when we talk about community ownership, benefit & control, we are talking about a form of local ownership, benefit and control. Other criteria applying to the community body refine this local dimension further, by ensuring that it is also open, transparent, collective, and democratic.

But how will local people, who may attend community company meetings or perhaps sit on its board, steering its development for the benefit of the community, behave when going about their own everyday business? Clearly their own personal interests will feature much higher in their priorities, but that is not to say they will not consider the wider community at all – after all they have to live with them, as friends and neighbours.

So more than likely, a local individual or business will manage their affairs not only in their own interests, but to support their fellow residents – or in today’s jargon, to deliver community benefit. In this way they may differ from a remote or corporate owner of assets who could have different priorities and answer to a different ‘community’.

Whilst recognising that in many situations, community control of assets may be the ideal, local control more generally must surely be the next best thing, as in its own way it delivers community benefit. It would therefore be good to feel that land reform discussions reflected a continuum of opportunities, but unfortunately it looks as if the debate has become polarized between community ownership, and private estate ownership.

It is also interesting to reflect on why we need community ownership of land. Whilst there is a philosophical point of view regarding this, there is also a practical one: the need for community ownership exists because in many cases it is so hard for ordinary individuals to gain access to land, and community ownership represents their best chance.

Take forestry for example: in Scandinavia, ‘community’ management of woodland tends to be through local and regional co-operatives of individual woodland owners.  The need for community ownership of woodlands, as we have developed it in Scotland, is less significant because ownership of woodland is itself so commonplace.

Consider also the role of the individual in crofting: although communal working is a key aspect of the system and widely recognised as such, at the same time every crofter has their own croft. Indeed, there are crofts without common grazings, but no common grazings without crofts. And crofting also recognises the importance of local residence, as discussed earlier: you must live on, or within 20 miles of your croft.

All of which is to argue that the community as local individuals deserve a place in the land reform debate, alongside the community as a formally constituted body.

And to finish, here is a lovely example of the community as individuals – informally, and unconstituted – working together: Helping with the Peats

Jobs per Log, or Logs per Job?

This post was prompted by a recent rather intemperate article that appeared in the press by the Chief Executive of Confor. Though the whole article is probably worthy of analysis in a separate blog post (discussing the current tensions around woodland expansion), it was the specific reference to jobs in rural communities that caught my eye.

The implication was that such communities ‘needed’ outside companies to come in and provide jobs (rather than it being possible for communities to develop their own, given the chance). Experience of community woodland buyouts such as Kilfinan, Mull and Tormore in Skye suggest that given access to the resource, communities are more than capable of developing employment themselves.

Then many of the locations of processing plants highlighted in the article – Inverness and Stirling for example – were, from the rural Highland perspective that I write, far from rural and it is clear that what used to be called ‘rural development forestry’ and was (briefly) in vogue a few years ago means different things to different people.

The article also didn’t mention that despite the promise of jobs, employment in the forest industry has fallen in recent years, as highlighted in the ‘Roots for Future Growth’ report published by the Scottish Forest & Timber Technologies Group (page 23). This goes on to explain that this is the result of investment in in “highly efficient, automated machinery and processing lines”.

Which brings me to the theme of this post: what do we mean by efficiency?

In the physical sciences, depending on the context, there are various definitions of efficiency, broadly speaking variations of output/input, and they have the beauty of being very specific. In contrast, efficiency in the world of human affairs is much more complicated, and open to debate.

Take the statement above regarding ‘efficient, automated machinery’ which has had the effect of reducing the jobs required. This would be considered to be a good thing by most people. On the other hand, if your job has been replaced by a machine you may feel differently.

Equally, not all the jobs ‘saved’ by the new machinery disappear. Somewhere else other people may have new jobs making the new machinery, and if these are located in foreign machine shops, again, this may not be a benefit to your community.

Finally, the efficiency of a process is far more than just the efficiency of its final step. So you may have the most sophisticated sawmill in the world, but having to supply it through thousands of lengthy lorry movements of round timber rather takes the gloss off this ‘efficiency’. We should take a holistic view of efficiency over the whole process before coming to our conclusions.

All of which is to suggest efficiency is a complicated thing, and partly depends on your perspective.

So the average woodland crofter, working his woodlands with tractor-based equipment, processing small batches on site with a small sawmill, perhaps adding value manually with a planer/moulder would be considered by some to be grossly inefficient.

On the other hand, to offset the ‘inefficiency’ of his methods & equipment, timber miles are minimised, what he does export is finished product,  he sustains a family and a home in a rural community, and his management approach yields local, silvicultural and biodiversity benefits. These potential benefits are recognised by the Scottish Government, who support woodland crofts as a result.

Footnote: the title of this post is a quote from a friend who runs a sawmill as a social enterprise, and explains to visitors to her business that industry does not take them seriously as their ‘jobs to logs’ ratio is much too high (and therefore ‘inefficient’) –  but their goal is to support as many jobs as they can ‘per log’. This is the opposite approach to conventional enterprises who seek minimise ‘jobs per log’.

The trees we plant today will be harvested in a world without cheap oil

The title of this post might seem rather odd, just a couple of days after the oil price dipped below $100 per barrel for the first time in many months. However most commentators agree that this dip is primarily a result of the present lacklustre prospects for the global economy, and therefore bound to be reversed as soon as growth picks up – which, however feeble prospects in Europe may seem, is likely elsewhere in the world.

More telling was the story last week in the FT entitled ‘More buck, less bang’ which described how despite ever increasing investment, oil exploration was failing to identify enough new reserves to replace what is currently being produced; furthermore, major exploration and production projects are on average running both significantly late and significantly over budget, largely because they are operating in increasingly difficult places. One oil chief is quoted as saying “We have to realise as an industry that the easy oil and easy gas is over”.

Despite recent rubbishing (again) of their model, this is consistent with what ‘Peak Oil’ proponents have been saying for years. Perhaps, then, reports of its demise are premature – in which case the title of this post would indeed be accurate. Though there are different schools of thought about when exactly the consistent shortfall of supply over demand (ie the end of cheap oil) predicted by peak oil will occur, one thing seems certain – it will happen within the rotation of even the fastest growing softwoods.

What has that got to do with forestry, and in particular smaller-scale approaches such as woodland croft management? Indeed, isn’t it a good thing – if energy is more expensive, demand for timber will grow (for both fuel and to replace energy-intensive materials), timber prices will rise and all will be rosy in forestry .

Well maybe, or maybe not. To be honest I am surprised an industry that prides itself on long-term planning isn’t giving this issue more thought. The reality is that the industrial model of forestry we have built is heavily centralized and based, from forest to sawmill, on heavy machinery.

Diesel is the lifeblood of forestry, and for all the ‘efficiency’ of the latest high-tech processing plants, their operation is ultimately sustained by this fuel. For all the advances made in developing renewable alternatives for heat and electricity generation, we have yet to make any meaningful progress on alternative transport fuels. Diesel is still the best we have.

All of which means that even if the timber price rockets, so too will costs, so the picture is more complicated and less positive than it might first appear. I still believe however that forestry can thrive and prosper in such a future scenario – but we have to re-shape our industry accordingly, and given its long-term outlook, start changing things now.

How do we benefit by increased prices, but minimize costs? Largely, I would argue, by minimizing transport. By this I don’t mean ‘modal shift’ (using rail & sea transport, rather than lorries, to serve existing centralized processing plants), I mean minimizing transport, full stop. Green (unprocessed) timber is 60% water by weight and surely it is madness to ship this across the country, whichever mode of transport we use.

This inevitably implies local processing: more, smaller sawmills and other processors distributed across the country, located in the forest-growing areas. Technology is already available or in development to support such a local approach without loss of quality.

A more local focus will also encourage more local, rather than remote, management of forests, bringing improved stewardship of woodland. Local processing will bring rural development benefits – it is one of the ironies of the current set-up that so many jobs supported by forestry are actually located in our major centres of population, rather than in the communities actually hosting the forests.

Such a smaller-scale, local approach will require the development of a forest culture. It will require leadership from both government and the forest industry, to do what is right for the country at large rather than the current restricted range of industry stakeholders. It will however yield a low-carbon industry resilient in the face of future uncertainties, both environmental and financial.

It also fits perfectly with the woodland crofts approach.

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5,000 Woodland Crofts

Around the time of the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF – one of our partners in the Woodland Crofts Partnership) issued a call for the next Scottish Government – whoever it might be – to publish an Action Plan for crofting to meet various objectives. Amongst these was to establish 5,000 new woodland crofts by 2020.

At the time, eyebrows were quietly raised (and some not so quietly) in certain quarters but this remains SCF policy and one supported by its partners. Often people respond to such ambitions with knee-jerk responses, so it is worth examining critically whether such a policy is ambitious, realistic, or perhaps even a bit conservative.

Granted, meeting this timescale will be challenging but what about the scale – what would 5,000 woodland crofts actually mean on the ground? There are two useful ways to look at this: how much woodland would likely be required; and how the situation here would then compare with that in other countries, if we had 5,000 more woodland occupiers.

Assuming each new woodland croft was 10 ha in area on average (slightly larger in fact than those created in recent times), obviously 50,000 ha of woodland would be needed. To discover what percentage of the woodland area of the crofting counties this represents is harder than it might appear, as official statistics are fairly crude and not broken down beyond country level (in contrast the statistics available on Swedish forestry are incredibly detailed).

I eventually found a paper (on indicators for High Nature Value Farming & Forestry in Scotland) which yielded the required figures. Using them, one discovers that the proportion of existing woodland of all kinds required to create 5,000 woodland crofts as outlined above is slightly less than 9% of the total. In reality it could well be less, as many have pointed out that creating new woodland crofts by establishing new woodland on new crofts would be a useful way to contribute to government afforestation targets.

So much for being a radical proposition, then. What about the impact it might have in terms of opening up access to woodland to manage?

As there is currently a minimal rented woodland sector in this country, woodland occupation tends to be through ownership so I use this a proxy for occupation (hopefully in the future this simplification will no longer be valid!) No official statistics on woodland ownership are available – again in contrast to the Swedish stats mentioned earlier – but last year the Forest Policy Group (FPG) published a scoping study on the issue.

If you drill down into its results you come up with a national figure of around 2,700 for resident woodland owners – so 5,000 new woodland crofts would represent a near trebling of the number of resident woodland occupiers, and consequently a profound shift towards a woodland culture. I say towards, because despite this advance we would still be far from achieving the level of access to woodlands to manage enjoyed by most other countries.

Figures for this for a selection of countries are included in the FPG report mentioned above (which is well worth reading in full), but consider this: one in seven Finns owns a forest holding, and half of these live on it – isn’t that what we would call a woodland croft?

So the bottom line is that 5,000 new woodland crofts would require a minimal proportion of our existing woodland, dramatically improve access to woodland to manage, support the development of a woodland culture, and deliver a range of local benefits.

What’s not to like about that?

Woodland TV

Some light relief for the weekend – a TV review……

Amongst other signs of an upsurge in interest in woodlands has been the appearance of a number of programmes about them, of which I was reminded by a recent rerun. Woodlands of course have been a staple of wildlife TV for years, but what made these new programmes different was their focus on people as a part of the woodland habitat.

It could be argued that such a focus actually began with the ‘Woodland House’ episode of Grand Designs featuring Ben Law, ten years ago now, but in truth there has been little in the intervening years (apart from occasional ‘revisits’ to Prickly Nut Wood). Until last autumn, that is, when in quick succession we had ‘Jimmy’s Forest’, with Jimmy Doherty; ‘Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home’, and ‘Tales from the Wildwood’ with Rob Penn. Just for fun, I thought I’d give my personal take on all four series.

Grand Design’s ‘Woodland House’ set the standard, showing the general public that building attractive and comfortable homes from locally-sourced materials was not just possible, but affordable too. Ben Law’s wider philosophy towards his woodland came over well, and Kevin McCloud was clearly deeply struck by the project.

Jimmy Doherty is a lovely guy and has done great things in the field of food production. However, for me, ‘Jimmy’s Forest’ felt a bit contrived; many of the activities shown gave the impression of being set-up for the cameras rather than ‘fly on the wall’ footage of what was happening anyway. Indeed, I wondered how much time Jimmy actually spent in his wood when the cameras weren’t there.

I had high hopes too for KM’s ‘Man Made Home’, after the wonderful Grand Design’s episode described above, and the initial discussions of why he wanted a cabin in the woods resonated perfectly with the sort of thinking behind for example the Thousand Huts project. However, alarm bells rang early on when the milling of an oak tree merited just a few seconds of airtime. Though there was an emphasis on reuse & recycling, one had to wonder whether driving a pick-up round the country in pursuit of an aero engine cowl to build a hot tub was really all that ‘green’……

‘Tales from the Wild Wood’ not only had a slightly off-putting title, but a bit of a shaky start: who can forget Pablo (was it Pablo?), the Spanish forestry ‘expert’, and his extremely dodgy approach to freeing a hung-up ash. However, after this things settled down and the programme became a thoughtful exploration of many pertinent woodland issues (worth a second series, BBC 4).

So for me, Grand Designs & Tales from the Wild Wood jointly take the ‘Woodland BAFTA’. I’d like perhaps to see something a bit more ‘edgy’ in future programmes if we get them – examining why, for example, there is so little diversity in our approach to woodland management, which apart from anything else leaves us dangerously exposed to future uncertainties.

And of course from a woodland crofts perspective, these programmes all took a very southern focus. I have suggested to BBC Alba that an exploration of how woodland crofts could make the pattern of Scottish forestry more like that in Scandinavia and elsewhere would make an interesting subject for their excellent Eòrpa series, but have yet to hear more……