A characteristic of the Dorset landscape is small, remote, so-called ‘farm woodlands‘. These tend to be pockets of inaccessible trees. As with so many things these days, their survival depends on being financially viable – in other words, in order to please the eye and play a crucial role in nature conservation, they have to make money.
Not so long ago this wasn’t a problem. As recently as the 1940’s, woodland products provided for all sorts of everyday bits and bobs from fencing to tool handles to building materials. Post-War, life changed. Wood was superseded by other, cheaper and supposedly more durable materials.
Farm woodlands suffered as a result. After generations of consistent management, during which time people and wildlife had established a mutually beneficial co-existence, the copses and spinneys often became neglected, grubbed out to carve bigger fields or planted with shade-casting, soil-acidifying, non-native conifers.
The reason why working English woodlands are so rich in plants and animals is because constant cutting, regrowth and cutting again creates a patchwork of different sized and aged trees. It is precisely this range of development which wildlife finds so beneficial. As my mother always told me growing up, “Variety is the spice of life.”
Last week I turned off the beaten track and up into an isolated woodland to meet charcoal maker Jim Bettles, a few miles south of his Hazlebury Bryan home. Jim has been breathing new life into the countryside for 14 years now and I wanted to witness the man and his team, Sam Lewis and Mike Frost, in action.
Jim explained how wood is cooked in a number of circular, metal kilns. A bed of half-burnt logs called ’brans’ is laid down. Logs are stacked on the brans, around a narrow chimney in the centre with charcoal at the bottom. When the kiln is full, the chimney is removed. Ignited charcoal is dropped down the core onto the charcoal at the bottom. This catches fire and ignites the brans. The fire spreads out then up. Air flow is strictly controlled via vents and the kiln, now lidded, is left for between 12 and 20 hours depending on the type of wood and how dry it was to start with.
Jim monitors the colour of the smoke which rises. It begins thick and white, changes to dirty brown, thins considerably then turns blue. The best charcoal results just after the dirty brown stage, as the smoke is thinning. At this point Jim and the lads block all the vents to starve the fire of oxygen. 24 hours later the fire will have died and the charcoal cooled enough for removal and packaging into brown paper bags.
Jim has over a hundred retail outlets across the county. He delivers personally and to order. His charcoal costs £4.50 for 3kg which is often a pound dearer than the imported stuff. But he believes this extra cost truely reflects the work involved and the ’green’ credentials of locally produced charcoal. Also, he tells me, it is a much higher quality product.
“English hardwood trees make charcoal which is less dense than rainforest wood or mangroves. There are many more channels for air to get into it and so it’s much easier to light. You don’t need to mess around with firelighters, just strike a match.”
Jim’s equipment is mobile. He works with foresters to utilise timber anywhere in Dorset. This negates expensive haulage costs so the landowner, contractor and charcoal maker can all profit from sustainably managed woodland.
Dorset Charcoal Company, 01258 818176 or visit www.dorsetcharcoal.co.uk
Copyright, Joe Hashman June 2010