Fuel boost for East Anglian woodland management

Friday, November 2, 2012
4:10 PM

Woodland owners and contractors have responded with enthusiasm to incentives to bring a neglected resource back into active management across the eastern counties.

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With total grant funding of about £2.5m through Woodfuel East, it has sparked the first significant investments in timber management as a fuel source for almost a quarter of a century.

While some estates and land owners have been prepared to meet the heavy costs of management over the years, advisers from WoodFuel East, which manages grant applications on behalf of the Rural Development Programme for England, have seen a resurgence of activity.

Sid Cooper, who is based at Cambridge and covers the eastern region, said that for many years the market for thinnings and lower-grade wood has been quite depressed. “The domestic firewood market has burgeoned so that you have a lot of woodlands which were unviable to manage now have become viable. That has increased the area under active management,” he added.

While there has been investment by so-called standalone woodchip suppliers, there has been much more interest from some of the larger estates in converting low-grade timber to fuel boilers.

Mr Cooper said that the firewood market has really helped to underpin demand. “Because firewood is now worth something it has encouraged landowners and contractors. Many woods have been under-managed because there was no market to stimulate the initial management, so woods were not thinned or coppiced because it was just not worthwhile,” he added.

“With many woodland operations there tends to be a range of potential timber markets – an assortment of older and large trees may be worth something or the branch wood or smaller material may also generate a return. And it may be possible to break-even or even make a small return form what was completely non-profitable,” said Mr Cooper.

As ever with decades of neglected woodlands, it can be very expensive to deal with a typical block of 10 to 15 hectares, which probably badly needs thinning.

“To get to that point that trees have value, the woodland has to be managed by thinning and other good silvicultural practice. It is those elements which have been neglected but now better wood fuel markets are providing some incentive or stimulus,” he added.

In the past, there has been so little interest or value in timber for firewood that it was just not viable to manage. Now that low-quality has been achieving a higher value which makes it possible to retain better quality trees to become future timber.

“Prices for round wood, firewood or fuel at roadside have been good in the last two years with the colder winters but they were a bit depressed last year,” he said.

And it has also resulted in the prices of some low-quality timber and some hardwood firewood grade timber at roadside achieving the same rates as high-quality sawlogs or Corsican Pine construction timber out of Thetford Forest.

Last year, some hardwood at roadside for firewood was making about £45 tonne although prices have since eased by about £10 per tonne, depending on grade and presentation.

Obviously, timber which has been cut and seasoned will be worth more. As it dries, it loses weight but in round terms, a tonne of green timber worth about £40 at roadside may be worth about £40 per cubic metre. And once dried, hardwood firewood will be mostly costly.

However, as oil prices have risen steadily in the past couple of years, then timber and woodchip has looked increasingly attractive when it is on the doorstep. If it is possible to chip timber into store for between £65 to £70 per tonne, it could equate to paying about 20p litre for soil. “It is starting to value timber again as an energy commodity again oil which is really interesting,” said Mr Cooper.

With demand for woodchip including Stansted taking about 10,000 cu metre or roughly 3,000 tonnes of timber and the growing demand for firewood, the prospects for woodland management appears to more buoyant than for some years.

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