Incorporating the Simple Living Review, the Preparedness & Self-Reliance Review, as well as the Outdoor & Survival Review

Home fires are burning again

With wood stove sales and use up in UK logs having to be imported from as far as Eastern Europe in order to satisfy demand

by Michael Smith

Considering the global recession and, more recently, conflict over natural gas flowing into Europe from Russia, this was probably something that should have been expected.

Sales of wood-burning stoves in the UK, as well as the use of existing wood-burning stoves, have risen recently, which in turn is causing shortages of firewood. This is forcing some suppliers to go so far as Eastern Europe to find good seasoned wood.

In medieval England, peasants were allowed to collect as much deadwood as they wanted from the royal forests - just so long as they could reach it "by hook or by crook". But the rapidly rising number of households now turning back to the forest for fuel, to protect the environment, or to simply make a lifestyle statement are finding a supply chain of this renewable, carbon-neutral fuel far more complex. Others may not try to make a lifestyle statement at all but are returning to wood out of bare necessity as heating fuels had become rather expensive and many rural households reply on heating oil rather than gas for hating home and farm.

Gas supplies have become a little – now this is an understatement – uncertain with Russia every now and again throwing a wobbly and a tantrum and oil seems to be going on a high every few minutes and when the prices do fall again to quite a low, as happened recently, the oil companies are in no hurry whatsoever to pass the reductions on to the consumer.

Sales of wood burning stoves in the UK are up 50% in the last three months of 2008 compared to 2007 and, according to forestry consultant Vince Thurkettle, demand for wood is currently increasing 25-30% a year. This on an island that is a bit more than 10% wooded and produces about 1 million tonnes of firewood a year, according to the Forestry Commission.

This proves, yet again, that we must bring the old coppice woodlands back into production – this has to happen anyway if we do not want the coppice stools to fall apart – for the production of small lumber and especially the production also of firewood. About time too.

This rising demand is causing a shortage of good logs, which combined with prices as high as £95 ($139) per load of wood in the north and west of the Britain is causing some wood sellers to import wood from hundreds of miles away; from inside the UK from countries as far away as Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Those are listed as “favorite hunting grounds” for wood sellers but they even (have to) go as far as Eastern Europe in order to get wood for resale.

So, some people are apparently driving wood, presumably in diesel-powered trucks, across all of Europe, to be burned in wood stoves and fireplaces in Britain.

Is importing logs from the other side, the far side, of Europe really a good idea? Personally I do not think so. And would it really be necessary? It would not if Britain had kept up with the demand that was coming – and it was obvious that it was coming – for wood.

Even though the information officer at the Forestry Commission’s Biomass Energy Centre described the effects on the environment of burning wood, compared to oil or natural gas, as “negligible”, even if that wood has been transported by road or sea, that is really something that I do not buy – as yet – and would have to see the numbers for that first. I have a very hard time believing that trucking in wood from Poland or even further afield to the British Isles to burn for heat makes environmental sense.

The good thing about burning wood for hear though is that it is – theoretically – carbon neutral, in comparison to so-called fossil fuel, which includes the likes of coal, oil and even natural gas, as wood only releases that much carbon as it has taken up during it lifetime as a tree. Nice one there. Just something that some environmentalists have problems understanding because of the fact that wood releases visible smoke and, depending in how well the wood has been seasoned, or not, as the case may be, the smoke can be quite dense.

There are two woods, however, that are best burned unseasoned on a base of other wood that has started the fire and that is beech and birch. Those two initially release a gas when burned in their green state that makes for a very hot fire.

"The dramatic upturn in demand for firewood is fantastic news in many senses because, in theory, we have so much of this resource that it is hard to see it ever running out," Thurkettle says. "Yet after so many years of relying on coal and gas to provide most of our energy needs, we have lost the art of effective woodland management. Until we relearn how to assess, manage, cut, store and burn exclusively local wood, we will continue to squander the potential of our woodlands."

The problem is that he is so very correct with that statement and speaks about just the issue that I keep mentioning as well.

We must get back to proper woodland and forest management, also as regards to firewood, and get away from the wasteful practice of the habitat pile. The habitat does very nicely without them things too, thank you. It has done so in the times of the use of the Estovers rights and will do so still today.

I have seen well managed woodlands where little if any debris was left where there was more wildlife – including invertebrates and fungi – than in many of those places that are full of those habitat piles. On the other hand those places that have clean forest floors have fewer diseased trees, especially as to fungal and pathogen problems.

On the other hand all that wood that is used – misguidedly too often – in habitat piles (while some are a good idea to leave all wood lying about or that purposes causes problems) could find a much better use to heat homes or even power turbines. The wood that is left too rot also releases the came carbon that the one that is being burned releases; so why waste the material and allow it to rot away.

Bringing in firewood from as far afield as Poland and elsewhere should not be necessary and certainly is not a practice that should be encouraged. It should be discouraged, in fact, for this can lead to destruction of woodlands and forests in Poland and other such countries to fill the UK demand.

While it is said to be still better for the environment to burn wood that has been trucked or otherwise shipped to the UK it is not ethically the right thing to do.

Time we got back to proper woodland management and relearned the old skills of how to manage woods and forests, aside from all the other reasons, for firewood. The trees that need to be removed every now and then, and presently, because of the bleeding canker infections of Horse Chestnut and similar diseases in other species of trees, those are quite a few, have to be removed from municipal parks and especially the country parks and such like, should also be entering this “food chain” of firewood instead of being allowed to be left on site to rot away.

If this means training municipal park gardeners, foresters, wardens and rangers in the appropriate chainsaw skills and allocating one or two members of staff to the logging up of any such trees into firewood then so be it. This could be a way for such places to create a little source of income. And while this may not be a very regular income of the same amount year in year out it nevertheless should be something that should be pursued.

Now let's hear it for local firewood.

I rest my case...

© M Smith (Veshengro), January 2009

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