Continuing our series of blog posts highlighting stories of small woodland ownership, this 2 part blog tells the story of Craggach Woods near Kirkhill, owned by David Shepherd and Annie Griffiths. In the first part they give the background to their wood and the philosophy behind their ownership and management. In the second part (to follow) they explore the silvicultural aspects of their management.
We own 40ha of woodland on a fairly rich site suited to broadleaves. This has been undergoing transformation to productive native broadleaves for over 20 years, from standard 1950s coniferisation of a site of long-established woodlands of plantation origin (LEPO).
Our aim is to develop a biologically and structurally diverse wood with an annual yield of good quality timber. We will undertake all management, harvesting and processing. We predict the wood will eventually support one full time job equivalent.
The following is a brief overview on how we developed our management approach.
In 1992 we bought an 8 ha wood close to our house, consisting of p1958 spruce/larch/pine, with the intention of converting to native woodland for nature conservation purposes. Through a standing sale, 6ha were clear felled and planted with site specific native broadleaves in a mix and pattern that tried to create a native woodland.
About 5 years later the Highland Birchwoods initiative convinced us to attempt a change towards productive timber. This was possible as because the stocking density at that point was around 4000 stems per hectare, mainly through birch and rowan regeneration.
For the last 15 years we have been learning the art of broadleaf silviculture – difficult for us because the English language literature concentrates on single species stands. Recent translations of literature from French foresters promoting single tree selection forestry, along with new guidance from France on oak silviculture, have been crucial in getting us into early free growth of oak and complex Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF).
Expansion and development
In 2005 we bought an additional 32ha wood beside our house. This again had been coniferised in the 1950s. Because the sale of timber from the first wood had paid for its original purchase (with Woodland Grant Scheme funding largely covering the restocking), we were encouraged to take the risk of purchasing this second wood.
We are now in the process of converting this site to productive native broadleaves too. Through good fortune, a standing sale of 14ha of good, well thinned spruce within the wood nearly covered its purchase cost.
Although arduous, the first round of the Scottish Rural Development Programme was good to us. We picked up a substantial Woodland Improvement Grant which included much of the funding for a fence round the spruce clearfell area. We also had funding towards Forest Machine Operator training for ourselves.
The clearfell was completed in November 2010. The fence, erected by contractors, was finished in time for the site to be planted in January – March the following year. We planted the site ourselves partly because of doubts that contractors would deliver the complex mix of species in the right soils that we wanted.
The vision for the future
We envisage the wood will be a steady state CCF unit producing a continuous annual flow of high value timber and fuel wood. The owner/occupier will undertake all forestry management and implementation. They will run a sawmill and process fuel wood to yield a living income.
We undertake all work ourselves (apart from the clear fells/fence construction) and use an alpine tractor with three ton trailer/crane, a winch, a simple saw bench and a log splitter. This equipment enables us to produce fuel wood for ourselves, and sufficient surplus for sale to cover our running (but not capital) costs.
We also run a simple bandsaw mill (Lumbermate) which cut timber for a substantial equipment shed that we built from Larch and Douglas Fir. Unfortunately this was flattened by a huge beech in a gale – now rebuilt by ‘proper’ joiners (covered by the insurance).
The Association of Scottish Hardwood Sawmillers (ASHS) has been vital in developing our understanding of milling and drying and through them we joined the Scottish Working Woods assurance scheme – having found our previous membership of an FSC scheme increasingly frustrating for our type of operation.
We consider we now have a useful understanding of what equipment, training and commitment is needed to develop a realistic business model to deliver the vision.
The Importance of Localness
Living on site has been vital to our project. All operations are made much easier as we don’t have to commute at all – we can be efficient with time and energy. Indeed it is unlikely that we would have got the work done otherwise.
The equipment shed really had to be located by the house for security of implements and sawn wood. In addition, important tasks such as checking deer impacts and effects of snow/gales on trees and fences are easy to undertake and happen regularly – meaning problems are identified at an early stage.
Overall, our connection to the wood is much greater – it is where we live and work, not where we visit.
Democratisation of woodland ownership
We have become intimately and emotionally connected to the woods we own and inhabit – and take great satisfaction in progressing the developments outlined above. The time and energy commitments required to achieve these objectives are very significant and difficult to quantify but hugely worthwhile.
We realise we were very fortunate to have the capital to buy the woodland blocks and lucky again to recoup the money with the clearfells. We also had the capital to bridge the time between implementing grant work and receiving the money. We would like others to have similar opportunities but consider the current outlook for this is bleak.
A starting point might be for Forestry Commission Scotland to look to helping new forest artisans (if that is what we are) in a scheme similar to their help for starter farms.
A fundamental need is for society to recognise the value of enabling many people to own and manage their own land-based and other businesses. It is difficult to be optimistic in the light of general disregard for the fate of artisan bakers, butchers, grocers and small farms which appear to be heading down the road to extinction.
The only glimmer of hope comes from an unlikely source – micro breweries. When the Chancellor reduced the excise duty for brewers with low total annual production many people were able to enjoy running breweries – and beer drinkers were offered a huge increase in beer diversity. Similar fiscal measures could tip the balance a little away from big forestry towards family woods and the welcome diversity of management and produce this would bring.
David Shepherd, Annie Griffiths