Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Forest and the Trees

Just as our oil storage tank began to flirt with empty, our long awaited delivery arrived. The Brogan Fuels truck sputtered up our dirt road, the driver unfurled his hose, engaged his pump and pumped in 800 litres, enough for the next four months. Yesterday came the bill, £560. High, oh yes --- 67pence a litre. Last October we filled up at 58p/l. The previous year at 42p/l. Auto fuel also jumped over the New Year from £1.22/l to £1.35/l, the highest it’s ever been, but that was due to Mr. Cameron’s bright idea to solve our economic woes by raising fuel taxes and VAT. If anyone tried that back in the US, they’d be out on their ear within a month, or facing an armed rebellion. But this is Britain, and we bear such matters stoically, a little like our proverbially nasty weather.

We do all our cooking on an Aga type oil stove. It heats our hot water. A small pump circulates it through our radiators. It's an ingenious system that combines cooking, hot water and central heating. Is there an alternative to using home heating oil and paying criminally high prices, not to mention the high carbon footprint of burning fossil fuel? There’s wood. We have a wood burning stove, which we light in the evenings and on cold days. During the long winter nights the open fire keeps away the winter blues; takes the chill out of the air, but it can’t do the work of our Aga.

Our friends over the hill, the Ashtons of Coldhome, also use wood for their energy needs. They’ve taken pot belly stoves and encased them in a layer of cobb --- that’s home-made adobe made of clay and straw to increase the heating surface area; even to make a small oven. A neighbour delivers a pile of wood which they saw up and split. A job that also keeps me busy during the winter months. Heating and cooking with fire works for them except in days when a northerly wind blows the smoke down the chimney into the house. At Cottarton we also have that problem; every two or three months. There’s no remedy except not to burn wood until the wind changes.

Recently our neighbours at the Mains of Blairmore installed a wood-burning system for their hot water and central heating: a huge magilla of tanks, a furnace, regulators and pipes in a disused steading. They buy ready split pine wood. The furnace needs attention only two or three times as day, and stays warm even during the night. It all cost them over £10,000 to install, but their house is now warm as toast and is heated at a fraction of the cost of oil. Within 10 years they may recover their investment. At Cottarton we could exchange our Aga for a wood burning one; an ironic reversal, as the previous owners went from wood to oil. In those days oil cost only 20 p/l.

However, the cost of firewood is rising rapidly. As more people switch to wood because it’s cheaper and more ecologically friendly, guess what's happening to the price? Five years ago farmers let you pick your own wood for free, but now realizing that they’re sitting on a pile of gold, they’re selling their wood. These days buying a forest doesn’t look like a bad investment.

Or you can plant your own forest. Economically it’s not such a crazy idea as long as you take a long term view of the project. Indigenous trees such as pine, birch, willow, sycamore and rowan grow large enough to harvest in 12-15 years. Oak and ash considerably longer. Harvesting involves selective thinning and inter-planting or coppicing --- a traditional English approach of partially cutting the trunk and allowing the stump to send out new growth. Of course you have a long initial wait during which you’ll have to protect the young trees from deer.

My thoughts turn to our open pasture: three acres we use currently as a horse pasture. Should we plant trees there? We’d have to build a deer fence or plant our saplings in protective tubes. Both expensive propositions. By time the forest is ready to harvest, Amber and I will be pushing 80, and may have little energy for the chain saw and the splitting mawl. But Cottarton’s next owner will have a bonanza --- a sustainable wood supply and one that is carbon neutral. Free energy? What’s there to complain about?


  1. I always get a lift when I see a new post at Cottarton Cottage. It is cold in Texas this morning....33 degrees and there is a mix of snow/sleet/rain as I write. A good day to stay inside. What vast differences in our climates and concerns with heating. Just last week I could hear our neighbors air conditioner running! We seldom turn our heat on....when it gets down to the 50's inside temp....THEN we flip it on for a bit. I would rather be too cold than too hot! But then our temps are nothing like YOURS!! Stay warm!

  2. I remember Houston too -- the constant AC. I always rejoiced at the approach of a Canadian front. But the Siberian winter is proving a challenge to everyone. Mythological!