Sunday, November 2, 2014

Autumn Falls

Halloween at Fox Wood, or nos calan gwaf as it's called in Cornish

Well, it's been a while since I updated this blog so here's what's been going on at Fox Wood since the summer. In July our good woodland neighbours Trev and Becky got married at the local chapel and held the reception in the woods, turning the sleepy woods into an enchanting fairy wonderland of light and music. It was quite a party and the locals will no doubt be talking about it for years to come.

The summer was long and hot. It didn't rain for weeks at a time (although Trev and Becky managed to pick the one day for their wedding when it bucketed down) meaning I had my work cut out watering the 300 or so trees I planted last winter. Luckily they have all survived and are thriving — especially the Italian alders I planted as windbreaks, which seem to be settling in well.

The hot weather was excellent for growing food and we had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year.

We also have a bumper crop of firewood.

So I've spent an awful lot of time and money installing a wood burner at our house. Given the uncertain future of gas supplies, plus the need to use a more sustainable fuel, this should stand us in good stead for the future. The copper kettle is for heating up water for hot water bottles at bed time!

A couple of months back we took home a couple of young hedgehogs from a local rescue centre. Geoffrey and Suki, as they were called, should help keep down the slug population.

Autumn is now here, although it remains very warm, and the trees are finally losing their leaves. We got quite a harvest of chestnuts this year. Some of them were for roasting on the fire, some are for cooking and some are for planting.

This is the Hog Hotel we made for the hedgehogs. The tiles are from the roof of a local church that was undergoing renovation.

The tree nursery. About 200 seedlings have been successfully grown since last year. I aim to do the same this year.

A bath of oaks. One person's trash is another's rabbit-proof tree nursery.

Plenty of birds used the houses this year. There is now a family of wrens hopping around near this one.

This one had a family of finches in it.

Chestnut shoots in a ray of sun light.

Moss growing on the woodland floor

Down in the section of wood I coppiced last winter there has been an outburst of life. Having fenced it off from rabbits and deer the plants and trees have been free to grow unhindered.

The new growth is between six and ten feet high.

The whole area has turned into a thriving patch. In among the new growth there is a riot of plant and animal life going on. I have found newts, bats and evan a weasel here, as well as solitary bees and a couple of frogs.

In this picture you can see the new growth in the foreground and the old growth behind it. I'll probably give the maidens in the background a couple more years to grow bigger before I coppice that section.

The combination of chicken wire fence and brash piles has kept out the deer and rabbits. There are hardly any deer in the area but reports of sightings are getting more common and I don't want to take the chance.

The ride leading up through the woodland.

I discovered something pretty amazing recently. Whilst studying satellite images of the land I noticed something unusual in the adjacent field. I enhanced the colour on the image and saw some circular shapes lying beneath the soil.

Some friendly pagan archaeologists were called in with dowsing rods and they discerned six or more stone hut circles, including one beneath Fox Wood. They also detected powerful energy currents running through the land connecting the site of the local church to a nearby hilltop with a stone circle. The likelihood is that a bronze age settlement was here. It's quite amazing to think that Fox Wood would have been home to families of farmers up to 4,000 years ago.

Anyway, back to the present day, and it's time for tea.

Mushrooms are popping up everywhere. I counted at least 20 different types on a quick walk around the woods and field yesterday, although I haven't identified them yet. Here are some of them.

Speaking of mushrooms, I'm planning on growing them. Lots of them. Fox Wood has the perfect conditions for growing fungus with its damp and sheltered woodland and the abundance of fresh hardwoods. I'm already growing shiitake, oyster and chicken of the woods. There's a lot to learn but I'm on the case.

Apart from growing and selling mushrooms I'm also producing charcoal. I already have an order to produce 100 bags in 2015. I have collected a number of oil drums from local garages to turn into portable charcoal kilns.

Soon it will be time to start the coppicing work again. I have given my chainsaw a service, bought some new chains and a pair of chainsaw trousers, and will start the cutting work in ernest in December. I have a lot of work to do this winter but I'm looking forward to it. There are a lot of overgrown hazels that need coppicing for a start.

But I'll be leaving this old pollard oak well alone. I regard these old trees as guardians of the forest.

I have plenty of projects not yet finished. First and foremost in the poly-tunnel. I have dug out by hand and moved about 100 trailers of soil from my basement and deposited it here. It will form the base for the poly-tunnel, although I need the local friendly farmer to dump a few loads of manure on it from his cows so it will have time to rot down over winter. The two trees you can see in the centre are avocados.

Yes, we've even got oranges growing outside here. Not the nicest oranges you will have ever seen, but oranges nevertheless.

And then there's the pond. I've almost finished digging it and have now saved up for and bought a liner. It just needs a couple days further prep work before it is ready for filling. I discovered a frog sitting in the empty pond last week ... waiting.

Last year I planted several hundred trees at Fox Wood. This year I'll be doing the same again as I turn the field from a degraded piece of exhausted farm land into a biodiverse forest garden and orchard.

Did I mention the cider making? We — being our merry band of woodlanders — made our first batch in October, filling two oak barrels with the fermenting juice from apples gleaned from unloved apple trees across west Cornwall. A first tasting will occur at Winter Solstice and then it should be ready for drinking in April.

That's it for now from Fox Wood. I hope everyone had a good Halloween and is enjoying Autumn (or Spring if you live Down Under). Oh, and watch this space for my forthcoming book about a journey I undertook through a Swedish forest this summer entitled The Path to Odin's Lake.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Smokin'! Making Charcoal

Part of the longer term vision for Fox Wood is to produce charcoal from any of the wood that doesn't have a primary use, so a couple of weeks ago I took the plunge and did my first charcoal burn. I did it under the tutorship of Greg Humphries, a friend who is also a woodsman and runs courses in Cornwall.

First of all Greg cut up a load of willow branches that he had collected. The wood can be any type, but must be properly seasoned and of approximately equal thickness.

Proper charcoal kilns are expensive (the one I have my eye on is £1,300) but you can make your own one for free by using an old oil drum. Garages often want to get rid of them, so ask around, but make sure there is no residue or paint on it by having a hot fire in it first. Then you just need to cut vents in it using an angle grinder.

We selected a site for the burn and dug out the earth. It should be away from trees as the process gives off a lot of noxious gases as the resin in the wood is burned.

The kiln needs to be propped up on blocks to keep it stable and to form the basis for channels for the air vents, and then soil is packed in around so that air can get in from four directions.

 Next we need to load up the kiln.

The wood is packed in like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, leaving as little space as possible left over. At the bottom is a mix of dry willow sticks, newspaper and wood chips to help start the fire. A plastic tube is inserted down the centre which will be removed when the kiln is full. This provides a central chimney from which the smoke can escape.

 When the kiln is full and the chimney pipe has been removed it is lit using embers from a hot fire.

Now is the exciting part. For the best part of three hours the kilns will be burning and a huge amount of smoke is produced (you must inform the local fire service in advance or face the embarrassment—and cost—of having them turn up to extinguish your kilns). During the burn the wood is turned to pure carbon and to do this you must make sure it burns in an even manner throughout the kiln. Too hot and with too much oxygen and it will turn to ash, too cold or without enough oxygen and you will end up with scorched wood. It's a constant process of monitoring and adjusting air vents and the only way to learn it is by doing it with someone who is already good at it. The fire must burn evenly throughout the kiln so it is a case of paying attention to the colour of the metal and noting where it is hot or cool. Water can be splashed on the kiln if it is too hot in one area, and vents can be opened up a little if it is too cool. An uneven burn is what we are trying to avoid.

With larger kilns the burn will take all night (or day) but oil drums are smaller and therefore take less time. Traditionally, charcoal burners have lived in the woods for this very purpose, and sat on one-legged stools so that they would fall over if they fell asleep. Of course, if you don't have a full-sized kiln but still want to produce a decent amount of charcoal you could have lots of oil drums in a circle and achieve the same volume in a lot less time.

During the burn the lids are placed on the kilns and grass sod is placed around the edges to keep it on tight and to form top vents. It is a very smoky few hours!

When the smoke becomes thin and bluish it means that this stage of the burn is almost complete. More soil is placed on the kilns and the lower vents are blocked off to prevent any more oxygen getting in. It's quite fiddly and time-consuming this stage but if any oxygen gets in at all then all the charcoal will turn to ash so it's worth getting right. If we were using purpose-made charcoal kilns we wouldn't have this problem as the lids seal shut.

Then we simply go away and come back the next day. In our case it was two days later, and when the kiln was opened you could immediately see that 2/3 of the volume of wood had disappeared (gone up in smoke). If you open it up too soon the rush of oxygen will cause the whole thing to ignite and you'll have a large and unexpected barbecue on your hands.

In this case the burn had gone well, with not too much ash and not too many scorched bits of brown wood. The next stage was to break the larger chunks up by hand and then put the charcoal through a metal sieve to get rid of the pieces that are too small. These bits that are left over can be pulverised into biochar, or they can be spread on paths to deter slugs and snails.

All that remains is to put it in bags and sell it! These ones are for sale at a local farm shop near Penzance, but there is plenty of scope for selling them to holidaymakers at campsites. They go for £7 a bag, and when you consider that a single oil drum produces about four bags per burn you can see that it makes sense to produce larger volumes of charcoal rather than smaller. A large kiln would probably produce 50-60 bags per burn.

If you're in Cornwall Greg runs lots of different woodland-related courses from his base at Plan It Earth, near Penzance. You can wild camp there too - or stay in the hobbit house.