Valley Wood – The Plan

Well, I took on Valley Wood in May, and I confess that when I bought it I didn’t really have any idea of how I was actually going to manage and improve it. But after a few months of hard-working weekends down there, I think I have a basic plan for it, which is turning out to be surprisingly sustainable, both financially and environmentally.

Valley Wood is a mixed woodland of conifers (mainly Noble Fir and Scots Pine) and all manner of deciduous broadleaved trees.

As it is long neglected, there is a fair quantity of dead trees in the wood – some lying on the forest floor, some hung up in other trees, and some still standing. A fair proportion of the standing dead trees are conifers.

The dead trees lying on the forest floor tend to be rotten, but this is good as they provide habitats for all kinds of life. They can happily be left to decay where they are.

Hung up trees and standing dead trees are potentially a hazard as they can fall over or down, and removing them frees up empty space in the woodland where new broadleaved trees can be encouraged. Dead standing trees are fortunately also ready-seasoned firewood with a very low water content, so can be harvested and burned almost immediately after only a short period of air drying. This is a massive benefit in financial terms, especially with the winter not too far away, as it removes the need for a firewood ‘production line’ where normally logs must be seasoned for at least one year before they can be transported and burned. Driving a van full of water-ridden logs which would burn poorly at the end of the journey would make no sense at all – but with this plan, there is a huge quantity of ready-seasoned firewood and harvesting it will open up the woodland to recolonisation by broadleaves.

It costs me about half a tank of diesel to visit the woodland, but I reckon the financial cost is only what I would have spent at home on a normal weekend, going out for a meal and some drinks on a Friday or Saturday. And as my living costs at the wood are negligible, I count it as cost neutral really. Similarly with the cost of the woodland itself – although I’m paying interest on the money borrowed, land tends to appreciate in value so I’m not making a loss on the land.

I reckon I can fit about a cubic metre of firewood in my van, which at home I normally pay about £80 for during the winter months – during summer my solar hot water system provides all of my hot water for bathing and washing up.

So as long as I come back with a van load of logs every time I visit, I’m £80 in profit – or another way of looking at it is that the sun is also heating my home for free in the winter as well as the summer, in the form of stored sunlight (firewood). This means that my only overhead as far as fuel goes is electricity, which I’m estimating at maybe £250 a year at current prices.

Not bad for a Victorian terrace.

The woodland has other harvestable products – ferns which can be sold for gardens, living Christmas trees, and maybe in time mushrooms if I get around to setting up some mushroom logs.

But quite apart from all of this, there is the sheer recreational value of the woodland, and as a destination for Transition camping expeditions and the like. But there is a lot of work to be done first – camping and communal areas to be hacked out of the mountainside, shelters to be built and the like.

A few weeks back, I received the documents from the Land Registry showing the ownership of Valley Wood going back to just after the Second World War. They show a long history of the woodland being bought from local or national government, and then being sold back again some time later.

As it doesn’t seem as though any kind of harvesting or management of the trees has taken place, my thought is that private owners have repeatedly tried to find a way of commercially exploiting the woodland, but have not succeeded due to the difficult terrain. The woodland is on a steeply sloping hillside, which makes mechanised timber extraction difficult and expensive, and extraction by horses and hand is not normally used for commercial operations. So the woodland has remained as it is, wild and neglected.

I am hoping that what Valley Wood actually needs is a different approach to management – a Permaculture approach which will maximise the efficient production of usable resources from the wood, whilst simultaneously meeting regeneration and biodiversity objectives.

The huge quantities of invasive rhododendron on site could potentially provide a firewood source for those staying in the woodland, to avoid the need to use the “good” firewood being extracted for domestic use. This would meet the goal of rhododendron control and a return of the forest ecosystem whilst providing warmth for those staying on-site.

The many apparent problems of the woodland can increasingly be seen as unique features, even beneficial in some respects. Instead of spending thousands of pounds (which I don’t have) on track improvement and tree clearance for artificial campsite creation, my expenditure on tools is as follows:-

Chainsaw (the only mechanised tool in use in Valley Wood)
Billhook (for clearing tracks and trimming trees)
Log tongs (for manipulating large logs)
Folding pruning saw
Mattock
Spade
Log trolley
Forestry winch (for hauling the log trolley up steep inclines, bringing down hung-up trees and moving large rocks)

All of which total I reckon about £500. So at £80 profit per trip in firewood, that’s about 6 trips before the equipment has paid for itself. Pretty good economics, sustainably speaking! Plus of course, this very light touch approach to woodland management is infinitely better in terms of resources used and environmental impact.

Very interesting, the way Valley Wood is developing. And the taste of my first woodland blackberries and raspberries on my last trip was a whole other world of experience in itself! 🙂

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Shocking

Just received my lowest ever electricity bill – £39.76 for the quarter, which is about £3 a week.

I don’t use gas, so those are the total operating emissions for the house. Not bad for an old Victorian terrace! And not bad for my bank account either.

Pretty pleased with that, I think!!

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No-Man’s Land

If this patch of my garden looks a mess, that’s because it is.

It’s a small bed situated next to a couple of small ponds, round the edge of the garden next to the wall, which I originally designated ‘for wildlife’ and have pretty much left to do its thing. There are frogs and other stuff in there – it’s so overgrown that it isn’t really possible to see what’s going on in there. What you can see though is that there are plenty of different species in a small area.

For the past couple of years I’ve made the effort to clear this small bed of weeds and seed it or plant it up with various things, mostly things like spinach beet or kale. But because the bed is so near the wildlife border, there are plenty of slugs and snails which soon devour anything remotely tasty. I’m not going to use any kind of slug pellets there as it is in the domain of the frogs and other wildlife. So the snails have free rein.

This year I think I’ve decided to give up trying to produce food from this part of the garden. But in leaving it to nature, I may actually end up with something which is far more diverse than what I had planned, and may even end up producing food nonetheless.

The spinach beet actually seems to have remained despite the slug assault, and is currently going to seed. The seeds will come up next year and give me spinach. But as well as the veg, a whole range of wild flowers have self-seeded there, including some stunning pink poppies, as well as Welsh poppies and a load of other stuff whose names I don’t know.

So by ceasing my energy input, I seemed to have actually ended up with an optimal solution for this patch of garden – nature has selected what should be there, and it’s a huge variety with a good balance of pollinator-friendly flowers and edible leaves for me.

Permaculture is in so many ways the path of least resistance. And nature has the best design just waiting for the opportunity.

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Permaculture – Resistance is Futile

When I bought Valley Wood, one of my first thoughts was that as well as bringing it into production of wood fuel, the woodland could be a destination for camping parties of friends and family.

One of my initial concerns was that the woodland is on a hillside, and the slope is quite steep in places, which doesn’t suit it well to camping. The representative of the company I bought the woodland from explained that level areas can be made with a digger quite easily, so this would be a way to do it.

The first night I spent at the woodland, I camped on the track which bisects the wood, and whilst I could see the stars, it felt very open and I was dying to camp up inside the wood itself. So the following day, I found a place up in the wood where the slope was not so steep, and with a mattock I made a tent-sized level area and pitched my tent.

This was exactly what I wanted, surrounded by trees and deep in the woodland itself.

The next couple of visits I planned where my excavated camping area was going to be, but each visit I found myself becoming more and more fond of the particular trees, rocks, plants and landscape features around my campsite. Paths through the forest seemed to suggest themselves, and became more established the more I trod them. At night I could hear creatures around me, and fell to thinking that a lot of them probably lived underneath a lot of these stones.

I realised that if I was going to get a digger in, I would first have to fell a load of these trees and then the machine would have to rip the landscape up wholesale, including everything living there. Instead of ‘camping in the woods’, I would be right back to ‘camping out in the open’ again.

The more I thought about it, the less the idea appealed to me. But what about a place for people to camp? I realised that the only other way I could do it was the way I had already started on – using my mattock, through sheer manual labour, I would have to painstakingly make camping areas tent by tent anywhere where the landscape looked suitable.

In my first few visits another thing I discovered was that for cutting down large rhododendron plants, the chainsaw I had used to begin with was far heavier and much harder work than a little folding pruning saw my dad had lent me.

What seemed to be emerging was a certain theme – that using hand tools was not only a much gentler, more careful and refined approach to shaping the woodland, but in many ways it was actually easier, or in the case of the digger, cheaper.

Then I realised that this is precisely what Permaculture teaches. In a nutshell. Less reliance on the brute force of powerful mechanisation gives an overall much better, more natural and harmonious result.

So on my last visit, I ‘set to’ and spent a day making a second campsite for another tent near the first, high up in the woods. It was hard work, excellent exercise and as someone who has not historically been particularly physically active or fit, I was impressed at how much I actually managed to achieve working on my own.

It’s going to be a long haul – but I’m much happier now with the method I’ve decided on. It’s almost as if the woodland knows what it wants to be, and I am there to do its bidding, and my reward is that I am a part of its plan.

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Valley Wood

Well, like buses, Green Cottage updates sometimes come in threes!

Last but not least this time, a new addition to the Green Cottage “estate” is four acres of mixed woodland in North Wales.

I bought the woodland from woodlands.co.uk, it’s an unmanaged wild woodland which I aim to improve for wildlife (including family and friends ;)) and bring into production of wood fuel and possibly even charcoal and timber.

Achievements so far have been hewing a tent-sized camping area out of the hillside using a grubbing mattock, cutting down a few trees on the upper track to make room for a digger in the autumn, cutting down some rhododendron and making a couple of paths through the upper part of the wood to enable me to get around the wood which at the moment is pretty much impenetrable.

Incredibly hard work, but incredibly good exercise and therapy for the soul. Best thing I’ve ever done!! 🙂

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Garden Update 3rd June 2011

Despite a dry start to the year, here in North Manchester we have had a fair bit of rain recently, and the garden is rockin’!!

A gorgeous sunny day today so I thought I would take a few photos to illustrate the state of play. Got some nice frost hardy cabbages on the go this year, they are looking favourites for best crop of 2011!

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Grid Tie Inverter

One problem with my off-grid solar PV setup has been that in order to gain the benefit of the solar power, I have had to switch my ring main over from mains power to run on the batteries and solar. And whilst this means I get solar electricity, it also means I am using the batteries which degrades them when really there is no need.

Until recently, grid tie inverters have been prohibitively expensive and available only for voltages of around 72v or higher, being generally unsuitable for my 24v system. But seemingly the gap in the market has been noticed, and I managed to get a ‘plug and play’ 600w 24v grid tie inverter off eBay for just £150.

It won’t get me the Feed in Tariff of course, but it does mean maximum and most efficient utilisation of my solar PV panels and batteries, the latter of course still giving me critical systems backup in the event of grid failure.

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Are Children Suffering from a Nature Deficit?

A good article on the woodlands.co.uk blog:-

http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/are-children-suffering-from-a-nature-deficit/

This is the central question in Richard Louv’s book, “Last child in the woods,” and this concern is shared by the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. As Attenborough says, “all children start off being interested in the natural world, it’s deep in our instincts…”. Children may have theoretical knowledge but not touchy-feely experience. As Louv explains, ” children today are aware of global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy, with nature is fading.”

Nature-deficit surveys

Natural England did a survey recently in which they examined changing relationships with nature across generations and they found that fewer then 10% of children now play in natural places (such as woodlands and heathlands) compared with 40% of today’s adults who did so when they were young. The BBC Wildlife Magazine carried out another survey which found that many children now cannot identify common species such as bluebells and frogs. Other surveys show that this is not just a British problem: the American Journal of Play, surveying thousands of mothers across the world, discovered that the number of those reporting their children “exploring nature” were lowest in China, Brazil and Indonesia. Playing in wild areas has been shown to have a positive psychological impact – a National Trust survey of 3,000 adults revealed that their most prominent happy memories were of being outdoors in the natural world and a large number cited building dens as a particularly happy memory.

Causes of children being “stuck inside”
Computer games and TV are often blamed for children staying indoors but there are other factors – for example being driven to school rather than walking keeps children from the outdoors and the almost obsessive fear of abduction, which many parents have, often stops children being allowed outside. It may also be that pressure to do more and more with school and outside means that there is less genuinely free time for children when they have to make their own entertainment. At a recent woodlands.co.uk conference of owners of small woodlands it was suggested that owners should think of things for their children to do in woods, but one of the participants pointed out that once in a wood children will find their own activities and this process of discovering what’s interesting and what there is to do is itself important. Let them discover nature rather than spoon feed it to them was the message of that discussion.

What are the consequences of a “nature deficit”?

“Keeping an eye on children” is all very well but it has left a whole generation more ignorant of what goes on in the natural world and out of the habit of exploring and discovering. This has consequences for them personally including much higher rates of obesity, suffering form attention disorders and more likely to experience depression. In a bigger-picture way, though, it will surely have enormous consequences for their attitude towards nature when they grow up – if they haven’t experienced the miracles of the world around them they will be less likely to make sacrifices to preserve woodlands and wild spaces.

But all this assumes that the nature deficit is limited to children – adults surely suffer from it too. Many, many or our buyers of small woodlands give as driving motivation that they want to “get away from the screen” and get “back to nature”.

What can be done about it?
It’s hard to know how to persuade the nation as a whole to move towards more outdoor play, but individually families can choose more activities in woodlands and wild areas. There are many structured activities which get people into woodlands such as Centre Parcs holidays and “Go Ape” walkway adventures. Recent excitement about the Forestry Commission woodlands shows how much people value public spaces, even those who don’t visit very often. The threat of wholesale sell-offs has made everyone focus on how important woodlands are for our wellbeing, so hopefully the recent publicity will make people spend more time in open woodlands – whoever owns them!

First Quickening

A couple of Sundays ago, I attended a traditional Wassail up at Hollymount Orchard, a local project by local food group Incredible Edible Ramsbottom (for those of you who don’t know, it’s a place not a local delicacy).

The group has been working on the orchard for about a year, it was discovered in a derelict and overgrown state and has been cleared of brambles, the trees pruned and generally brought back to life. The orchard originally belonged to a convent, and the trees are possibly hundreds of years old, so the restoration of the orchard is really inspiring!

The Wassail was great fun, with musicians and singing, a bonfire and a ritual pouring of cider on the roots of the apple trees. The day was cold and windy but a bonfire added a bit of warmth.

I was really encouraged to see such a group of dedicated people doing something so worthwhile. I’ll put in a bit of work myself and maybe earn some of this autumn’s apples for my cider press!

Garden Update 24th January 2011

Spent my first day this year out in the garden yesterday, pruning back the grape vine and digging up the remaining carrots and parsnips which had stayed in the raised beds through the coldest British winter in 100 years.

I was really surprised how many came out of just a couple of square metres of garden!

Of course there were far too many to cook anything with so I opted to freeze them. But even if you freeze them, the bacteria in them degrade them slowly, so what you have to do before freezing is ‘blanch’ them.

What this basically amounts to is par-boiling them for a short time to kill the bacteria in them, then dunk them in cold water to stop the cooking process, then dry them to stop them sticking together and finally freeze them.

I used a pan of boiling water and a plastic pasta strainer, and some kitchen towel to dry them off. I did the carrots for 3 minutes and the parsnips for 2 minutes.

I must have a year’s supply in the freezer now. No need to grow them this year!!

Came across some rather attractive orange fungi in the garden too.

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