Out in the woods with the BTCV

BTCV (formerly the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) is a charity that gives volunteers the opportunity to engage in ‘hands on’ conservation work in the rural and urban environment.

One of our members, Keith, works for them part-time and kindly suggested that we pay them a visit at the Forestry Commission Site, near Eartham in Sussex, to find out a bit more about the kind of things BTCV offer, have a go and coppicing and learn how they use the coppiced wood to make charcoal.

We got there in the evening and met up with Tim Harris, who organises the training days and weekends at the site, Keith (plus his lovely new girlfriend – who he met on Muddy Matches!) and a big gang of volunteers.

They had just lit a small fire to create some embers to start a charcoal burn, which is why we were all in the woods armed with cider on this chilly night. A steel ring kiln had been packed with coppiced wood and, once the embers were ready, they were poured into the middle of the kiln and the lid was pulled on top.

Lighting the kiln with embers.

The idea is to keep an even burn in the kiln by monitoring a series of air inlets and chimneys; if not, you find that some of the wood will burn to ash and other bits won’t burn at all. Because you are restricting the air flow into the kiln, instead of the wood turning to ash, just the water content of the wood and some volatile oils are burnt off, hopefully leaving you with carbon and not much else but charcoal.

Tim and Keith standing by the kiln.

Once the kiln is lit and sealed, it turns into a bit of a party around a camp fire, with most people cooking up some food, having a few drinks and a good bit of banter before getting some kip in a tent or, for the more hardcore, just a bivvy bag.

Tim was keeping an eye on the smoke coming out the kiln’s four chimneys to see when to shut it down. Once the white smoke has been exchanged for transparent vapours, you know it’s just about ready. Sometimes this is done the same night you light it but, on this night, it took a while for the kiln to get going so Tim left it until the next day before sealing up all the air inlets with sand and removing the chimneys.

Once that has been done, the kiln is left to cool for a couple of days before it is opened up – do it too early and all the hard work could go up in smoke (literally) as the whole thing could reignite. According to Tim and Keith, over the years a number of people have been out walking their dogs, seen the kiln, wondered what was in it and lifted the lid, which aside from ruining all the hard work, no doubt gave them a bit of a fright and also singed their eyebrows!

Normally you can get about 60-100 bags of charcoal from one burn, fetching around £3.00 a bag, so taking into account how long it takes to make, it’s not big business – but it’s damn good fun and very satisfying knowing you can produce a renewable source of energy yourself.

The next morning we went a bit deeper into the woods and were taught how to coppice a hazel tree to provide some wood for a future charcoal burn. Coppicing is a traditional woodland management method, whereby young tree stems are cut down in such a way that new shoots will emerge and in a few years the coppiced tree, or stool, can be harvested again.

Any wood that isn’t suitable for burning can be used to make a deadwood fence to keep the deer out and stop them eating the new shoots. Nothing gets wasted and it’s great to see how it’s possible to work a wood in this way.

Lucy coppicing trees for the kiln.

It’s hard work though and you’d soon build up some muscles sawing away and lugging bits of wood around every day. In fact, BTCV run a scheme called the Green Gym, which works under the premise you can improve your health and help the environment at the same time and offers people the opportunity to work out in the fresh air doing practical environmental or gardening work.

It sounds a lot more fun than pounding away on a treadmill! In fact, BTCV do loads of things, from short courses to conservation holidays and it’s a great way to get out there, learn more about nature and potentially meet a few new people. We had a cracking time while we were there and are hoping to team up with them next year to put on a few weekends for muddy singletons – watch this space!

For more information about BTCV in general, take a look at their website, and to find out more about charcoal burning and coppicing in Sussex, get in touch with Tim Harris on 01243 814481 or email t.harris@btcv.org.uk