John Blunt of Staunton Harold reports on the challenging period faced by the estate’s firewood operation.

IT’S an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Storm Ciara brought down ash and beech, plus limbs off oak trees in the parkland here at Staunton Harold in north-west Leicestershire. It also brought down trees in the woods, though not too many. The parkland trees we cleared up quickly; the butts into the estate sawmill, the lop and top onto the firewood stacks. But then the rains came, and the woodland timber lay on the ground for several months.

Those rains seem a distant memory now, but they hampered woodland work for contractors everywhere. In addition to thinnings from our own woods, we usually buy in at least three artic loads from elsewhere in the National Forest. I telephoned our usual contacts and then anyone I could think of. Small-diameter ash in Oxfordshire was the only offer from all this. We’ve had some of this before and it takes too long to process, plus we claim to source from the National Forest, which doesn’t stretch as far as Oxfordshire. So we declined this offer and decided to wait it out.

Meanwhile, we fed all the easy stuff through the Posch processor and started ringing up the oversized material. I suspect we are not the only yard with awkward material accumulated at the back over several years. We were wading through this when I heard that our local contractor had a cone splitter fitted to the arm of his 360 machine. What a difference! In less than a day, he reduced everything we had to a size which will go through the machine. Okay, it’s not round straight poles, but it’s already half dry and the yard is good and clear.

The first load finally arrived at the beginning of July, a welcome sight but too late to air dry for the coming winter. Now it will probably be like buses: the suppliers we’ve been pestering for months will all come at once. It looks like being slim pickings for our customers this winter, a bonanza the year after.

I’m not sure whether the coronavirus was a factor in these delays. Alone among our various estate activities, the sawmill has been busy throughout. When one member had to be furloughed for baby-minding duties, we brought in a temporary replacement. The other aspect of the business which has been exercising our minds is the new legislation on moisture content. Currently, the size of our operation means that we must comply by February 2022, but as far as possible we aim to be ahead of the game. The open-fronted drying shed which we built in 2019 does an excellent job, while the agricultural barn we’ve used for many years is much slower.

Chopping a log in half and pushing in the prongs confirms what we knew already – oak remains stubbornly over 20 per cent when everything else is well below. For the mixed bags already drying there is nothing to be done, but now we are separating out the oak into bags marked with a big letter ‘O’.

For the coming season we will be offering three grades: ‘Premium’ for logs under 20 per cent moisture content, ‘Summer Dried’, and ‘Fresh Cut’. And well before the next season is upon us we hope to have built another, larger, purpose-designed drying shed. So we are doing our bit for the environment. Can the environment please respond by sending us some cold, dry winters?

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