Across Dartmoor, there are visual signs of ancient boundaries where land owners once marked their land and, even today, the maps of the moor show the commons where people could graze their livestock in a regulated way. As times have changed, these rights have evolved and become more suited to our times. There were once areas where local people had the right to allow their pigs to eat acorns or beech mast but these practices are no longer relevant to most of us. One old practice that is making a return though, is the use of wood fuel and people are increasingly showing an interest in burning firewood to heat their homes.
Just as estovers, or the rights to collect branches from the woodland floor, are no longer in common use, there is a growing number of people who are looking for a good source of firewood. Unless you own your own wood, these ancient rights are less and less relevant and the general rule is that you need to have permission from the owner of the land to collect wood for any use.
In the Bovey Valley Woods, the Woodland Trust recognises this growing interest and has found a way to rekindle the enjoyment from gathering fuel from the woods by holding an annual firewood day. Through its woodland management operations, the Trust generates some quality timber but there is always a small proportion of good firewood that arises as a bi-product. The smaller timber sections and offcut material from timber milling is stacked by the woodland contractors during the winter and, each spring, they invite people to Pullabrook Woods to take away a small share.
Sam Pyne and Barry Green are regular woodland contractors in Pullabrook and Hisley Woods and were both on hand last week to process the stack of timber into useable pieces for collection by local people. Sam operated his fuel wood processor and Barry, the chainsaw. Between them they converted a stack of odd shaped offcuts and slab wood into various sizes of stackable fuel. Most of the wood had only been felled during the recent winter so would need to be seasoned before use.
A steady stream of vans, cars and 4x4s waited at the woodland gate for their turn; being marshalled by some of the volunteers, they all had time for a quick chat about the work going on in the woods while they loaded up.
Further along the wood, the team of volunteers were working on a few tasks to tidy up after some of the winter’s work. As usual, a multi-purpose fire was needed to burn the coniferous saplings, keep people warm and to boil the kettle. A few areas of Pullabrook Wood have been cleared of larch trees because of the notification of Phytphthora ramorum disease, that had been affecting trees in this part of the wood. The Forestry Commission is working to control the spread of the pathogen by ordering the felling of infected areas such as this one and, after the contractors had finished their work, the volunteers could clear the remaining brash by hand, carefully leaving some natural regeneration of broadleaves to flourish in the sunlight.
Lunch break provided a good chance for a chat and, back at the firewood collection point, some of the volunteers were able to take part in the drive-in, take-away as a reward for their hard work. At the end of the day, the wood pile had shrunk in size while the donations in the collection bucket had grown. While Pullabrook Wood continues its gradual change from conifer plantation to wild woodland, it is still a popular place for a walk and a winter warm up. The Woodland Trust would like to say thank you to everybody who came to the firewood day and hopes you enjoy future visits.
Look out for our woodland event Timber! Tools, Trees and Tall Tales on Saturday 25th March at Pullabrook Wood. A chance to celebrate our wonderful woodlands with us and to see some of the modern and traditional crafts used in managing our woods.
by Matt Parkins