Friday, 25 February 2011

Gros Chene de Sully a Sazeirat.

This mighty oak tree is between 400-450 years old with a circumference of 7.1 meters
 (a little over 23 feet) My son Tom is sat at the base of the tree chatting with Mark Krawczck  
Riven Wood Crafts an american forester, writer and researcher and fellow tree enthusiast
When you have lived in the same area for quite some time (13 years in my case) you can tend to become a little complacent that you have seen all that their is to see in the locality. When a friend said that he had been to see a huge Oak tree only 15km away from here I was all ears and made arrangements with him to go and see it the next day.

We parked the car on the roadside and walked the 10 minutes or so down a tree lined old trackway to be confronted by an immense monster of an oak tree nestled in a sheltered valley. I was expecting something impressive but was not prepared for the sheer immensity of this beast of a tree. It is the type of tree that draws you in like a magnet and I couldn't resist immediatly planting my hands onto the deeply furrowed trunk.

The next task is trying to photograph this tree, you take a good few steps back to try to capture the collosal spread of the mighty limbs but it's still to big, you take a good few more steps back and it's still not far enough and just when I thought that I was going to get caught in the boggy ground alongside the Rau de Moulard which is the stream that flows close to the tree I was far enough back to more or less capture it full frame.
This is your first glimpse of the enormous tree as you approach it. The grass
is well maintained although some of the surrounding woodwork and the pic-nik
table has seen better days.
On arriving home I embarked on some internet research about thie history of this tree. A few minutes of digging around and I found that this tree is known as a Sully tree.

The Duke of Sully

Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully (1560-1641) was First Minister and right hand man of Henry IV of France. He was also passionate about trees and was responsible for halting and outlawing the devastation of the forests of France that had preceeded his appointment.

He was also a great planter of trees In 1599 he was appointed Grand Commissioner of Highways and Public Works amongst other titles. He ensured that trees were planted all along the verges of his new roads and it is said that he was responsible for starting the French tradition of planting roadside avenues of poplars, limes and elm trees (almost all of the elms have sadly been lost to disease) which are so characteristic of so many roads in parts of France.

In addition to this, he also according to some sources ordered (or at least instructed) the planting of individual trees in towns and villages often to commerate specific events, such as the birth of Henry's heir or even to honour the occasion of Henry IV just passing through a town or village, also for religious reasons or even just to celebrate the industrial success of France or to symbolise reconciliation and hope for the future.
Mark Krawczyk -Coppice Agroforestry stands on the huge fallen limb to inspect
the hollow interior. My young son Tom is sat at the base of the old Oak.
The trees that he was resposible for planting have become known as "Sully Trees" these were planted in places that were important to a community, such as near a church or where important markets took place. It is also noted that almost all of these commemerative trees are planted in tiny hamlets or small villages. It is not known wether these small communities were specially chosen by Sully or it is just the fact that it is only the trees located in quiet, out of the way places that have survived.

Following the assassination of Henry IV on 14th of May 1610 Sully resigned from state office on 26 January 1611, and retired to private life. Sully had never been popular in office, he was descibed as being selfish, obstinate and rude. He was hated by the Roman Catholics because he was a Protestant and by Protestants because he was faithful to the king and by almost everyone else also because he was the kings favourite. Sully, however was an excellent man of business and with time amassed a large personal fortune.
The tree is hidden away in a quiet sheltered valley growing without competition on
a rich deep soil with a large stream running nearby.
He was implicitly trusted by Henry IV and proved himself the most able assistant of the king in dispelling the chaos into which the religious and civil wars had plunged France. To Sully, next to Henry IV, belongs the credit for the happy transformation in France between 1598 and 1610 a period when foreign peace and internal order were reestablished.

It is not known how many of these Sully trees survive still today, no definitive list of them appears to have ever been put together. I have seen one list with 130 or so of them but this in not thought to be complete. Another Sully tree still survives very close to me in a village called Bersac. This tree is a lime tree which although I must have driven past many hundreds of times I have never noticed or visited, a situation that is very soon to be rectified!

We have much to thank him for, including the planting of many millions of trees throughout France including this one. Quite why this tree was planted in this specific place so far still remains a mystery to me. It lies close to a modest chateau and perhaps the owners had an admiration for the king. At least the connection to Sully enables some sort of age to be established of somewhere between 400 and 450 years which was a little less than I would have estimated for an oak tree of this stature.

The wrenching off of the giant limb has exposed the decaying
heartwood within the tree.
It has an impressive girth of 7.1 meters, The tree seems overal to be in pretty good health despite losing a huge lower limb, probably in December 1999 when we had winds approaching 140km/hr which were just too much for the tree to bare.

For whatever reason, this branch has not been cleared away and its presence adds to the charm of the site and also alerts you to the vulnerability and future mortality of this giant.

The sheering off of the branch has exposed a hollow and decaying interior which I expect will in some future decade be the trees downfall.

On the opposing side of the tree to the scar, sprouts an even bigger bough, almost the size of a normal mature broadleaved tree in its own right which I feel needs urgent propping and supporting to prevent it also breaking off. If this happened it would most certainly inflict the last fatal blow to this veteran survivor.

How to find the tree.
The tree is situated close to the chateau of Sazeirat in the commune of Arrenes (23210) on the western edge of the Creuse (department 23) in the Limousin region of France. As the crow flies it is situated just a few 100 meters from the D914 road that runs between Lauriere and Marsac. Please note that it is not signposted from the road.

From the D914 about 1 km to the west of Marsac take the D48 road towards Arrenes. After several hundred meters there is a bend in the road with a metal cross standing by the roadside on the right hand side of the road in a field boundary. (If you get as far as the chateau at Sazeirat you have gone too far!).

Park the car here and walk down the prominant tree lined trackway for about 850 meters (half a mile) crossing a small wooden bridge over a stream. As you climb the hill after the stream, a path branches off to the left with a sign for the "Gros Chene". The tree lies about 100m away and is difficult to miss!

Some of the information on the Duke of Sully and his trees was found on this highly informative website This is a site put together by Terry Brown from Bradford on Avon which is the twinned with Sully sur Loire in France. Terry has put a lot of effort and research into the quest for information on Sully trees for which I thank him for.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The fight to save the endangered old growth forests on Canada's Pacific Coast

On March 29th 1778 when Captain Cook and the first Europeans sailed down the the Nootka Sound  on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island they discovered an amazing, seemingly endless forest of huge trees that flourished from the seashore to the mountain tops and stretched in a belt up to several hundred miles wide down the Pacific coast  of North America, from British Columbia in the north down through Washington and Oregon and right down into northern California.

The Cheewhat Cedar is Canada's largest tree, located in the
Pacific Rim National Park on the southwest coast of
Vancouver Island it stands 55.5m (182ft) tall and has a
circumference of 18.3m (60ft) Photo by TJ Watt of the
Ancient Forest Alliance
The economic potential of this enormous forest of massive firs and cedars was not immediatly recognized, in fact one early visitor was heard to remark "I raised my eyes to the sky and could see nothing but the worthless timber that covered everything"

It wasn't until 1848 that the first sawmill was opened near Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island with others soon following. The early logging techniques were hard and labourious with the huge logs being hauled out by teams of oxen which were later mostly replaced by horses which were thought to be smarter and stronger.

Successive technological advances in haulage and sawmilling together with the arrival of the portable chainsaw in British Columbia during the early 1930's resulted in an astonishing rate of forest destruction with little or no regard to the magnificence of these temperate rainforests, the gigantic trees that exist within them and the fragile ecosystems that they support.

150 years of logging in British Columbia has converted a large portion of its once magnificent primeval forests into second growth tree plantations. Although the trees grow back, the 50-60 year cut rotation does not allow enough time for the forest to regain its prior old growth characteristics. The second growth forests typically lack the multi-layered canopy, rich understory and rotting wood debris that makes old growth such a valuable habitat for so many plant and animal species.

The Government of British Columbia contests that old growth forests are not endangered and is doing little to protect what remains. Environmental organizations and the people of BC are however putting intense pressure on the government to recognize the significant importance of these world class forests.

This stunning photo by TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance perfectly captures the horrific reality of clearcutting. To appreciate its full impact please view this photo in full size and resolution on Utopia Photo Blog  The photo was taken at Bugaboo Creek in the Gordon River Valley near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island in March 2010, 3 years after felling

"Of the tens of thousands of images I've shot over the years trying to capture the devastation happening to BC's temperate rainforests, I feel that this one sums it up best. Without experiencing these clearcuts in person it's nearly impossible to convey the scale, contrast, and emotional impact involved with the loss of such amazing endangered ancient forest. It's the golden goal to find the photo that will be efficient and summarize the story for you in a single shot."-TJ Watt

The structure of land ownership is very different to what we in Europe are familiar with. In Canada  the vast majority of land is held by the government on behalf of the monarchy and refered to as Crown Lands. In British Columbia an astonishing 94% of the land area is Provincial Crown lands with just 5% being privately owned. The remaining 1% are Federal Crown Lands that include Indian reserves, Defence Lands and Federal Harbours.

The sale of Crown Lands and the licences to exploit the mineral resources that exist underneath it, as well as the vast forests that cover it's surface all provide an important revenue to the government. It is the government that issues the licences over specific areas known as cut blocks that allow private companies to exploit the forest resource and so logically it follows that it is the provincial government that can legislate to provide permanent protection to the remaining areas of ancient forest so that they can be experienced and cherished by future generations.
This huge cedar known as the Elephant Foot Tree stands as a
lone giant in the forest. It stands along the Gordon River near
Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. This tree lacks any legal
protection in an area that is open to logging. Photo by TJ Watt
of the Ancient Forest Alliance and taken from their
 Biggest Trees Gallery

Motivated by the lack of governmental action on environmental protection the Western Canada Wilderness Committee was formed during the early 1980's. Its campaigns have played a significant roll in the formation of many Provincial Parks, National Park Reserves and Conservation Areas.

With a membership of over 30,000 spirited supporters they work to protect all Canadian wildland areas from destruction and defends the right of public access to them. Without their campaigns to raise public awareness to the catastrophic forestry policy that has been followed by successive provincial governments in British Columbia many of the last remnents of old growth forest would have been destroyed.

The Formation of the Ancient Forest Alliance
In January 2010 Ken Wu, the former Campaign Director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee  along with TJ Watt and a few other activists decided to launch a new ENGO (Environmental Non-governmental organization) called the Ancient Forest Alliance. They felt a specific need to focus attention against the continued Old Growth logging that still continues to be licensed and supported by the provincial government in British Columbia.

Recently clearcut ancient forest in the Upper Walbran valley on Vancouver
Island, Ken Wu, campaign co-ordinator for the Ancient Forest Alliance sits
on a 14ft diameter Red Cedar stump surrounded by "tree waste" and other
huge stumps. Photo by TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance
 The Goals of the Ancient Forest Alliance

  • To undertake a Provincial Old-Growth Strategy that will create an inventory of the old-growth forests in BC and protect them where they are scarce (ie. Vancouver Island, southern Mainland coast, southern Interior, etc.)
  • Ensure the sustainable logging of second-growth forests, which now constitutes the majority of forest lands in southern BC.
  • End the export of BC raw logs to foreign mills in order to ensure a guaranteed log supply for BC mills and value-added processing facilities.
  • Assist in the retooling and development of BC coastal sawmills and value-added facilities to handle second-growth logs.
  • Undertake new, democratic land-use planning processes to protect endangered forests based on new First Nations land-use plans, ecosystem-based scientific assessments, and climate mitigation strategies through forest protection.

I cannot imagine being privalaged enough to own a mighty
Douglas Fir of these dimensions, so to see such a beautiful
log left as wood waste is beyond my comprehension.
Photo by TJ Watt, Ancient Forest Alliance

The organisation has also chosen not to have charitable status which makes it harder for them to get donations. Charities in Canada are not permitted to be critical of government policies, obviously to be non political would put the AFA in an almost impossible position as their main driving force is to stop the destruction of the last remaining old growth forests which is being caused directly by the forestry policy of the provincial government. They can now directly criticize or congratulate individual politicians or parties on their stance on old-growth forests - something you MUST be able to do in order to win such a big battle. They are also helping train and empower activists in Ancient Forest Committees that will work in key provincial swing ridings to directly put pressure on politicians and their forest policies. This has resulted in a no frills, highly active, grassroots organization that's becoming the driving force in the fight to protect BC’s endangered ancient forests and forestry jobs.

Why do we need to protect old growth forest?

Old-growth forests are important because they are home to a large array of biodiversity, including many species at risk that need old-growth forests and that can't flourish in younger forests.

It provides clean water for people, spawning salmon, and wildlife by preventing the soil erosion that occurs in these mountainous, high rainfall areas when the trees are lost and new roads and logging tracks established.

An increasing global awareness of the environmental importance of these unique temperate rainforests and the sheer immensity of the giant trees that can only grow within them have become fundamental pillars of BC's multi-billion dollar tourism industry.
An amazing group of ancient redcedars.The surrouding areas were all logged within the past 100 years
 but for some reason these magnificent trees were spared. These trees are along the trail to
the Red Creek Fir - the worlds tallest Douglas Fir Tree near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island.
Photo by TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance

It is now clear that in hard financial terms these trees are worth much more to British Columbia in hard dollars still standing than they are as a timber commodity. If these last remaining forest fragments are lost it will take a second growth forest at least 250 years to start to regain the charcteristics of old growth forests.

Unfortunately, the British Columbian provincial government and much of the forest industry maintains that “old-growth forests are not endangered” on Vancouver Island. They continue to make these false statements despite all the evidence from satellite pictures. They continue to promote misleading statistics to justify their continued destruction of the Old Growth Forests. In an attempt to pacify the public they’ve been greatly inflating the statistics of the remaining old-growth forests and protected areas by including vast tracts of stunted forests that grow in bogs and sub-alpine snow forests. Most of these forest cannot profitably be logged but are included in the statistics to make the figures look good. The fact is that over 90% of the original old growth forest in the valley bottoms have already been logged. This is home to the biologically richest areas of forest and are where the biggest trees grow.

The Export of raw logs from British Columbia to China and the USA.

During the past decade, timber companies such as TimberWest have closed sawmills and secondary wood processing facilities in British Columbia and have for economic reasons decided to export the raw logs to other processing facilities mainly in China and the USA. This has led to a loss of over twenty thousand skilled jobs in the timber processing industry in British Columbia and the closure of over 70 sawmills and wood processing facilities. During the last 8 years over 30 million cubic meters of raw logs have been exported for secondary processing in foreign sawmills mostly located in China and the USA.

The Ancient Forest Alliance recognises the need for a healthy forest industry and they are calling on the provincial goverment of BC to undertake the following actions
  • End the export of raw logs from British Columbia to foreign mills in order to ensure a guaranteed log supply for BC wood processing facilities.
  • Assist in the retooling of coastal BC sawmills and the development of value-added facilities to handle second-growth logs.
  • Ensure the sustainable logging of second-growth forests, which now constitutes the majority of forest lands in southern BC and to end the practice of  “high-grade” over-cutting of the biggest, best old-growth trees in the valley bottoms and lower elevations. 
  • Undertake a Provincial Old-Growth Strategy that will create an inventory of remaining old growth forest and protect what remains in regions where they are scarce (eg’s. Vancouver Island, Southern Mainland Coast, Southern Interior, etc.)
Due to this common sense approach to forestry the AFA is well supported by forestry workers and logging unions in British Columbia, members of which have even appeared in rallies organised by the AFA.

A map of Vancouver Island from 1860 showing the extensive old growth forest that once 
blanketed the island

The same map but from 2004 showing the almost complete logging that has occured
on Vancouver Island in just a little over 140 years. Data courtessy of the Sierra Club
and can be seen as larger versions on the website of the Ancient Forest Alliance
Flores Island.
Sitting just off the west coast of Vancouver Island lies Flores Island. It's 7113 hectares are covered with amazing coastal rainforest that remain virtually untouched by logging companies. This unique complete ecosystem remains 96% intact. The provincial government of British Columbia has however issued licences for areas to be clearfelled.

The latest campaign by the Ancient Forest Alliance is to try to stop planned
clearcutting from taking place on Flores Island which lies just off the west coast of
Vancouver Island. The islands 7113 hectares of ancient forest are 96% intact
Photo by TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance

This is a description of Flores Island made by the AFA. "Flores Island is one of the largest contiguous tracts of old-growth rainforest left on BC’s southern coast and is certainly among Earth’s most stunningly scenic places. The largely unlogged island is home to large populations of cougars, wolves, bears, and deer in its ancient forests and gray whales, humpback whales, porpoises, orcas, sea otters, and sea lions in its marine waters.
Spectacular old-growth redcedar and Sitka spruce stands have been recently surveyed and flagged for logging on eastern Flores Island, which has some of the densest stands of giant trees in the world, and
landing pads for heli-logging have been carved into the forest. Logging could begin as soon as early 2011".

What can you do to help?
  • Please sign the Ancient Forest Petition by adding your name and show the BC Government that people from all over the world care about what happens to these remarkable trees and forests.
  • Join the Ancient Forest Alliance (2nd group) on Facebook and keep up to date with new photos and campaign information.
  • Write a letter to show your concern. Every letter represents hundreds more people who feel the same way. Your message will be automatically addressed to BC's Premier Gordon Campbell as well as BC's Minister of Forests and Range Pat Bell.
  • Donate if you are able. Although the AFA is a non-profit organisation the success of the campaigning to raise public awareness inevitably leads to expenses on essential items such as minimal core staff requirements, travel costs, phone bills, web work, room bookings, printing costs, and more.
  • Subscribe to the AFA's video channel on YouTube 
Sitka Spruce at it's pinnacle of development in the Temperate Rainforest of Canada's
Pacific coast, covered in epiphytes in its natural environment. To anyone from the UK
this is the environmentalists most hated tree, planted in its hundreds of millions in the
northwestern parts of Britain, especially Scotland in dark, sterile monocultures. But to
see Sitka Spruce growing like this, in it's natural habitat has really changed my perspective
on this giant of the Pacific forests. Photo by TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance

I would like to thank TJ Watt for giving me permission to use his remarkable photos and also to all the members of the Ancient Forest Alliance for their tireless efforts in trying to save these remarkable giant trees and the unique forests that they are a part of.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Woodland Tree Guide 2 Norway Spruce

Norway Spruce Picea abies

The natural distribution of Norway Spruce
I have chosen this tree, as it is yet another favourite of mine - I expect that I shall be writing this on almost every tree profile that I write! I think that it looks especially good as a young tree, it has a lovely full and well proportioned profile with such rich, healthy looking green needles.

Norway Spruce has a natural distribution through the more mountainous areas of central Europe and a more general distribution across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Pollen evidence shows that it was present in the British Isles before the last Ice Age but failed to naturally re-establish itself after the ice retreated. It is thought to have been introduced into Great Britain before the 15th centuary.

It has for many centuries been planted beyond it's natural  range, both as a timber and shelterbelt tree and in countless millions as the classic Christmas tree. It is a tough and vigorous tree that is not prone to serious attacks from pests and diseases. It's dense natural habit provides year round shelter for many birds and mammals. The seeds are eaten by birds such as the goldcrest and long tailed tit and also red squirrels.

This is quite an adaptable tree that can grow well on both clay soils and sandy ones. It prefers a deep loam soil (as do most plants!) in an area with rainfall of at least 510mm (20") but preferably 900mm (35+") per year. They prefer an acid soil with a ph between 5 and 7.5 but will grow with reduced vigour and density on soils with a ph level higher than this.

 One of my own Norway Spruce. I found this as a
naturally regenerated seedling 8 years ago buried
under broom bushes and growing very slowly.
Clearing away the competing vegetation has allowed
it to become a fine young tree of over 5 meters tall 
As is normal during the first year following planting the growth rate is not spectacular as the plant in concentrating on developing its root system for future growth, so perhaps 12-20 cm is realistic, perhaps a little more if your weed control is excellent and in a year with plenty of warm summer rain. The survival and growth rate is higher if your plants are stocky and have been well handled by the nursery that you purchased them from. Growth soon increases to be 60-90cm per year, even up to 180cm in perfect conditions. Height growth however, decreases rapidly after about 60 years.

Larger trees such as those bought as bare rooted Christmas trees have a low survival rate. If they live, the new growth will be very short often only a few cm's and often quite yellowish in colour. However within a year or two they will regain full health and vigour and can grow into fine trees.

Plantation grown trees need to be thinned on a regular basis, otherwise they will grow very tall and thin making them highly susceptable to windsnap as happened here in the "Tempete" of December 1999 when winds gusted to 150km/hour. Almost every Norway Spruce plantation in this locality was devastated, with most trees snapped clean off between 2 and 4 meters above ground due to their slender, whippy stems that are the result not being thinned sufficiently during the development of the plantation.

Although the mature trees are immensely hardy and can survive extreme mountain conditions the new Spring shoots are very frost tender and a late frost can cause a lot of cosmetic damage to Christmas tree plantations. For this reason, trees for this purpose are grown from seed collected from parts of Europe where the trees flush late, either from areas of Germany or Romania. The damaged trees usually recover from frost damage, although growth for that year will usually be reduced.

Female flower of Norway Spruce photo by
Tilo Podner

The beautiful flowers appear in the late Spring on the tips of the branches once the tree is about 30 - 35 years old. After pollination by windblown pollen grains, the cone begins to develop, taking from 5-7 months to reach maturity and as it grows larger begins to hang downwards from the branch.

The cones are generally between 9 and 17cm long with the longest cones being found on trees that originate from the more  Southeastern parts of Europe. 

Clusters of developing Norway Spruce cones. These will turn
brown as they mature before releasing the seeds held within on
 the first warm sunny days in early Spring. This beautiful photo was
taken by Sarah Gregg in Roccamorice, Arbruzzi, Italy and can be
 seen on her Flickr album.

Old Tjikko 9550 years old, discovered by geologist Leif Kullman
Generally speaking, under normal circumstances this is not an especially long lived tree with specimens over 200 years old being rare. The oldest known specimen in central Europe was found in Germany, in the Bavarian Forest and was 468 years old. To directly contradict this statement that it is not a long lived species, a specimen named Old Tjikko found on Fulu Mountain in the Dalarna province of Sweden was in 2008 found by carbon dating its roots to be 9550 years old. Scientists have in this area identified a cluster of Norway Spruce trees over 8000 years old. These trees have been able to survive the harsh tundra type conditions by posessing the ability to keep regrowing a new trunk when the existing one died to produce a tufty looking bushy shrub. Because of the warming temperatures that the area has experienced during the last centuary these trees have been able to grow a proper trunk and presently resemble a more normal shaped tree.

A typical, dense forest of Norway Spruce trees located close to Jachymov, Karlovarsky to the
N.W. of Praha (Prague) in the Czech Republic. Permission to use this photo has been kindly
granted by abejorro34 and appears in his Flickr photo albums
Norway Spruce and the White Fir (abies alba) are the tallest native trees in Europe. It is capable of growing to 40-50 meters in favourable conditions, the tallest specimen accuratly measured is 59.2 meters (193ft) and grows in the Sächsische Schweiz National Park, Germany. A specimen of 63 meters (207ft) in the Perućica Forest in Sutjeska National Park, Bosnia-Herzegovina was measured by a triangulation technique which is variable in its accuracy. Claims also exist of trees 70-80+ meters in height in the Jura region of France but these remain unverified. In North America it is unusual to find specimens over 40m (130ft)

Prolific Norway Spruce regeneration adjacent to a light canopy of mother trees. These provide the seeds
for natural regeneration without having to replant. The trees are growing in the mountains near Jachymov,
 Karlovarsky to the N.W. of Praha (Prague) in the Czech Republic. Permission to use this photo has
been kindly granted by abejorro34 and appears in his Flickr photo albums

A well managed plantation will produce quality wood of great versitility that is easy to work, cuts cleanly and that can be sanded to a fine surface. It also glues well and a good looking finish results from painting and varnishing. It is used in large quantities for interior building construction, joinery, flooring and wall panelling, boxes, plywood, chipboard and paper pulp. Older traditional uses include firewood (as is still common in Eastern and Northern Europe), charcoal, scaffolding poles, ladders, boat masts and oars, High quality slow grown wood has excellent tonal qualities and is used for piano soundboards and violin and guitar bellies.  The resin was gathered to make healing ointments, plasters and skin pastes.
The young shoots, picked when growing in Spring can even be used to brew spruce beer which has been described as ranging in taste from floral, citrusy and fruity to cola like and the rather less surpising, resinous and piney, It has been quite widely brewed in Northern Europe, the U.S. and Eastern Canada. A slightly less exciting, non alcoholic soft drink version can also be made. More information and a spruce beer recipe from 1796 can be found here-

Norway Spruce as a hedge.

A Norway Spruce hedge growing locally. This one was planted at
50cm spacings and is quite dense with no holes or bare patches. It has
not cut for 2 years and looks slightly unloved. If it had been my garden
I would have let it grow taller to hide the ugly shed next door!
Unlike most forest conifers Norway Spruce makes a pretty respectable hedge, it's dense branching habit and ability to grow in shady conditions make it quite suitable for this. It is however very little used in gardens for this purpose and rarely stocked by garden centres. It can be bought quite cheaply from Forestry Nurseries as a small bare rooted tree for planting from the late Autumn until early Spring and is less vigouous and more easier to control than the overly promoted Leylandii which is constantly striving to reach for the sky and not be a small garden hedge and seems to bristle with new growth after each time it rains.

Here is a somewhat curiously shaped Norway Spruce trunk that I spotted in Flickr whilst looking for photos for this post. This looks like it has grown from a number of trees that have been planted very close together. I'm presuming that it has been planted and has not arisen by means of natural regeneration, perhaps a bundle of young trees were left over when the wood was originally planted. The surviving stronger specimens from the bundle have grown and become interwoven with their young trunks fusing together, as is quite common with rubbing branches in a number of tree species.

The Candy Twist Norway Spruce. Permission to use this photo was
kindly given by Will Anderson and can be seen in his Flickr album.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

How to make a Firewood Cutting Frame

The finished log cutting frame loaded with 1 meter logs that have
just been cut at 50cm. The 50cm cutting position is on the
opposite side of the frame where the chainsaw can fit easily
between the supporting legs to give the maximum width of cut.  
When I moved to this part of rural France I found that almost everyone used wood as a source of heat during the winter months. Firewood is almost always cut into 1 meter lengths for stacking and drying before being cut into shorter lengths that can fit into a woodburning stove or cooker. The most common method of cutting up these 1 meter pieces is on a saw bench, which is a fairly quick and efficient method. Personally I have an deep instinctive fear of repeatedly having my fingers so close to an unguarded circular saw.

The alternative is to use a sawing horse and cut the wood with a chainsaw. I very quickly found this method slow and inefficient and infact on ocassions dangerous for cutting smaller round logs which can get hooked on the saw teeth of the chainsaw and spin as if they were on a lathe.

You find that you are endlessly putting logs on and off the saw horse, sometimes even resorting to secure the log with your foot to maintain it's position - some years ago I saw a Frenchman doing this very thing whilst wearing slippers!!! Each time you need to put on another log to be cut you have to put the chainsaw down on the ground. I found that all you end up with is a small pile of logs and backache.

The cost effective alternative to the above methods is to use a firewood cutting frame or rack to pack all the logs into, then to cut through all of the logs held within the frame with a chainsaw. It takes me around 5-10 minutes to fill the frame, packing the logs in tightly, in as good a fit as possible. 30 to 60 seconds to cut through the logs depending on how many cuts are to be made and another 5-10 minutes to remove the cut wood from the frame and throw it either into the log shed or the back of the van for delivery. It generally takes me about 60 to 75 minutes to process 2 cubic meters of wood if it is cut to 50cm lengths and about 90 minutes as 33cm.

For myself, I find this to be a much safer, faster and more efficient way to produce firewood than using a sawbench or sawhorse. Of couse it will never beat a firewood processing machine, but unless you are a large scale firewood producer the huge expenditure on these machines cannot be justified.

The logs are packed as solidly as possible into the frame which
minimises the settlement and log movement during cutting. Any
small diameter round logs are best NOT placed on the top of the
 stack because the teeth of the chainsaw can snag them and
make them spin dangerously. 
The dimensions that I have given below will make a firewood cutting frame that will contain 0.5 of a cubic meter of wood. The 1 meter pieces that it contains can be cut into three to yield logs that are 33cm long or into two to give 50cm logs. Of course logs of any length can be produced by changing the distances between the legs and cross members when constructing the frame. I have positioned the legs in such a way as to enable the chainsaw to fit fully between them to enable the maximum possible cutting width with my saws 50cm guide bar. You can of course make a frame to cut a smaller volume by reducing the height of the support legs. I, myself am quite tall and have a lot of chainsaw experience and therefore feel confidant holding the saw at around head height to start the cutting at the top of the frame. A shorter person might find it safer and more comfortable to have the wood stacked to a lower height.

Cutting frames like this but made of steel are available I have seen a tiny one in a DIY store in Limoges for 80 euros, it has the capacity for maybe 6 or 7 logs at a time. I also have a deep mistrust of using a chainsaw in close proximity to metal. From time to time the unexpected can occur and I would rather end up catching the structure of a saw frame made of wood rather than one of steel. A wooden frame is easy to patch up if a mistake is made, I have one that has cut well over 1000 cubic meters of firewood and it's still going strong, although it has had 2 major patch ups so far.

Materials list

For the 6 vertical parts of the frame I have used 9.90 meters of 63mm x 75mm
For the bracing cross members and support rails I have used 9.92 meters of 40mm x 60mm
approx 48  70mm wood screws
approx 20  120mm wood screws
Cordless drill with correct screwdriver bits
6mm spurpoint or twist drill bits for predrilling screw holes
Set square
Permanent marker pen
Disc sander for rounding off the carrying handles (optional)


Cut 6 pieces of 63mm x 75mm into lengths of 1650mm - these will be the 6 vertical legs
Cut 2 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of  830mm - for the two lower leg bracing rails
Cut 2 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of 1430mm - for the two upper bracing rails that support the cutting bed.
Cut 6 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of 600mm - for the cross members for the cutting bed
Cut 4 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of 450mm - for additional wood supports for the cutting bed

The 3 legs for one side of the cutting frame already
marked for the position of the two rails. One at
7cm and the other at 380mm. The rails sit above
the marks.
Mark a pencil line on each one of the narrower edges of all 6 legs at 70mm from the end and then a second line at 380mm from the same end, these mark the lower positions for the two horizontal rails.
On a flat surface, position 3 of the legs parallel to each other, place the shorter (830mm) rail above the pencil mark made at 70mm. Screw the two outer legs flush with the end of this rail and position the middle leg at 390mm from the left side and drive at least 2 screws into each point where the pieces overlap each other.

The two rails attached to make up one side of the frame. The top rail sticks out to form carrying handles to enable the frame to be moved around more easily.

The two halves laid out on the floor an exact mirror
 image of each other.

Next position the cutting bed support rail (length 1430mm) just above the pencil line made at 380mm, position the rail centrally so that 300mm sticks out from each side of the outer legs on each side- these will be the carrying handles for the cutting frame to make it easier to move around. When you are happy with the position screw them into place. Remember that the rails will run on the inside of the frame. You have now made one side of the cutting frame, now you have to make the other. It is important to remember that this needs to be an exact mirror image of the first side!

One side of the cutting frame with the first four
bracing pieces attached to join the two halves together
The next stage is to lean one side of the frame on something secure and with the rails on the inside attach four of the 600mm bracing pieces with 70mm screws as shown in the photo to the right and then move the other half of the frame into position and drive in two 70mm screws where each bracing piece attaches to each leg. It helps to have someone to help hold the frame sections in place, but I managed without. The frame is now stable and it is just a matter of attaching the final two 600mm bracing pieces and the four, 450mm log supports that stop the cut logs from falling through the frame when they are cut. Each of the 450mm log supports is fixed to the support rail underneath with a 120mm screw, for added security I have also placed a screw vertically down through all of the bracing pieces into their respective supporting rails.

Note -All of the short pieces are predrilled to prevent the wood from splitting when the screws are driven through them.

To make it a little kinder on the hands I rounded off the square edges of the carrying handles with a disc sander and I find them much improved and it is well worth the less than 5 minutes that it takes ( this was done after these photos were taken). Finally I marked the cutting positions with a permanent marker.                                            
The two halves of the frame joined together.

The finished frame with all the bracing pieces and log supports fitted. After the photo was taken I rounded off the carrying handles with a disc grinder.
Including my planning and preparation time it took well under 3 hours to make. If I was to make another the same I expect that I could shave easily another hour off that. The cost of the wood at a small, local French builders merchant was 30 euro's. I probably could have got it for less if I had gone to a bigger mechant further away but would have easily lost any price advantage with the added fuel costs.                             

Tips for cutting your firewood

When loading the frame it is important to make sure that the individual pieces fit together in the best possible way. It is preferable to make sure that the frame is packed as solidly as possible. If it is not well packed then the logs will change position greatly when the log lengths are cut and makes it more likely for them to fall out of the cutting frame. Make sure that all the smaller diameter round logs are placed in the lower part of the frame where they will be held solidly. If they are placed loose on the top of the loaded frame then the chainsaw teeth can catch them and make them spin dangerously. I always put larger, heavier logs on the top of the frame and also any larger pieces that are of an awkward shape and do not fit well into the frame. It is not normally neccesary to secure the logs with a ratchet strap if you follow my advice, but the use of one does slightly decrease the movement within the frame when the logs are cut and give a little more security to the cutter.


Chainsaws are potentially very dangerous tools and it is advisable that anyone who operates one has had some training and is both competant and confident in their use.

You must also wear eye and ear protection and steel toe cap boots are recommened.

The chainsaw should have a guide bar long that is long enough to reach across the entire width of the cutting frame to minimise the risk of kickback.

The guide bar should be in good condition and not worn otherwise the saw will not cut stright. The saw chain must be correctly sharpened. If the chainsaw is running correctly and the saw teeth are sharp the saw will cut through the wood using only the force of it's own weight - you will not have to hardly use any downward force at all to cut through the wood.

Happy sawing - Michael

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Woodland Tree Guide 1 BEECH

In an effort to add a little bit more diversity (and volume) to my blog I thought that I would include a guide to woodland trees. I do not however intend to include every bit of minute information about each species -this is available widely elsewhere, I will therefore (as usual) be expressing my own opinion as to the merits and bad points of each tree species. I intend to alternate these posts with my output of more general tree information. I have drawn up an initial list of around 60 species to cover, so not knowing quite where to start and not wanting to do it alphabetically I thought that I would start with one of my favourites.

Beech  fagus sylvatica
The beautiful smooth silvery trunks of two Beech trees just
down the road from where I live.

Found almost everywhere in western Europe, many of you will already know that these trees are a wonderful combination of grace, beauty, adaptability and usefulness.

If you are looking to plant Beech as a potential timber tree you have several choices as to where to get your planting stock, firstly if you have trees of good form in your locality you can usually quite easily find some self sown seedlings. If these are dug up carefully during the dormant season and placed in a plastic bag for storage and ease of transport, so that the delicate roots cannot dry out.If they are then planted out fairly quickly (within a few days) you can sucessfully move young trees that are up to about 1.3 meters in height. These will have reduced growth for a year or so after planting but will then grow away nicely.

If fact 7 years ago, I found a young Beech tree of 2.4 meters in height that had been ripped from the ground by a large forestry machine, luckily the weather was mild and damp so my young son and I carried it to one of my fields and planted it close to the boundary.It has not only survived without any dieback but has since thrived and become a fine specimen.

Largest Beech Specimens

To the best of my knowledge the tallest European Beech tree, stands at 45.4 meters in the Sonian Forest, Hoeilaart, Belgium. The tallest in the UK is in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire and is a very respectable 43 meters. The tree with the greatest girth (the trunk circumference, usually measured at 1.5 meters above ground) is a tree at Plas Newydd, Llanfairpwll, Anglesey, Wales and was 9.62 meters in circumference when measured in 2006

In the nursery trade Beech is thought of as being difficult to transplant but as you can see by my example above that it can do well bare rooted, even at quite large sizes if the conditions are right-This fundamental rule goes for all bare rooted trees, DON'T LET THE ROOTS DRY OUT! Once they dry their ability to survive the shock of transplanting is greatly reduced, and the longer they are allowed to dry the lower your survival and initial growth rate will be. Root drying is most severe on windy Spring days and I would recommend that for best survival and growth that broadleaved trees are planted out in Autumn when the soil is still warm. The tree can produce new roots before the onset of winter and be in a much better state of establishment than one planted in the Spring.

Another choice would be to grow trees from your own collected seed, collected from good quality local trees this sounds easy but do not underate just how difficult a task this can be. Most of you however will choose this last option of buying your nursery stock from a tree nursery. The best Beech forest in Europe is the Sonian Forest, Belgium which is just to the south east side of Brussels. Nursery trees grown from seed collected from here are with good reason highly sought after. However almost any Beech seed collected from a registered European seed stand will perform well.
The magnificent Beech trees of the Sonian Forest also known as the Foret De Soignes,
Belgium, note the people at the bottom of the photo for scale.  The forest covers an area
 of 4421 hectares (10920 acres) at the start of the 19th centuary it covered more than
twice this area Photo by Donar Reiskoffer

Beech is useful as it is very shade tolerant, you can underplant it beneath trees that cast only a moderate shade such as Silver Birch or even Oak, I have found that the young trees are not attractive to Roe deer which can cause a lot of damage to young trees of many species such as Ash, Wild Cherry, Willow and Douglas Fir.

Beech grows well on deep well drained loamy soils that are either acid, neutral or alkaline. I have seen it growing very well in limestone areas and I find that it also performs very well on the sandy acid soils that we have here, particularly on the lower hill slopes where the soil is deeper. It does not like poorly drained soils and periods of waterlogging can be lethal especially to small trees. It should also not be planted on very shallow soils that are prone to drying out. Beech is shallow rooted and particularly prone to drought stress.

This is more of a steady tree with reasonable growth sustained over a long period than than a quick starter. For the first year or two after planting provided your methods of weed control are adequate it will probably grow  perhaps between 15 and 40cm/year depending on the size and quality of the planting stock (generally speaking smaller plants survive and grow away better than larger ones)
A young Beech tree 4 years after planting as a 1.2
meter sapling dug up from the surrounding woods.

Once the trees are established and begining to assert some dominance over the competing ground vegetation the growth rate will speed up to around 40-60cm per year. Beech does not make a good pioneer species of open ground and tends to grow better with some side shelter in the form of what are known as a nurse trees, such as Norway Spruce, Scots or Corsican Pine, European Larch, Lawsons Cypress or Western Red Cedar. The use of these conifers will greatly improve the microclimate of the new woodland for the young Beech trees and they will grow substantially faster due to the presence of the conifers. This has been proven in many trials.

As the plantation grows and the conifers start to compete with the Beech they must be removed if your aim is to have a pure Beech woodland. I myself prefer a more mixed and diverse forest composition.

The best broadleaved trees to use as a nurse tree for Beech is Wild Cherry or Silver Birch, these mature at a relatively early age compared to Beech and also only cast light shade. You must be careful especially with the Birch because of it's fast growth rate, that it does not dominate the young plantation. Plantations of pure Beech should be planted at relatively close spacings, certainly under 2 meters apart to ensure plenty of choice of final crop trees of good form and to provide the mutual shelter and competition that they need to grow well in their establishment phase.

One other consideration is that when they are in leaf, Beech trees are very frost tender, so a late spring frost can severly damage or even kill small to medium sized trees. I have seen well established trees that are 20-30 years old in Cumbria (NW England) killed by a severe late frost in mid may. Therefore Beech trees are best not planted in frost hollows or areas that are prone to late spring frosts. If a mature tree is badly frosted after it has come out into leaf it can reduce that years wood increment by as much as 90%.

Despite this tenderness to late spring frost they can be a remarkably hardy tree and can be seen growing together with Sycamore in many woods and shelterbelts high on the windswept hills and moors of  North Yorkshire (UK) where I spent my youth.

Pests and diseases
In this area, Beech grows really well and is not subject to any damaging pest and disease problems, however in many areas it can be very prone to damage by grey squirrels which gnaw away patches of bark on the trunks and branches of younger trees from about 15-40 years of age. This can be a very serious and damaging problem that can usually only be resolved by trapping. Beyond this age range they are usually less prone to damage.

The one serious disease that Beech can suffer from is Beech Bark Disease where an infected tree shows dark, weeping tarry spots. This is associated with dense infestations by the felted beech coccus which is a minute sap sucking insect. This combined attack can badly damage or kill trees usually between 20 and 60 years old. Trees that are stressed by drought or by poor site selection are more likely to be affected. Conversly Beech trees that grow in a mixed species woodlands are less likely to be seriously affected Click on the link to find out more.


A huge Beech tree at the estate Den Bramel, Bronkhorst, Netherlands. Its girth is 7.4 meters, unfortunatly this tree died in the summer of 2009 due to fungal attack. 
Photo by Tim B. Monumental Trees

Beech woods are very charcteristic by their long silvery trunks and carpets of russet leaves with a mostly bare woodland floor beneath with very little or no ground flora. Beech trees cast such a deep shade that very little can grow beneath them, this makes them a dominant species that are capable of growing through other trees such as Oak, Sweet Chestnut and Silver Birch, outperforming and eventually shading them out. This heavy shade makes walking through Beechwoods a wonderful experience for us, but not so great for wildlife which thrive when rich ground flora and a shrub layer is present. Holly and Yew are the only species that I have seen growing as a sub species in Beech woodland, but I expect that Box would also grow too.
The amazing Beechwoods of the Forets de Soignes, Belgium
in Autumn. Photo by kind permission of Philou Philou

Beech belongs to a valuable group of trees that produce an edible nut. These are an especially important food reserve for birds and rodents. We too can also eat them although they do contain tannins which carry a slight toxicity if eaten in large quantities. It is possible to press an oil from Beech nuts and they can also be ground into a flour which can only be used after the tannins have been leached out by soaking.

Beech trees only start to flower and produce nuts when they are at least 30 years old and possibly as late as 80. Trees must first build up their carbohydrate reserves in the previous year in order to produce the flowers that may result in a successful seed crop. It is usual for all the trees in a large geographical area to all crop in the same year. The heaviest crops, known as mast years, only occur after hot, sunny summers and almost never in successive years. If the summer is too cold and cloudy, many if not all of the nuts will be empty, the further north that you are in Europe the frequency of good seed production years decreases.

Most people of my generation and earlier sat at school desks made from Beech wood. Chosen for this purpose due to it's excellent finishing qualities, hardness and resistance to compression and splitting. It is great wood for gluing, staining and varnishing. It is excellent for flooring manufacture and furniture, in fact almost any woodwork that isn't either structural or outdoors as it has no rot resistance. It is excellent for firewood and wood pulp but straight pieces are potentially much too good to be used in this way.


The Meikleour Beech Hedge in Perthshire, Scotland is the worlds
tallest hedge. Image courtesy of Tour Scotland Photographs.
Beech is one of the very best hedging plants, beautiful at all times of the year, it adds a classic elagance to any garden. Beech hedges have a special feature called marcescence which means that the dead leaves are retained by the trees until the Spring when the new leaves emerge, so the hedge is never bare. The worlds tallest hedge as listed by the Guinness Book of World Records is the Meikleour Beech Hedge situated 18km north of Perth in Scotland, it was planted in 1745, stands 30 meters tall and runs for 530 meters. More information at
For myself this is one of my favourite trees and I plant them in preference to any other hardwoods. I find them such a good all rounder with good steady growth, being fairly easy to manage, a beautiful looking tree with good Autumn colouring together with the potential to grow wood of great quality, versitility and value. How can you resist?

A Beech seedling in it's first few weeks of life, full of future promise.
Photo by Thue.