There’s No Greater Pleasure Than A Roaring Log Fire
South Shropshire is notorious for rich undulating farmland and dramatic hills, yet the acres of woodland stretched along this border landscape also make this one of the more forested parts of the UK countryside. From Wenlock Edge to the vast expanse of Mortimer Forest, there’s certainly no shortage of trees. However, far from simply admiring the leafy beauty of the forests, David Ward is one man who has quite literally managed to distinguish the wood from trees – and is doing quite well from it as a result. Fuelling the wood burners and fireplaces gracing cottages, converted barns, town houses and pubs across the area, his Wooferton based firewood business now sends out over 1,500 tons of wood a year to keep the good citizens of this area warm. An achievement which is all the more remarkable considering he started out seven years ago with nothing more than a £2,000 tractor bought from ebay and a pile of wood.
Meeting David at his wood yard right next to the railway line at Wooferton, I am greeted by hulking great tree trunks neatly stacked up from one end of the yard to the other. The scene could only be improved by men wearing checked shirts and logging boots. Possibly even a stray moose. But although Canada this is not, it’s still an impressive sight. So how did he grow this firewood business, and why? After deciding he wanted out of a logistics career to start his own business, he noticed the huge market in wood burners. “Two things happened really. I remember going into a wood in Hampshire and seeing lovely beech hardwood going over to France to make paper, and I thought, that’s crazy we could be using it here. I also noticed there were lots of stoves going out from places like Tall Tree Stoves in Tenbury. So I put two and two together and firewood seemed a good thing to get into. There seemed to be a growing market back then – but it’s now exploded. I’m working from 6am until 9pm,” David observes as we mooch about the yard.
Yet although his yard is piled high with the stuff, the fact is that there is a wood shortage. Forestry Commission figures tell us only around ten per cent of hardwood forests in the West Midlands are managed properly; but it’s a difficulty, explains David, which could easily be resolved. “There is no problem with running out of wood, it’s just that forests aren’t being managed. Over the last 50 years they’ve just been left to go wild. A lot of the timber is at full maturity and will just die off. A properly managed wood though will produce so much more timber. And the whole woodland ecosystem benefits as a result.”
Fortunately for wood burner owners and squirrels alike, the government is now giving grants for proper management, and a lot of estates are starting to open up their woodlands as a result. David points out a pile of timber fresh from the nearby Downton Estate as evidence. “They’ve started a woodland management plan, as have a lot of estates because timber prices have risen so sharply.” So all of the wood delivered to David’s yard is locally sourced, and seasoned oak, ash, beech and sycamore are the most popular, with his on-site kiln serving the market for burners requiring kiln dried wood. “I always start out by asking customers how they use their fire. A working couple for instance, who need quick instant heat when they get home would need softwood to get the fire going quickly in the evening. You work out what’s best for them.”
The actual process is relatively simple. The wood comes in and is stacked out to dry, normally for 12 months. Using a Wallace and Gromit style contraption (more technically known as a Firewood Processing Machine) the logs are then fed into a machine and cut to size. They make their way up a conveyor and then straight into bags or into a cage ready for the kiln. And now for the science bit. Although I’m expecting to see something that looks like a steam engine, David’s kiln wouldn’t look out of place in Dr No. A space age looking water cylinder holds 4000 litres of water at a temperature of around 90 degrees Celsius, heated by a high performance wood burner which burns the wood that isn’t good enough to sell. It feeds the hot water through heat exchanges in the kiln with fans circulating the hot air, and when the kiln reaches the right temperature it vents the wet air out and brings in dry air from the outside. The best thing about the process is that it’s totally carbon neutral, and his next plan is to install solar panels so the entire site is producing its own energy. Inviting me to step into the kiln itself, which is normally packed with crates of wood, the experience is like standing inside a tumble dryer running at seventy degrees.
The result is crackly kiln dried wood with a very low moisture content all ready for sale, and aside from doorstep delivery, the process is complete. As darkness falls in the yard, an autumnal chill sharpens the air and it starts to spit with rain, I’m reminded that there’s no greater pleasure than a roaring log fire. So roll on winter and do your worst. We have all the wood we need.
Original feature courtesy of Ludlow Ledger.