Well over 80 members – tree lovers, foresters, woodland owners, timber merchants and furniture makers, accompanied Neil Humphris, the Leconfield Estate Head Forester, on our annual field day to Frith Wood in June.
This was a rare opportunity to see management operations on this private West Sussex estate and to discuss the realities of woodland management, timber production and timber marketing with the experts. Woodland Heritage co-founders Peter Goodwin and Lewis Scott, plus a number of ‘Knowledgeable Trustees’, were on hand alongside Neil Humphris to comment and respond to questions.
The Leconfield Estate in West Sussex has 21% woodland cover, with 75% mixed broadleaf, 15% conifer and 10% sweet chestnut. The terrain is undulating, neither flat nor steep, with areas varying in character, tree quality and tree size throughout. Neil has managed the estate woodlands since 1996 and has a team of four foresters. The estate produces 5,000 cubic metres/tonnes of timber a year, mostly oak, ash, Corsican pine and Norway spruce. Conifers are sold standing, whilst most hardwood is sold at roadside to many different outlets. Some pallet material is produced from beech, selling for slightly more than pulpwood, whilst most of the coppice is sold standing to contractors.
Mick Carver, with 47 years woodland experience on the estate, showed off his cleaving skills (see photo below): 10 foot lengths of sweet chestnut, oak and ash are skilfully split using a sledgehammer and wedge. This staple product provides materials for traditional post and rail fencing. Demand outstrips the estate’s ability to supply, suggesting there is a market for others willing to take on this backbreaking work. Firewood, another staple product, is generally sold to those who are now, in Neil’s words, ‘not burning to keep warm, but burning to stay cheerful !’ creating a healthy demand for cordwood and residues.
We saw an area of successful natural regeneration (originally felled in 1996) containing mostly oak, with some cherry, ash, larch and Scots pine, fenced against both rabbit and deer. The self-sown birch, willow and chestnut have been cut back three times since regeneration began – intensive yet essential work, ensuring that the young trees are not swamped and get off to a good start during the first ten years (this applies equally to new plantings). Neil will leave a high density of trees, encouraging upward growth, self-pruning and a woodland that ‘looks after itself’, ultimately producing good straight higher-value timber for the furniture and joinery market.
The message from Neil was not to rush into pruning, as often, if the timing of thinning operations and density of trees is right, trees will self-prune with the advantage of natural healing which is less prone to disease. Woodland Heritage recommend July and August pruning for rapid wound repair.
Historically, pruning was done in winter due to the spare labour and easy access in the winter months.
When faced with a particular area of woodland containing various species of very different ages and quality, including some good young oaks and about 60% mature timber, Neil considered it both common and economic sense to carry out selective felling. This required very careful and time-consuming work by the fellers and extraction team to minimise damage to the remaining trees and avoid ground compaction.
By gently opening up the canopy, the broadleaved trees with poor crowns have generally responded very well, resprouting and opening out into the new space. The landscape, tree cover and the ground quality have been maintained, and the quality and therefore value of the future timber has been significantly enhanced.
This was an extremely worthwhile and ‘down-toearth’ opportunity to get to grips with some of the issues and decisions facing woodland owners and managers and to see some of the processes that go into the production of good timber in the Southeast.
Jenny Martin, Editor ‘WoodLots’, and Weald WoodNet Information Officer.