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How to make the most of a small broadleaved wood

The growing wood fuel market means neglected areas of woodland can be given a new lease of commercial life, says Paul Schofield.

Broadleaved woodlands on farms and estates are an important but often under-valued resource.

They have the potential to generate a wide range of benefits, including income from timber harvesting, improved game and wildlife habitat, shelter for livestock, improved water quality, flood management and landscape continuity.

Over the last decade or so, the growth of the wood fuel market has provided the opportunity to bring woodland back into management that may have been overlooked for many decades, allowing them to contribute profitably to the wider farm or estate enterprise.

These woodlands vary greatly in character and composition; examples include naturally regenerated birch and sycamore, mature oak or beech plantations and mixed policy woodlands. Conifers are often present, sometimes as small blocks or scattered old growth conifers.

Such woodlands are frequently small-scale and they often occupy steep, wet or uneven ground whichcan constrain timber harvesting operations. They are often distant from public roads and lack the necessary access and infrastructure to enable lorries to uplift timber safely.

Few sites are without issues, but usually these can be resolved with proper planning. The current Forestry Grant Scheme (FGS), due to close in December, offers support for creating new forest roads and lorry loading facilities in undermanaged or inaccessible woodland up to 50 hectares. 

If achievable, most woodlands benefit from regular thinning, which helps to restore productivity and enables dormant woods to flourish, allowing the removal of larger volumes of timber in the longer term by providing more growing space for remaining trees. Thinning also improves timber quality and resilience to storm damage and creates better conditions for trees and vegetation to regenerate under the canopy.

The most appropriate type of intervention will depend on species, age and location. For example, small-scale clear felling may be more appropriate than thinning in exposed areas or where undermanagement has resulted in over-stocking and poor tree stability. Whatever the proposed management, formal felling permission must be obtained from Scottish Forestry for any thinning orfelling.

Woodland operations must also be planned with care to avoid damage to soils, pollution of watercourses and disturbance of protected species in accordance with the UK Forest Standard. This must, of course, be balanced with minimising running costs and producing enough timber to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

In recent years, the availability and range of small-scale, low-intensity machinery has increased significantly and there are now options available to suit most situations, including dedicated harvesters and forwarders, forest tractors and winches and even traditional horse logging.

With improved markets for low grade timber, wider availability of suitable equipment and well targeted grant support, there has never been a better time to unlock the potential of broadleaved woodlands.