Forestry Fuels features in Countryside Magazine

- 8:22 pm - April 1st, 2014

Forestry Fuels features in the March 2014 edition of Countryside Magazine.  Read the article text below or view the finished articles by clicking on the images on the right.

A Burning Issue

Jane Perone investigates how a start-up company in Cambridgeshire is hoping the ‘buy British’ trend will extend to charcoal

Down at Little America, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley are putting on a hot show. Confused? Let me explain: Jimi and Bob are charcoal kilns (they were big smokers – get it?) sited in a place called Little America, far away from the actual USA, in rural Cambridgeshire.

Forestry Fuels, run by Jo Hull and his daughter and son-in-law Kathryn and Steve Ord, is one of dozens of small firms feeding a growing market for sustainable, British-produced charcoal, as well as biochar – the new eco-friendly soil improver recommended as a replacement for peat.

The family’s inspiration for the start-up, now in its second year, was sparked when they went on a course to learn about charcoal making. Jo, 56, works as a director of a local food company; Kathryn, 27, used to work in the aquatics department of a local garden centre, and Steve, 32, was working for himself as fencer and hard landscaper, so they were all looking for a new challenge.

They invested in three kilns: Jimi and Bob, plus Tim (named after the man they bought it from, rather than a famous smoker) and set up Forestry Fuels’ base, at the Little America industrial estate in Cambridgeshire.

This is no sylvan idyll, a kiln puffing away in a picturesque woodland, but it is rural: an exposed, windy site dotted with trees and formerly home to the accommodation block of the WWII-era Little Staughton airfield. It is surrounded by arable fields, working to the soundtrack of rumbling tractors and the chok-chok of pheasants: neighbouring businesses are doing everything from furniture restoration to repairing and restoring VW vans. But the location does give good access to their raw materials – hardwoods from FSC-approved, sustainably-managed woodland, including ash, sycamore, beech, birch, that’s baked in the kilns to produce charcoal.

They split the logs using a special machine that looks lethal, but Kathryn assures me it’s easy enough for any of them to operate single-handedly. They meticulously grade the wood and stack it inside the kilns for a ‘burn’, which lasts around 24 hours. Any wood that’s unsuitable for charcoal joins oak offcuts from a local furniture maker as ‘sacrifice’ wood, added to the bottom to burn and heat up the kiln, or sold as firewood to locals.

Steve specialises in tending the kilns during a burn: camping out in a tiny caravan so he’s on hand to open and shut air vents, ensuring an even heat night and day and perfectly charred wood. The kilns cool for 24 hours, then Jo, Steve and Kathryn take turns climbing inside Jimi, Bob and Tim to unload the charcoal bucket by bucket, ensuring the lumps do not break up: they come out stinking, black and in dire need of a shower.

In the packing shed, the charcoal is sieved to remove dust and sand: they package small pieces unsuitable for burning as charcoal as biochar for use on gardens – the tiniest pieces as a soil improver, and slightly larger lumps as a mulch. Jo is even looking for a way to put the ‘fines’ – dusty bits swept off the floor of the processing room – to good use by compressing them into charcoal briquettes.

It’s not the most glamorous of work, so what’s got this family so excited about making charcoal? While we’ve all become aware of food miles, few of us know or care about charcoal miles – yet. More than 90 per cent of our charcoal is imported from outside the UK – often from developing countries where forests are not sustainably managed, including mangrove swamps and tropical rainforests: not to mention the big carbon footprint created by transporting the finished product around the globe.

So there’s a clear argument for buying British: plus wood from British broadleaf trees produces lighter, larger chunks with a higher carbon content that heat up quickly and evenly without needing lighter fuel; a gift to the barbecuer.

‘The reason a lot of people like our product is you light it and it’s ready to use in 15 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat a steak cooked on lighter fuel,’ says Jo.

But what about biochar? Biochar is simply small chunks of charcoal intended for use in the soil, rather than on the barbecue. Placed in the soil, biochar locks carbon below ground, and while peat will degrade within five years or so, biochar persists for years, still working away in the soil decades later.

So how does it work? The charcoal contains thousands of tiny holes, which, spongelike, soak up moisture and act as anchor points for mycorrhizal fungi, the beneficial organisms that help plants to make use of nutrients in the soil. The name may be new, but the idea isn't: the ‘terra preta’ soils of the Amazon show signs of the addition of so-called ‘fire manure’ – in other words, biochar – by ancient peoples, enriching a soil impoverished by constant leaching of nutrients caused by heavy rains.

Whereas peat bog mining causes extensive damage to a fragile ecosystem, the raw materials for biochar production come from sustainable sources: hardwood, in the case of Forestry Fuels, but other producers use leaves or manure.

Jo compares the ethical issues around charcoal production to the outcry about cheap clothes imported from developing countries. ‘Imported charcoal is cut down and manufactured using third world labour: there’s nothing like the level of control there is in the UK,’ he says.

There are environmental and economic benefits, too. ‘By using British wood, we are giving good outlets for landowners to encourage them to manage their woodland and have a profitable product to market. The evidence clearly shows that when woodland is managed for coppicing and harvesting wood there’s much greater biodiversity.’

Forestry Fuels sells biochar and barbecue charcoal direct to the public, and through specialist barbecue suppliers, garden centres, allotment sites and shops. Persuading people to pay more for a British product when they habitually pay a few pounds at the supermarket for imported charcoal or peat compost can be an uphill battle.

Despite the increasing excitement among horticulturalists about biochar’s potential as a soil improver, most of us wouldn’t have a clue what mycorrhizal fungi is – or how to pronounce it (my-co-rise-al, just so you know!).

But it’s worth bearing in mind that the biochar industry is still very much in its infancy. Darren Hopkins, director for Business Development and Community Engagement at the newly-established British Biochar Foundation, tells me that the industry is so new it’s hard to gauge just how many producers there are, but there are four or five commercial leaders, plus lots of small-scale production, along the lines of Forestry Fuels. ‘But others are on their way,’ he says. ‘We know one UK biochar kiln producer sold eight units over the past 18 months and other manufacturers are selling well too.’

And the outlook is good for Forestry Fuels: the recent heatwave has seen sales soar, and they’re finding ways to build the business, with plans to supply everyone from artists to water purification plants with charcoal suited to their needs. And that could mean a new pal for kilns Jimi, Bob and Tim, as yet unnamed. ‘Winston?’ suggests Steve. I am sure Churchill would have approved.

Further information

Forestry Fuels

British Biochar Foundation 

UK Biochar Research Centre