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Some of the tree species found at Lightwoods



The Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is a native tree to Britain and is found in the wild in moist woods, riverbanks and mixed broadleaved woodlands where it can reach heights of 135ft.

The pale, pliable and sturdy timber is used for a variety of things including tool handles, furniture, pegs, oars, hockey sticks, charcoal, tennis rackets and skis.

There was once a great deal of superstition attached to Ash trees; burning Ash wood was thought to remove evil spirits from dwellings, and sick children would be cured if passed through the cleft of an Ash tree. Scandinavians believed that the Ash was sacred and that Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, was a giant Ash and that the tips of his crown resided in heaven and that his roots sought out the pits of hell.

There are two native British Birch, the Silver Birch (Betula verriculosa syn B. pendula) and the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). The two species are fairly similar, having white bark and fairly open crowns, allowing plenty of other plants to grow under their canopy. This and the fact that they are comparatively small in height and spread makes them both ideal garden trees. However, the Silver Birch is thought to be more graceful, having pendulous branches. They are quick growing but short–lived, reaching heights of 60 – 80ft, although most are too short–lived to attain such growth. These deciduous trees are quick colonisers, with their seed usually the first to inhabit areas recently cleared of trees.

The sap of the Birch is rich in sugar and when tapped in spring it can be used to make wine by adding honey and can also be used as a shampoo (without the honey); while the oil derived from the bark can be used as an insect repellent. The wood of the Silver Birch is used for the backs of brushes and tool handles and the twigs in winter are used to make besom brooms for gardens and forest–fire beaters. The timber is not utilised largely as a crop as the wood is soft and rots quickly, although it is occasionally used to make furniture, tool handles and plywood. As firewood, it burns with a particularly bright fla

The Blackthorn or Sloe (Prunus spinosa) is a native, deciduous shrub or small tree of Britain that has virtually black, thorny branches. This formidable barrier of thorns can be used to protect plants or other property from humans and animals. In spring, it suddenly produces conspicuous white flowers prior to leaf burst and the birds nest in its protective shelter. During late summer, the birds quickly eat the berries, or sloe. Commonly used as hedging, wind breaks or barriers, this thorny shrub can grow to 16ft. It prefers chalky soil in a sunny position but is hardy and can cope with a number of environments. The sloe can be used to make preserves or sloe gin.

As the blossoms often appear in March during the period of cold east winds, a cold spring was traditionally known as a 'blackthorn winter'.

The Hawthorn, May or Quickthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a native, deciduous shrub or small tree of Britain and is most notable as a hedgerow species. Hawthorns provide ideal wildlife habitats for birds and a number of insects, and act as stock-proof barriers due to their thorns and dense growth habit as hedges.

The Hawthorn is fast growing and sturdy. Grown as a tree it can often be found on woodland edges or rides and in the open countryside, reaching heights of up to 35ft. They produce attractive white flowers in the spring and red berries in the autumn.

During the 16th and 18th centuries, land enclosures prompted the planting of thousands of hedges to surround estates. Unfortunately, a lot of these are now being destroyed due to mechanised farming. The spikes, which cause formidable barriers can now be replaced with barbed wire or electric fences.

Early Christians associated the Hawthorn with Joseph of Arimathea. He was the owner of the tomb in which Jesus was placed after the Crucifixion and later he was supposed to have planted his hawthorn staff into the ground at Glastonbury. This thorn apparently flushed new growth and was labelled a 'Holy Thorn'.

Pagan and medieval rites used the Hawthorn to symbolise the coming of summer, probably because of the early blossoms it produces. In some areas, it is believed that the destruction of a Hawthorn brings about doom and to have blossoms inside a dwelling invites disaster.

The Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) is also a native species and very similar to the Common Hawthorn, although the leaf shape, number of seeds and flower stems is different.

The Common Hazel (Corylus avellana) is a deciduous native to all parts of the U.K. except the Shetland Isles. It grows most commonly on chalk, limestone, neutral and mildly acidic soils. Hazel is often coppiced and grown for its timber and nut harvest, but even so is only a small tree, rarely exceeding 15m.

Hazel rods have been used since prehistoric times to weave a number of products, including baskets, wattle and daub building frames, fencing and hurdles. To provide continual rods, the Hazel is often coppiced so that the stool, or stump, produces an abundance of new shoots instead of a single stem.

Hazel rods and living trees are often used to form hedges in the country, and are sometimes mixed and interwoven with laid Hawthorns hedges to produce a dense barrier.

The Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is an evergreen, native tree or shrub to Britain and is found in most environments, including harsh ones, although it does not do well in wet soils. The red berries produced in autumn are a great source of food for birds and provide a view of colourful, seasonal interest.

It was at one time superstition that to cut down Holly would be unlucky and because of this, many Hollies still survive today and can be found growing within maintained hedgerows.

Sometimes, Hollies are clipped and shaped as ornamental trees and topiary and they are also ideal for the creation of dense, formidable hedges.

The wood is strong, heavy and white and has been used for carving and woodcuts.

The Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is another British native tree that can be found in its wild state in Oak and Beech woodlands at a height of up to 80ft.

In the spring, the tree is adorned with yellow male catkins and in the autumn the leaves turn from green to yellow to gold to orange–brown. With age, this deciduous tree develops a deeply fluted and twisting stem, making this an attractive amenity tree.

It also makes an excellent hedge as when it is clipped it becomes quite dense and it holds onto some leaves during the winter months.

The wood is tough and is thought to be one of the hardest in Europe, so it is therefore also quite durable. It is used for making butchers' blocks, cattle yokes, mill wheels, piano keys, charcoal, mallets, skittles, bean sticks and as a fuel.

The Hornbeam was named after the wood's strength (Old English; horn : hard and beam : tree).

In its native state it is not very wide–spread in Britain, although it has been planted in parks, woodlands, arboreta and large gardens throughout.

There are two deciduous native Oak trees to the British Isles; the English Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). However, there are 37 species listed as being hardy to the climate of Britain. Oaks are a very important tree in Britain for their timber, their wildlife habitats, their extensive life spans and their grace and beauty.

The Sessile or Durmast Oak is dominant in northern and western areas. It prefers light soils, as it will be out competed in heavier clay and loam soil by the English Oak. The tallest Oak in Britain was a 142ft specimen in Herefordshire. Oak wood has for many years been used to produce charcoal as it burns steadily, so from early times it has been an important timber crop. Unfortunately, the large demand for this charcoal and the slow growth of this tree has meant the demise of large tracts of Oak woodlands. The oak bark has also been used to produce tannin, which is utilised in the tanning process for leather.

The English Oak predominates in the south of the country where soil conditions are more to its liking. It is a commonly planted tree in parks and woodlands where many giant veterans have survived to live almost 1000 years. Druids in Celtic Britain thought of the Oak as a sacred tree and the mistletoe that was more common then was gathered and used in secret rites. It is a very sturdy tree and is used in construction, panelling and furniture and the acorns are still sometimes used as animal fodder today.

The most commonly found exotic or non–native Oaks in Britain are the Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) from Southern Europe and the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex). The Holm Oak is evergreen and often planted in parks and gardens and it does reproduce naturally in this country. The Turkey Oak however, has naturalised far more successfully and is spreading like a native throughout the countryside.

There are a number of species of Poplar that grow in Britain and the majority of these deciduous trees take up vast amounts of water to assist in their rapid growth rates.

Some of the most commonly recognised are the Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra 'Italica'), which are very tall, dense, columnar trees often used as wind breaks and screens. They can reach heights of up to 120ft and tolerate soot and smoke very well.

The White Poplar (Populus alba) is notable for the white, felty undersides of its foliage and the whispering they cause in the breeze. In Greek legend this tree was originally black. Apparently, Hercules wore a garland from the White Poplar in a battle with Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld and his sweat bleached the garland white. This tree can reach heights of around 110ft, it suckers freely and tolerates pollution and salt, so it flourishes on road sides and near the sea.

The Black Poplar (Populus nigra var. betulifolia) is a native timber tree to Britain. It flourishes on fertile soils beside water and tolerates pollution well. It was often planted as a screen and its timber is utilised for baskets for fruit, clogs, matches and matchboxes. Unfortunately, the numbers of living trees surviving modern Britain is frighteningly low and proactive groups have formed around the country to help protect and regenerate this native tree by vegetative propagation.



Charcoal facts & How to build a small charcoal kiln


'Barbecues are not always so healthy'

"96% of charcoal in this country is imported from the developing world, supporting slave labour and destruction to the rain forests. Its ironic, when in Britain we have all the resources to make top quality charcoal ourselves.

Charcoal goes up in a puff of smoke, so who cares where it comes from? Well, the world does actually, and if you knew the environmental damage imported charcoal caused, so would you.

Charcoal is surprisingly big business in this country, the public getting through approximately 50,000 tonnes of it each year. It is mainly used for barbecues, but it also artistic and horticultural uses too. However, although we use so much charcoal in Britain, as much as 96% of it is imported from third world countries.

The industry needs to change for the sake of the environment and because of the exploitation of these poorer countries. In South East Asia, wood from mangrove swamps is burnt to make charcoal. In South America and West Africa, the rainforests are chopped down and burnt. In both cases, the woodland that the charcoal is being made from is not sustainable and the labourers work for next to nothing. The only people who benefit from importing charcoal are the shipping companies. It is because of this that Britain ought to produce its own charcoal so that the workers in the third world countries are encouraged to trade in different materials that don't inevitably lead to the destruction of their natural habitat.

Jim Bettle from Blandford took up the initiative by endeavouring to set up his own charcoal business. Always being interested in working with the great outdoors, he taught himself how to produce charcoal by attending various courses on the subject. By the end of 1996, Jim set up The Dorset Charcoal Company using just a converted oil drum. Charcoal companies like Jim's actually help save wildlife in Britain by clearing out derelict woods and encouraging new growth which animals can feed from. The charcoal burners are moved to a different wood in a certain locality, making use of the gnarled, thick tree trunks which have no other economic use.


Says Jim, 'Isn't it crazy that in this world of Earth summits and trying to protect the environment that a bulk product like charcoal is being shipped hundreds of miles when we have the resources right on our doorstep? When you think of the destruction of the rainforests and the amount of oil needed to ship a tanker load of charcoal half way around the world, it just doesn't make sense".

The charcoal making process is physically demanding and Jim has to use both strength and skill to make sure that his charcoal is of the highest quality. First of all, the wood must be cut to size and stacked in the charcoal burner. The charcoal burner, or kiln, is then fired and the lid is placed on top and sealed to stop any air entering. The rate at which the wood burns is controlled by the restriction of the air supply and the movement of the kiln's chimneys. Once the smoke coming out of the chimneys has turned blue, all air intakes are sealed, thereby starving the charcoal of oxygen. The kiln is extremely hot and has to be left 24 hours to cool down. After this time, the lid is removed and the charcoal is packed into bags ready to be sold.

Not only is Jim's charcoal better for the environment but the end product is also of a much higher standard than that of imported charcoal. British charcoal is made from wood which is generally less dense and because of this, it is far easier to light, thus eliminating the need for lighter fuel and firelighters.

There are presently 300 to 400 charcoal burners in Britain but Jim would like to see this number rise over the years. As he says, "The British charcoal business is on the increase as consumers are becoming more aware of where their goods come from. However, as we only account for 4% of the market, we've still got a long way to go. I hope to raise awareness of the implications of buying imported charcoal and to encourage other charcoal companies to be set up around Britain".




How to build a small charcoal kiln

These small kilns may not process much wood in one go but are quick and easy to build, transport and use. They can be used to make both artists and BBQ charcoal.

You will need

  • An old oil drum or metal dustbin.
  • Three or four bricks
  • Something to use as a lid.

How to build it

1. If you are using a drum, one end needs to be removed. If the top has not been removed, cut the top out using a chisel or an angle grinder.
2. Cut some holes in the base of the drum or bin. About a dozen openings of an inch or two should be fine.
3. Place the drum or bin, with its open end up, on bricks to enable air to flow through the holes you have cut in the base.
4. You will need a lid - perhaps a metal dustbin lid or something similar.

How you use it

1. Start a fire in a bottom of the kiln using paper, cardboard and larger kindling.
2. Once you have a strong fire, load your branch wood randomly into the kiln leaving air gaps.
3. When the fire is burning really well, restrict the air intake by banking earth around the base but leave a small (4 inch) gap. Place the lid partially on so that smoke can still excape.
4. Thick white steamy smoke is created during the charring process. Bang or shake the kiln to settle the contents and create more smoke when the process seems to have slowed.
5. When the smoke changes to thin blue smoke the water has been driven off and the charcoal is burning. Close off all the air intakes at the base with more earth and close the lid fully. Make it as air tight as possible.
6. The burn will continue for three to four hours and should then be left to cool for another 24 hours before the kiln is tipped over and emptied of the charcoal you have produced.

A brief history of charcoal

Charcoal burning is probably the oldest chemical process known to man. Charcoal burning has been practiced since 4,000 years BC, primarily for use in smelting metal. Without it the Bronze Age and Iron Age simply would not have happened.

Ancient Egyptians used pyroligneous acid to embalm Egyptian Mummies. Romans used vast quantities of charcoal to make weapons. Huge amounts of furnace slag were used in building Roman roads. In Mediaeval times, charcoal burners were some times imprisoned for "Burning the King's Vert". That is, burning wood in the Royal Hunting Forests without permission.

In Tudor times, charcoal was in such demand that it laid waste to many English Forests. With the imminent threat of the Spanish Armada, timber was urgently needed for naval ships. Regulations were made prohibiting the manufacture of charcoal from mature wood, resulting in an expansion of coppicing as a sustainable alternative. In the Seventeenth Century, fines from beech charcoal were mixed with herbs and tallow (animal fat) to make soap. In the Eighteenth Century, the charcoal industry went into serious decline after Abraham Darby I, succeeded in smelting iron with coke (burnt coal). By the late Victorian period portable metal kilns had replaced earth kilns. These in turn, were replaced by giant retorts, especially adapted to extract charcoal by-products. The by-products had effectively become more valuable than the charcoal itself.

In the Second World War, scientists discovered "activated" charcoal for gas masks could be made from nuts and fruit stones. Children were asked to collect vast quantities of conkers for the war effort, many were left to rot on railway stations. By the 1950s, the British Charcoal Industry was said to be over. Oil derivatives had largely replaced those extracted from charcoal.

Interest in traditional burning methods rekindled with the "Back to the land" movement of the early 1970s. By the late 1980s the British Charcoal Industry was back on its feet, this time to produce fuel for barbecues. Much interest was now being generated from conservationists who realized that charcoal burning could play a valuable role in restoring neglected woodlands for wildlife.



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This site was last updated 06-Jan-2007