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Charcoal Making - Fresh air, hard work, and setting fire to things!

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Posted: Thursday 3rd January 2013 by bbowtblog

Participants in the charcoal making course, September 2012 by Andy KearseyParticipants in the charcoal making course, September 2012 by Andy Kearsey

As a hobby, charcoal making isn’t a bad one to have, writes Andy Kearsey. It’s outside in the fresh air, requires physical activity and I get to set things on fire!

Why charcoal?

Loading the kilnI’ve been involved with making charcoal since 2011 when I volunteered with the National Trust at Cliveden, who were working towards making charcoal from wood left over from felling operations on the estate. 

I spent a couple of days every week for most of the summer working with the ranger team to collect and cut up wood, make charcoal in their kiln and then grade the final product and bag it for sale. 

When I joined BBOWT, I joined the Warburg Charcoal Group, who have a kiln and make charcoal at the reserve.  In September last year I ran a training course as part of the Developing Your Skills programme, which gives volunteers a chance to learn new practical skills. 

Why Charcoal Making?

The kiln fully loadedBut before I talk more about that, I wanted to explain why I am so interested in making charcoal. 

I have an interest in woodland management techniques and how active management of a wood by coppicing can enhance biodiversity through creating a patchwork of differently aged trees and areas which receive more sunlight than others.  Traditional rural crafts and skills, such as hedgelaying and hurdle-making would have used coppiced material from trees like hazel and willow and the demand for these products meant many of the UK’s woodlands were actively worked right up until the middle of the 20th century.  The decline of management since then has contributed to the loss of biodiversity, for example woodland specialist butterflies like the silver washed fritillary have declined by 74% in the last 25 years. 
Smokin! by Andy Kearsey
However, it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom!  BBOWT’s work in woodland in the three counties has restored areas of coppice back into rotation, creating patches of sunlight in the woods. 

So how does charcoal fit into all of this?  Well, it is another traditional woodland skill and is a great way of using wood that would otherwise be unused and has positive environmental benefits!  The majority of charcoal used in BBQs in the UK is imported and also comes from areas of threatened rainforest, such as Indonesia and Brazil.  Briquettes also contain chemicals derived from oil, in order to hold their shape and make them easier to light.  The charcoal we produce comes from wood sourced locally (usually it is all from Warburg) and the wood is from a sustainable source, as it all comes from coppiced hazel, ash and silver birch.  This decreases the miles travelled and also the carbon footprint of the charcoal.

The Charcoal Making Course

Sorting the charcoal by Andy KearseyThe course we ran was at Warburg and featured 8 participants who were a mixture of BBOWT staff, conservation trainees and volunteers.  We aimed to educate through hands-on work emptying our kiln of charcoal and then filling and lighting it.  The process of emptying caused a lot of dirty faces!  The trainees also lit and loaded their own kilns made from oil drums. 

Waiting for the kiln to start burning all the way through takes some time, so I gave a short talk about the history of charcoal making in the UK and the processes involved in turning wood into charcoal.  My fellow trainers Alistair Philips and Ian Stevenson talked very informatively about identifying tree species when the tree has been felled and cut into logs, using cues like the ring patterns and the bark appearance. 

The End Result!

All the participants went home with a bag of locally produced charcoal, an understanding of how to make charcoal and why locally produced charcoal is better for the environment!  


Andy KearseyWritten by Andy Kearsey

Currently a Developing Green Talent Trainee with BBOWT based at Woolley Firs in Maidenhead.  He works with the reserves, education and community teams in Berkshire, helping to deliver BBOWT's objectives of helping nature and getting people involved.  Recently he has been running the Friends of Woolley Firs group, working with our livestock and helping with Nature Tots at SCEEC!


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