The community at Brithdir Mawr manage around 85 acres of land, including approximately 20 acres of mature woodland and 20 acres of coppice (4700 trees from collected seed!) planted by community members since the land was bought in 1994. Most of the mature woodland is a result of encroachment since the Second World War, mainly of birch, ash, alder and willow, but there are some much older specimens, especially large oaks along the old hedgebanks. In 2005 the housing co-op bought 6.6 acres of broadleaf woodland, adjacent to Brithdir Mawr, planted in the 90’s by a local tree enthusiast with the help of a Forestry Commission grant – this is known as Doug’s Wood.
The woodland here has always supplied most of the community’s firewood. In the early years fallen dead wood was mostly used; we have discontinued this practice, as it is better to leave dead wood for insects and fungi. Our needs can be met by thinning the older trees as required and increasingly making use of the coppice. We have two large woodsheds: this ensures that we have a good supply of well-seasoned wood – necessary as wood is our only source of fuel for heating and cooking. We also produce wood for crafts – various courses have been organized here, for example making oak gates and bentwood hazel chairs.
In the early days of the community almost all of the felling and processing was done with hand tools: axes, double-handed crosscut saws, bow saws and billhooks. This led to many enjoyable work parties in the woods, with only the birds to listen to and no annoying chainsaws buzzing. We would cut up the wood into manageable lengths, split it and stack it to season, collecting it a year later, often by horse and cart as well as tractor and trailer. In the long term, this proved unrealistic as we need a lot of firewood and our time is too limited, so now we have embraced chainsaws as an effective use for limited petrol supplies. However, we still do much of our coppicing with hand tools, the old way.
In the course of all this, we have come up against some of the challenges involved in planting and caring for new woodland. Grey squirrels are a major pest, stripping bark off young trees and killing them. Oaks are especially vulnerable. There is little we can do about them as there are a lot of squirrels around us! One type of tree they don’t attack is ash, but ash dieback disease, which is predicted to kill 95% of all ash trees, has unfortunately reached us. In the face of all this, we are now thinking the previously unthinkable and considering planting non-native species in order to broaden our ability to respond to these threats and the threats of climate change.