Burning Britain’s Forests
By Paul Homewood
David Rose highlights how government incentives to burn wood are making big holes in our forests.
One gloomy day in March 2012, Pip Pountney, recently retired from Warwick University, went for a walk in Ryton Wood near Coventry with Ann Wilson, a former textile chemist.
Ryton’s 216 acres are described by its owners, the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, as ‘one of the largest semi-natural ancient woodlands in Warwickshire’. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, it has long been famous for its bluebells, which flourished every spring beneath a canopy of English oaks.
But what ex-teacher Pountney and Wilson saw looked to them like utter desolation. They came across a stand where about 50 mature oaks, some 300 years old, had been felled the previous winter. Their trunks lay in ragged piles, some sawn into roundels.
Around two-and-a-half years ago, in December 2012, Bickerton Hill in Cheshire was covered in trees
The oaks’ fate, the Trust has confirmed, was to be burnt: as ‘sustainable’ heating fuel in log-burning stoves – a market which is expanding rapidly. According to trade group HETUS, almost 200,000 such stoves are installed every year – a five-fold increase since 2007.
Logs, however, feed only a part of Britain’s expanding appetite for ‘green’ wood-sourced energy. Adding to demand is the even faster-growing market for heating and hot-water systems fuelled by wood chips and pellets – which is heavily subsidised by taxpayers.
The Forestry Commission and the biomass industry’s lobby group, the Woodland Heat Association, insist this policy is justified on environmental grounds. They say the new ‘biomass’ energy market can improve the quality of forests, by creating new financial incentives to ‘manage’ woods that have been neglected and allowed to run wild.
However, other experts fear that in some forests, the consequences will be disastrous. Oxford University ecologist Clive Hambler said: ‘Subsidising biomass is one of the most counter-productive policies ever invented, and about the most bizarre thing you could possibly do to counter climate change.’
Now many of the trees in the area, which is owned and managed by The National Trust, have been cut down
Overall, more wood is now being burnt from British woods than at any time since the industrial revolution
In his view, felling British hard wood forests in order to burn them is harming biodiversity, destroying habitats, and may well increase emissions. He said: ‘Big, hardwood trees are enormous carbon sinks, and take hundreds of years to be replaced.’
Dr Mark Fisher, research fellow at the Wildland Research Institute at Leeds University, agreed, saying: ‘Forests are being butchered in the service of an ideology. This new industry incentivises devastation, and no one is looking at the long-term consequences for our woods.’
Overall, more wood is now being burnt from British woods than at any time since the industrial revolution
Last week, this newspaper revealed how the burning of millions of tons of wood pellets at the heavily subsidised Drax power plant in Yorkshire is destroying forests in America. Today the focus is closer to home – the impact on domestic woodlands of the vogue for burning wood. Under EU rules, wood fuel qualifies as ‘zero carbon’, because felled trees will supposedly grow back and re-absorb the CO2 emitted by burning them. Burning wood to generate electricity or heat counts towards emissions targets, so that chips, pellets and sometimes logs qualify for a ‘green’ subsidy.
Known as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), this has rewarded the owners of wood burning boilers with a sum close to £200 million since it started in April 2012. And such installations, despite the cheapest system for an average farmhouse costing about £6,000, are growing exponentially: the 1,667 domestic units registered in the first quarter of 2015 represented a 96 per cent increase on the previous year.
Overall, more wood is now being burnt from British woods than at any time since the industrial revolution. The Government’s target is that the annual fuel harvest should reach two million tons by 2020 – about 18 per cent of the current total cut from British forests.
Trunks from dozens of trees lay in ragged piles with some sawn into roundels at Bickerton Hill in October last year
At present trends, it will easily be surpassed, because the RHI is astonishingly lucrative. Piping Hot, a wood-heat company in Daventry, 15 miles from Ryton, says on its website that it ‘will not only give you free heating, but also generate staggering paybacks, often paying for a biomass installation within 3 years, and then years of free heating. The fact that RHI is linked to inflation means that you are virtually protected against increases in fuel prices.’
Under the RHI, householders, businesses or public bodies with a biomass boiler make a profit every time they use it. The rates are different for domestic and commercial premises, and they vary with the size of boiler. But they work out as about 8p per kilowatt hour of heat produced for homes, and 6p for most businesses. But the cost of chips is much lower – between 2.7p and 3.5p per kilowatt hour, depending on the size of a delivery. The subsidy is index linked, tax-free and guaranteed for 20 years in the case of businesses and seven for homes.
However, unlike the subsidies for other ‘renewable’ energy, the RHI is met not by levies on consumers’ energy bills, but general taxation. A part of every VAT or income tax receipt goes towards it – cash which could have been spent on the NHS or schools.
The argument over whether the RHI is justified is focused especially on hardwood forests such as Ryton. According to the Forestry Commission, 75 per cent of British hardwood cut in 2013 – some 400,000 tons – went to fuel.
But conservationists have been sharply divided for years as to how such woods should be managed.
One view, held by the Warwickshire Trust and others, is that in woods which have been left ‘unmanaged’, trees such as oaks should be reduced in density, to allow more light to penetrate the canopy. This, the Trust says, will help butterflies and certain flowers flourish.
The Trust says it is also trying to restore traditional ‘coppicing’ – cutting trees such as hazel close to the ground, so they rapidly sprout multiple stems. In past centuries, coppicing supported rural crafts, such as fencing.
The devastating impact of the ‘re-heathing’ scheme in Cheshire. This, above, is how Cuckoo Rock Valley looked from Bickerton Hill before the National Trust cut down a birch wood in August 2008 for logs and biomass
This is the same location but pictured last month – the view now is of scrubland and bare earth
Clive Hambler said that sometimes, this was ‘defensible’. But often, he added, it ignored the many species that flourish in shady broadleaf woodland, including bats, woodpeckers, many kinds of moth, stag beetles and several rare mosses. Moreover, restoring coppiced woods which had been left to grow for decades was extremely difficult. Dr Fisher said: ‘You can’t just recreate conditions that existed 40 years ago or more. The effect of bringing back coppicing to woods like these can be to wipe out the entire ecosystem which is actually there. When you cut down the trees, you remove the homes of animals, birds and plants.’
Woods where there has been recent felling never look pretty, and in Ryton last month, it wasn’t hard to tell felled and untouched areas apart. Where no trees had been cut, there was still a lush canopy, and carpets of flowers. Elsewhere were dozens of newly felled oaks, their stumps still coated with sawdust. Just a few isolated examples had been allowed to remain – in forestry parlance, ‘standards’. Many of these trees, no longer protected from the elements by the oaks that had surrounded them, seemed to be dying.
Moreover, in areas felled in previous years, the open forest floor had vanished. Instead, the ground was choked by rampant brambles and impenetrable hazel, with few mature broadleaf trees to be seen
Moreover, in areas felled in previous years, the open forest floor had vanished. Instead, the ground was choked by rampant brambles and impenetrable hazel, with few mature broadleaf trees to be seen.
At nearby Wappenbury Wood, also owned by the Trust, the scene looked still worse. There too, the Trust is trying to restore coppicing and thin out mature hardwoods. In one spot, a huge grove of aspens had just been felled, leaving almost no vegetation at all. In its place was just several acres of black mud.
At least in Warwickshire the intention is to preserve, not destroy, the woodland. But at Bickerton Hill, on Cheshire’s Welsh border, the owner – the National Trust – is trying to wipe out huge swathes of a much loved birch wood altogether. Here, the plan is to ‘re-heath’ – restore the heathery, open slopes that existed before the birch trees began to grow 80 years ago.
A local forest contractor said that last winter he helped remove 3,000 tons of birch that had been felled – all sold for logs and biomass. Yet according to Hambler, the scheme is doomed. It takes centuries to create the biological conditions that had created a heath, he said – not just a few years. Indeed, in areas felled in 2008, it could be seen that when resilient birch seedlings had started to sprout the Trust had them doused in powerful herbicide, wiping out all the vegetation – birch and heather alike. A Trust spokesman acknowledged the concerns of locals but insisted that eventually, the re-heathing would be successful.
Walkers make their way between tree stumps and open ground along what used to be a forest path at Bickerton Hill
Either way, although the NT also received a grant, it is clear that demand for biomass has made this scheme more economically viable.
The same is true for the felling and coppicing at Wappenbury. Wildlife Trust woodland officer Eddie Asbery said that there a deal was done with a contractor: in return for removing the trees for free, he sold the wood for biomass.
Hambler said: ‘British forest wildlife has been on a downward spiral for thousands of years. A massive new market for wood should be ringing very loud alarm bells. We should not be complacent just because removing wood is a defensible management in some sites.’
Be that as it may, the results dismay Pip Pountney – who along with Ann Wilson, has formed a campaign group to preserve Warwickshire’s forests, and taken an ecology diploma at Warwick University.
‘This is where I played as a child,’ she said in Ryton Wood. ‘They call it an ancient woodland. The way things are going, it’s going to end up as an oak forest with no oaks.’
While there may be a case for proper coppicing, as the article points out, there seems to be a danger that govt subsidies will distort the market and lead to long term damage to woodlands.
As for CO2 emissions, it could decades or even longer for the carbon to be resequestered.
The RHI scheme pays up to 12.2p/kwh for domestic users, calculated to cover the cost of renewable heat generation over 20 years:
The online calculator offered by DECC suggests total payments could be up to £10000 for a typical property. The payments are fixed (but inflation linked) and are calculated against a theoretical energy usage, so the bigger the boiler, the bigger the subsidy.
As with solar panels, it is richer people with larger properties who will end up being subsidised by those less fortunate.