by Dan Butler, 25th March 2021
We're all craving space after a year of Covid restrictions, but moving is impossible for many of us. So maybe buying your own woodland could be the answer
Pictures: © The Woodland Trust (woodlandtrust.org.uk), © istockphoto.com
It’s incredible how many people dream of owning a wood. It seems to have some sort of primeval appeal to most of us. Perhaps it’s because millions of years ago our ancestors lived in the trees, but the sights and smells of a spring bluebell wood or the rich golds, oranges and flame reds of its canopy on a frosty autumn morning stir the soul.
As a result, there’s a thriving market in woodland. Even though a cursory glance at the economics show it’s unlikely to give any significant return, town and country-dwellers alike yearn to buy their own little patch of heaven.
Woodland varies widely in price, depending on size, location, access, maturity and tree types. As an example, specialist website woods4sale.co.uk curently have a 1.76-acre mixed woodland for sale at £16,000 right on the Border near Knighton. Another good resource to find your perfect wood is UKLandandFarms.co.uk.
Alternatively, patient arborealists can save a great deal of money by taking the long view and creating woodland from scratch. This will obviously take time, although perhaps less than most people think. Compared with woods, fields are relatively cheap, perhaps half the price. A field planted with 30cm ‘whip’ saplings will be covered in 7-10-metre trees 20 years later. The choice of species is obviously up to the individual but most people usually work around a mix of native species of broadleafs. There are also plenty of grants available for planting, protection and fencing. These won’t cover the full cost, but they can offset some of the outlay.
Contrary to popular belief, trees don’t look after themselves – they require a lot of maintenance. Broadleafs need regular coppicing, thinning and clearing to produce quality timber and to keep the eco-system healthy. Saplings need protection from deer and squirrels, rights of way must be signposted and stiles repaired.
Conifers need less work (mainly because they're less attractive to wildlife) but must be thinned regularly to keep the trees healthy. This maximises the quality of the final timber but is also important in protecting the trees from ‘wind blow’ (where a gale knocks over swathes of trees in a domino effect). Again, there are grants available to cover at least part of this. Remember, however, that while much of the work can be done by an enthusiastic amateur with a chainsaw, some jobs will require professional contractors with specialist equipment.
Above: Broadleaved woodland is a haven for wildlife
Many people buy a wood with the dream of living there in a hut, caravan or yurt. This is almost always impossible. You need planning permission to live for more than 28 days in one place in a year (and, no, you can’t get around this simply by moving a few yards every month). To have the slightest hope of getting planning consent, you need to demonstrate a solid necessity to live on-site. The need to coppice the wood regularly would almost certainly not be sufficient. Some people have got planning permission by setting up as full-time charcoal burners, arguing they have to be on hand to supervise the kilns. Even here, the authorities would expect to see a substantial wood to be convinced it could generate enough timber for a serious business. If you want to own a wood and need to live somewhere, the simplest solution is to buy a smallholding or property that comes with its own woodland.
Other people dream they can make money out of their scrap of wooded paradise. Again, this is extremely difficult but not utterly impossible. Timber is worth much less than most people think. Prime broadleafs are worth more but Britain produces very little.
Harvesting can be expensive – particularly in a small wood with poor access – and one needs a felling licence to cut down more than three or four mature trees. This will contain a condition that stipulates that the trees must be replaced with almost a thousand individually protected saplings per acre. This means harvesting a wood can actually cost money.
This is not to say woods can’t generate income, but to make money - particularly from small broadleaf woods - then ‘value-added’ and imagination are the keys to success. Routine coppicing produces small-diameter logs. In theory, these are worth almost nothing as timber, but with clever marketing they can be made into rustic furniture, tool handles or wildlife shelters for sale in local garden centres. As our ancestors knew only too well, small-grade faggots also make great charcoal and putting a ‘local hardwood’ label on it can add to a price tag.
The growth of environmental awareness and the spiralling cost of conventional fuels mean there is a growing market for rewood. On the downside, however, cutting a tree up into relatively small chunks and transporting these to customers is costly in time and fuel.
Because there’s no shortage of fallen branches and waste timber across most rural areas, prices are low. Thus, transport costs mean customers have to be within a few miles for rewood sales to be economic.
Craft courses and foraging walks are among the business activities you could offer in your woodland, and could prove far more lucrative than selling timber
The best returns probably come from basing activities in the wood, such as offering forest bathing, the increasingly popular mental-health practice from Japan, where people meditate amongst the trees. It may be difficult to get planning permission for a permanent building, but sheds, shelters and tents are less of an issue (provided they’re not lived in for any length of time). This allows the flora and fauna to provide the perfect backdrop for craft courses, while the foliage’s muffling effect means noisier pursuits such as paintballing and even quad-biking are unlikely to attract complaints from neighbours or council officials.
Yet, most people are content just to own their own slice of the countryside, regardless of whether they make any money form it. The breathtaking beauty of a haze of bluebells, the sight of badger cubs playing at a sett or the amazing shapes and colours of autumn fungi are wonders at any time, but they’ll always look 10 times better to the owner.
If you're serious about owning a wood, think about joining the Woodland Trust, the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity; www.woodlandtrust.org.uk