Good Advice from Brian

Advice on Firewood

On buying firewood:

We burn a lot of firewood ourselves and like to extol its virtues where we can.

Wood is amazing stuff. Endlessly renewable, carbon neutral, versatile, tactile, strong, durable and much, much more. If it didn’t exist some multinational corporation would be trying to invent it and then patent its gene sequences! As it is, it is all around us but much unappreciated. So make the most of it.

There are two things to bear in mind when burning firewood. Firstly, it is well worth getting yourself a wood-burning stove and secondly, season your wood properly.

Wood burning stoves are far more efficient than open fires, attractive though the latter may be. Even the simplest stove is much more efficient than an open fire, simply because you can control the draught going up the chimney. If you want to see dancing flames – and who doesn’t – you can always open the stove doors when you’re sitting in front of it and close them when you’re not. Or, better still, go a bit more up market to one of the clean-burn stoves and watch them burn through clean glass doors right through the winter.

However you elect to burn it though, make sure that you burn the right wood. By this I simply mean burn dry, seasoned wood. Forget all those old bits of folklore about this wood burning, that wood smouldering and some other wood blazing. All wood burns more than adequately if you’ve seasoned it properly, although certainly different woods do have different burning characteristics.

So how do you get seasoned wood? Well, what you really need is a large shed in which you can store enough wood for two years worth of burning. Because that is how long it takes to really season large lumps of wood (maybe even three years for very large oak or beech logs!). If you haven’t got that much space, then here are my three top tips to help you on your way to reasonably well seasoned wood.

  • Firstly, fill your woodshed up at the end of the winter you’ve just come through, not at the beginning of the one to come. Wood dries rapidly during the summer months, very slowly during the winter.
  • Secondly, split all but the thinnest logs. Wood dries out much faster through a split surface than it does through its bark. And keep them as small as you can. Small logs dry much faster than large ones, though you do have to load the stove more often.
  • Thirdly, go for quick drying species (Sycamore, Birch, Poplar, Alder etc). Don’t despise softwood (conifers like Scots Pine or Larch). They will dry quickly and give you as much heat weight-for-weight as hardwoods (like Ash or Beech).

Lastly, a couple of cautionary notes.

Don’t trust those adverts that say ‘Load of seasoned logs’. I can almost guarantee that they won’t be properly seasoned, though there are occasional, honourable exceptions. But build up a good relationship with your local firewood man (pay him cash on delivery; order your logs up well in advance; don’t expect him to stack everything by hand in that pokey little shed at the bottom of your garden), pay attention to the tips above, and you’ll find that it pays dividends in the long term.

Sweep your chimney out at least annually, twice if you are burning unseasoned wood or coniferous wood. Chimney fires are not nice, particularly if you have thatch!

Advice on Wattle Hurdles

On buying hurdles:

There are a number of points to look out for if you are buying hurdles.

Firstly, be aware that there are British made and imported (from eastern Europe) hurdles on the market. Generally the imported ones will be cheaper but less well made. You need to be especially wary of hurdles bought from garden centres, agricultural merchants and the like as they may already be months old, have been thrown on and off lorries and been stacked outdoors for some length of time. Try and ensure that you buy from a local craftsman who will make your order up for you, thus ensuring that they are as new as possible and have a minimum of travel miles associated with them. But you do need to plan ahead rather than expect to buy off the shelf! There are also a number of practical features that you can look out for and which I’ve listed below in an approximate order of importance.

Number of sails. The sails (or zales) are the upright part of the hurdle. Most (6′) hurdles will have 9, some 8 and a few 10. Reject automatically any with 7 or less – someone will be trying to cut corners. I sometimes drop down to eight when I am using very large weaving rods (otherwise it can be just too tight a fit), but usually I use 9.

Twists (or nails). Reject out of hand any hurdles that have been nailed together. A good hurdle is made with no fastenings at all, the long rods being twisted around the end sails and woven back in. The twists are essential for holding the hurdle together, and the fewer there are the more poorly it has been made. Expect to find that about a half of the rods have been twisted. Check also how much fibre has broken-out of the twists. Good hurdles will have clean twists, poor ones very ragged twists.

Bellies. Good hurdles should be flat or have a gentle curve over their length. More obvious swelling and bellies can look unsightly but are not necessarily weakening. However, very exaggerated bellies can cause rods to crack and and thus have a shortened life-span.

Sawn or cleft? Some imported hurdles are made by sawing the rods down their length on a band saw. Check for saw-teeth marks on the flat face of the rods. Sawn rods indicate that the maker was unskilled, as it is probably quicker to cleave a rod down its length and certainly stronger and more durable.

Time of year. Hazel is best cut in the winter when growth has ceased. Summer cut rods tend to be less durable (the wood is full of sugary sap that fungi like to feed on) and will shed their bark in long, unsightly tatters. If you can, check when the rods were cut.

On longevity:

The life span of hurdles can vary greatly according to where you are in the country, the exposure of the site and the manner in which they have been erected. As a very rough guide, expect five or six years in the wet and windy west country rising to ten or more in drier, eastern parts. You can prolong their life by the manner in which you erect them and by treating them with preservative (see below).

On looking after hurdles:

To get the best from your hurdles it is important that you erect them properly. Small hurdles on sheltered sites are fine just being wired to two end posts. As the hurdles get taller and the site more exposed, you should look to have either a third, central, post or a rail between the two end posts to support the middle of the hurdle.

Another good trick is to grow climbers like clematis or honeysuckle through and over them. This both helps keep rain off and ties the hurdle together when it is beginning to fall apart.

Whether or not to apply preservatives is something of a vexed question; some would say that hurdles are a natural product from a sustainable resource and that applying chemicals is out of keeping with their ethos. Replace them when they fall apart and help carry on the ancient tradition of coppice crafts. Others maintain that they are not cheap and that anything that can be done to prolong their life should be done. Either way, hazel will take up preservative readily, and by painting or spraying them you can add several years to their life.