Within the farmed landscape, woodland offers one of the few undisturbed habitats and is a haven for many species not found elsewhere on the farm.
Like all semi-natural habitats, it needs to be managed if it is to flourish and provide a suitable environment for a wide range of wildlife and game species. Unfortunately, this management comes at a cost that can only be covered where the timber from thinnings can be sold. Currently there are few markets for this material, which is relatively costly to extract relying on hand felling and cording and even where small quantities can be sold it is unlikely to cover the extraction costs..
To over-come this problem we began to look at alternative uses for our thinnings. The obvious way is try to increase the value of the wood and we found a way to do this, by using wood instead of oil to heat the the Allerton Project's offices and headquarters. This required the installation of new boiler and plant, but this was going to be necessary in the very near future since the existing boiler was estimated to be up to 40 years old!
After a trip to South West England to look at a number of different wood-burning installations we opted for an installation by a local firm, Rural Energy Ltd, and a Danish manufactured system from Faust boilers, an automated fed burner using wood chipped directly into a hopper using the power take off shaft on the back of one of our farm tractors. The chips are then fed into the boiler using an electrically powered screw auger. The boiler lights itself according to the heat demand from the offices, and de-ashes itself through another auger in the base of the boiler. The system has been operational for 10 years now and worked very successfully. This gave us confidence to install a second system in our ecologically built visitor and training centre. We opted for Rural Energy again but this time an Austrian built system from Hertz. The boiler works on the same principles, burning the same grade of wood chip fuel, but has 1,000 litre buffer tank which stores hot water at around 80 degrees. This means if heat is required quickly, say to warm a room for an imminent meeting, then the reserve can be drawn upon and the boiler can restore the heat through the day.
We now hire in a contractor to chip the woodland thinings. The thinning work is done through the winter months and the timber and brash stacked to dry. In July the chipper moves around the farm chipping into our grain trailers and the chip is tipped into the empty grain store. We then use the solar panels to produce the electricity to drive the fans to blow air through the chip to get the moisture levels down to the optimum level for burning. The chip is taken from the grain store and stacked in the redundant stock sheds and the grain handling bucket used to top the boiler hoppers up through the winter time. It’s an excellent example of using existing equipment for a diversification operation. The heating system alone saved us over £3,000 worth of oil heating in the first year of operation of the visitor centre and we incorporate aspects of woodland management and timber use into our training and visitor programmes.