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Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

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The Winter Season is when we do most of the conservation work on the Lynchmere Commons. The volunteer gang has worked hard this season and despite the near continual rain and snow we’ve been very busy. Now the nesting season is suddenly in full swing (as it’s not snowing this week) we can stand back and admire all of the cutting, felling, burning, thinning, scraping, digging,filming, laying, fencing and mending we’ve been doing but before we do there is just time to fit in a little mowing.

We planted a community orchard a couple of years ago in a sheltered corner of one of the Ridgecap fields that adjoin the commons. These fields are traditional hay meadows and pastures, once the mainstay of every small farm but now very rare and endangered. This is mainly because without being ploughed up and reseeded with modern varieties of grass, and with no fertilisers and pesticides being applied the yield (in terms of grass) is far too low to pay for the monster machinery that now populates our farms and countryside. Likewise we’ve planted up the orchard with traditional apple varieties from Sussex and surrounding counties, all on large and traditional half-standard sized rootstocks  rather than the higher yielding and smaller bush varieties.

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The orchard is not grazed so we need to cut the grass by hand. Having been a rough corner of the meadow it’s a serious challenge and the first aim is to reduce the tussocks and remove the old thatch of dead plants ready for the new season.

With a little sunshine a tiny bit of coaching in technique with a scythe and a lot of enthusiasm it didn’t take long to get through the orchard – keeping the rakers busy. Andy is using one of my oversized hay rakes – it has a 32inch head,nearly 3 foot, and a 6ft handle which makes it harder to use but once you get used to it you cover a lot of ground. Both Andy and the rake seem to have survived the experience.

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With a good turnout (a promise of free food and drink is always a good thing) we had upto 9 scythes out mowing, enough for a team, with several Austrian Scythes a couple of English Scythes and Nick joined us with his original ‘Turk Scythe’. These were first imported from Europe around the 1970’s when manufacture of English scythes stopped. Very light in comparison to the English Scythe. This one has a classic Austrian style blade that we often use today but the handle or snathe is very interesting with it’s straight shaft and fixed handgrips. Very light but only suited to one size of user.

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I’m not sure that the scything and raking was the main attraction here, I rather think it was mainly just to work up an appetite for lunch! It was the last task of our winter work programme and so a bit of an end of term party as well as the nature of the work now changes through the summer season.

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A good job done. A little bit of exercise, good company and a lunch in the orchard, a nice way to get some fresh air. Of course the job could have been done with a strimmer – but it’s really not so much fun to stand and watch a strimmer, you can’t rake the grass off afterwards and with 9 mowers on the task  it was a really quick (if not completely proficient) job.

I find it thought provoking to reflect upon which is really the most efficient way of working, one mower with a petrol strimmer for a dayor two, and Allen Scythe for a few hours or several mowers with scythes and a few rakers and forkers for a couple of hours? This blog isn’t really the best place for discussing this so I’m in the process of opening up a new site ‘The Scythe Grinders Arms‘ to host a wider discussion of environmental issues and my pet rants.

If you live in the Haslemere area and like the idea of working on the Lynchmere Commons and the meadows now and then why not join in with the Volunteer working tasks – you can get more information via the Lynchmerecommons blogsite.

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It’s the time of year when I start making charcoal again on a small scale. As it’s only a sideline for me I use old 40gallon oil drums which means my investment is minimal and I don’t need a lot of wood to feed a kiln, instead I take advantage of the wood that comes my way. It’s an ideal way to make small amounts of charcoal or to start learning about charcoal making.

The big advantage for me of using oil drums (other than not costing me anything) is that it only takes a couple of hours from lighting the drum full of wood to being able to shut it down and let it cool so I can fit in a burn of 2 or 3 drums in the afternoon or evening and come back the next morning to collect the charcoal.

When the drum is first lit it produces a lot of white and brown smoke, mainly steam boiling off from the wood and mixed with the tars, resins and other volatile chemicals. The intent of the burn is to have enough air flowing through the bin to maintain a high temperature but not so much that too much of the wood is burnt too quickly which reduces the yield – though if you only want a bag of charcoal for your own bbq it doesn’t matter so much.

As the burn continues you will see the white smoke lessen and eventually cease as all of the water is driven off.  Be careful if you lift the lid and peer inside at this point – you can lose your eyebrows. The reduced level of oxygen in the bin means that volatile chemicals released will not mix with enough oxygen to burn until they leave the bin – though if you are used to it you can arrange quite an impressive display with a ring of fire around the rim of the bin.

Once the volatile chemicals have finished being released the bin is ready to be shut down and the remaining wood will finish cooking in the heat of the bin. Shutting down involves sealing the bin with soil so that no air can enter or exit the bin – otherwise you will return to find no more than a pile or wood ash when you open the bin. It takes a few hours for the charcoal to cool sufficiently so that when you open the bin you don’t start an instant barbecue.

I should now show the finished charcoal, but somehow I seem to have taken a gratuitous photo of a Landrover the next morning. Strange that!

Making charcoal in an oil drum is not really economically viable in comparison with the big kilns, it’s a lot of work for a bag or two of charcoal but if you are generating a small amount of waste wood from a small amount of woodland then it might be a way to  start making enough for your own needs and spend an enjoyable evening, whether it for the bbq or to use on your vegetable patch or to start making your own carbon sink.

Much of this wood would have been burned on site, chipped or left to rot away (not that leaving some wood to rot away is a bad thing and it is as always a balance) so making charcoal with it doesn’t affect the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. If more trees are regrown in their place then it’s effectively zero carbon. As always with carbon issues it’s not quite that simple of course and the conversion of the wood does release other chemicals aside from carbon dioxide. The next stage is to convert my drums into ‘ovens’ or retorts as they are often known and burn the volatile chemicals to cook the wood, improving the yield and reducing the amount of woodfuel I have to prepare.

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After plenty of prevarication I got around to putting lids on the small birch pots I’d been commissioned to make. To my surprise I quite enjoyed making the pots and I can see that I might do some more soon but I’ve never put a lid on before. I spent plenty of time failing to make progress before plunging in and turning them the most obvious way just like the pots, but it went well thanks to plenty of good hints from very talented friends Richard Law (aka Flyingshavings) and Steve Tomlin.

I was quite concerned about getting a good fit with the rebate onto the rim of the pot but in the event a pair of calipers is all thats necessary and then a couple of trial fits – just don’t get carried away right at the end!

Then you’ll get a snug fit.

One down, one to go. It’s a fairly laborious task  and the price will be high because of that  so I don’t forsee going into mass production but I think a couple of these on my stand next year would be a good addition to my range with plenty of uses. These two pots are intended for a GO board set being made by Natalie and I was delighted to hear that the board itself is milled from local birch so she also asked me to make a set of turned feet for the board.

Knowing nothing about GO before I started could have been a problem, but the wonder of Google Image soon solved the problem and I turned the feet one after another on the same spindle to make it easier to match the profile and length.

As with the Pots the feet are my interpretation of what was needed rather than a copy of a commercial product as I am working with the raw material that is to hand in the woodland. So thanks for the challenge Natalie and for adding another use for Birch wood to my extensive list!

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Finally the unseasonable warm spell seems to be on its way out, the temperatures are falling towards normal levels and we need to light the fires in the mornig and evenings. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the warm weather and it’s my favourite time of year but it can’t last and as our clocks have changed, the evenings are dark, dank and gloomy, lighting a fire shifts the damp mood and warms the spirit as well as the body.

I’m not looking forward to it but I have done more preparation this year just in case it’s another long cold winter. I got badly caught out last year without enough dry firewood to last through the cold spell and it was very noticeable just how the output from our stove and open fire reduced with increasing moisture content. Just when we needed the heat most! I don’t remember the actual figures but some like an increase of 10% in the moisture content of the firewood reduced the heat output by more like 20% and if your fires are struggling it’s not a warm cozy experience.

This year I’ll be keeping the best of the firewood for the coldest part of the season and most of the firewood I’ll be needing is cut, split and stacked to help it dry just that few percent more. Last year I ended up using too much of the wood for my charcoal bins and I’ll try to avoid that temptation this year though I do need to do one last burn.

It’s a great time of year for walking in the woods so we are off to the Forest of Dean to walk about the Wye Valley for a midweek break, then its back to the shed for more wood and landrover exploits.

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‘I wonder if you could repair my garden table?’  That’s how the conversation started, and I agreed to take a look at the table. As you can see, it’s seen better days. Under normal circumstances this table is barely firewood mainly compost.

Sometimes you get attached to a particular piece, a bit like a fire it helps to instill a sense of place. I guessed this table was like that so I agreed to build a new frame for the owner and see what if anything could be salvaged.

The first job was to make the posts and rungs, coppiced Sweet Chestnut in this case which stands a chance of lasting longer than the original hazel. Convenient size all round, 18 inch rungs, 14 inch posts, top rung (table top) at 12 inches and rung spacing of 3 inches and 6 inches between top and bottom rungs all around. Mortices cut with an augur bit and tenons turned on the polelathe (just in case I need to make another one).

New frame, original table top. Even managed to salvage a few of the original brass screws.

a coat of Linseed Oil (only the best local fresh pressed on the farm linseed oil!) and it’s a new bench. I have the feeling that this bench might become a bit like my favourite beetle (a large wooden mallet) which has only had 4 new heads and 3 new handles!

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I recently had the opportunity to drop in on David Saltmarsh’s smallholding on the Devon/Dorset border, Fivepenny Farm. I was impressed (pun entirely intended) and inspired by the work he and his family have been doing there.  The 25acre smallholding is a traditional mixed farm with vegetables, fruit and livestock, something of which I thoroughly approve. Inside the cruck framed, thatched barn that they have built is this cider press, rescued from another Dorset barn. I could write an entire post just on the barn and more on the farm but ….let’s start with the Cider Press.  It’s big and very tidy, but I couldn’t help thinking I was missing something.

 

And I was because the top beam of the press is actually on the top floor of the barn! I have never seen such a large top beam on a press before. This lump of elm, is hewn from a single butt and was some hundreds of years old when the cider press was made – by now it’s a few hundred years old at least.

 

The Iron screwthread is big, but not original and it’s dwarfed by the size of the original wooden thread which you can steel see and feel, at least several inches in width, though I failed to measure it at the time.

 

I got a bit distracted by the cider press, but it’s not a museum exhibit it’s very much a part of a working small holding. At the moment most of the apples used to make the bottled Cider and Apple Juice are bought in but just behind the barn is the first of the orchards planted on the farm and by the look of it, it won’t be long before more of the fruit being pressed is home grown!

 

The reason for dropping in was to discuss polelathe and greenwood things (The bodgers ball in 2012 to be more precise) and next to the cider press were a few of the superb (award winning) chairs that David is renowned for making. You might remember some of these chairs from the Mastercrafts chairmaking programme and you can read more about his chairs at his Fivepenny chairs website .

 

His polelathe is built into a really tight corner of a shed cum workshop. I was surprised that he can’t see the view from it, but then I realised that’s not necessarily helpful – I might be a bit too distracted by the view and no doubt the polelathing hours and normally in darkness anyway.

 

Here is a sneak preview of a chair that David is finishing at the moment, he reckons about 100 hours have gone into this one and it was inspired by the curved shape in the side pieces of the back which are natural and not steamed.

 

The workload on a small holding is enormous, it is indeed a way of life and not a job – but if its the way of life that you want then I expect that it’s about as good as it gets. The lambing season is just about 24hours a day.  I was inspired, not just by the small holding that David, Joti and their family are running but by the sustainability that underpins all of it.

 

There is no sign that they will run out of ideas anytime soon. I spotted these iron cogs and wheels hiding in a corner of the barn. An old apple mill (scratter) waiting to be restored. If you live around West Dorset look out for fivepenny farm produce, preserves and juice in your local markets!

 

 

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