The Future Trees Trust was set up to enhance the economic, social and environmental use of broadleaved British trees. At a recent event, held at Vastern Timber Sawmills, we found out how the charity is getting on in its mission. 

THE Future Trees Trust is a charity set up in 1991 to enhance the economic, social and environmental use of broadleaved British trees, including oak, ash, birch, cherry, sweet chestnut, walnut and – surprisingly – sycamore.

The event, to which I’d managed to be invited without any effort on my part, was held on May 24 at Vastern Timber Sawmills, co-hosted by the managing director of Vastern Timber, Tom Barnes. Being the world’s laziest journalist meant that I was able to attend without leaving the county, so off I went.

I’d woken early, at 4 am, and scribbled an important note that consisted of only two words in relation to the event and as I drove over the Marlborough Downs I puzzled slightly at what my sleep-addled brain had been thinking of. In the cold light of day the words seemed irrelevant.

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Anyway, Vastern Timber was easy to find and I parked alongside a vast pile of ash boards and made my way into a stunning oak-framed building. Immediately distracted, I ventured into the chained-off show area displaying oak, ash, elm and yew boards. Each was individually priced.

Upstairs, I photographed the ceiling and was delighted that someone had made me a badge with not only my name, but the title ‘Forestry Journal’. Proudly, I mingled a bit, failed to ask anything important, forgot to get some coffee and was called in with a group of about 30 into the conference room.

Dr Jo Clark introduced herself and the Future Trees Trust; she left out the doctor title, either through modesty or because she was concerned I might ask her about my back.

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Dr Joe Beesley followed (I already knew that his doctorate was in biochemistry rather than medicine) and talked on the subject of harvesting acorns from oak mast years and the difficulties identifying the parent tree.

Apparently, they grafted 1,200 oaks last year, Quercus robur and petraea. I didn’t know oak could be grafted, so I was already learning something. He mentioned the Living Ash project and admitted that only 17 per cent of the selected trees were still healthy after five years, which I suppose is in line with the statistics. In my own experience, ash has the ability to regenerate to some extent even after distinct signs of the disease, so I suppose the line of thought could be that seed might be harvested from recovering trees, as well as those that appear immune?

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The Future Trees Trust has an issue with the rootstocks for grafted ash. The trees are selected and grafted onto rootstocks of unknown susceptibility to Chalara, making it harder to identify the origin of success or failure. Ash are also deliberately infected with fungus-soaked dowels, presumably to check for immunity.

There is also an interactive website, Living Ash Project, for members of the public to report healthy trees and allow for the collection of graftwood from these for the ongoing plantations and research.

There were slides and at some point I lost track. 

Either through colour blindness or just plain stupidity, I couldn’t follow these any more than those of Professor Chris Whitty during the Covid briefings. Feeling like I did in 1977 when I first started secondary school I tried to ask a pertinent question, so nobody would think that the FJ journalist was hopelessly out of his depth.

Dr Beesley answered, but I should really have sat at the back and kept quiet, which was plan A.  How had I ended up in the front row? It was literally a schoolboy error.

The seed orchards created by the FTT are managed like small forests in their own right, selectively weeded and maintained so that the selected trees (either through grafting or selective pollination) can be grown on. I was back on more familiar territory.

There was a brief section on seed harvesting and slides on growing birch and sycamore seeds. I’ve long thought that the sycamore is underrated as a commercial crop, often victimised as a weed, so it was reassuring to see that it is now considered a viable timber crop. 

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The FTT is sponsored by many organisations and businesses, Vastern Timber included, and the next speaker – Tom Barnes, the MD – had a surprise at the end of the conference.

To start with he talked on the history of Vastern Timber. The 100-year-old, family company prides itself on sourcing, processing and selling its timber within a 100-mile radius, which makes perfect sense in this worrying new world.

Tom’s main enthusiasm was for Vastern Timber’s modified hardwoods – the Brimstone range of ash, poplar and sycamore. This product, used for flooring and cladding, is superheated in a vacuum that prevents combustion to 212 degrees. Pre-dried in a kiln first, this wood is then reduced to an MC of around two per cent.

The process changes the colour and leaves the wood very stable, the cellulose and sugars being destroyed and thus preventing the wood soaking up more moisture from the atmosphere. The product is popular, accounting for a high percentage of sales, and I can understand the merits, but to me, something of the character of the wood was changed. However, uniformity and stability are important and Tom pointed out they sold plenty of un-superheated wood flooring and indoor boards to compliment the relatively new innovation.

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As well as aesthetic timber, Vastern Timber sells a lot of structural wood, oak beams and the like, made from surprisingly small trees using the centre of the tree, as well as sections of gradeable wood from larger trunks. Tom talked animatedly about the merits of thuja; the company likes the timber, which benefits from being less knotty than Douglas fir, more available than larch and superior to Scots pine and spruce. 

The take-away for me was the MD obviously knew and loved timber; I was interested in the commercial use of poplar, which benefits from the aforementioned vacuum heating, and the use of sycamore.

Aided by a younger type, John Leigh Pemberton, chair of trustees at FTT and of Torry Hill Fencing in Kent, was next up and he talked about the benefits and technicalities of coppicing sweet chestnut. Actually, on the latter part there were none.

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Sweet chestnut, we were told, is not a difficult crop to coppice and has been done effectively for hundreds of years, or longer. What is needed is sandy soil, to be found in the east of England, decent coppice stools, a density that encourages upright straight growth and not much else.

The company supplies chestnut paling and posts that are naturally durable and outlast modern preservative-treated softwoods. They have produced enough paling fencing to stretch from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, but I wasn’t sure if that was per annum or over a lifetime. I should have asked, but by now I didn’t want to prolong the amount of time I had to sit down; people with slipped discs and trapped nerves need to either move, or lie down.

I wisely chose neither of these options but John was interesting enough to distract me, talking of zero waste product, supplying power stations with the brash and even the shavings being used for cattle bedding locally too.

Because our home-grown chestnut has its own genetic variability – being originally sourced from across Europe – it is fairly disease resistant and this fact seemed to tie in nicely with the theme of the day from the FTT.

The other benefit pointed out by John was to the biodiverse enhancements in areas of chestnut coppice; bluebells featured in the slides and apparently slow worms and other lizards benefit in this environment as well.

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I rather liked the sweet chestnut presentation; it was reassuring to hear that as a country we aren’t just doing something right for our own market, but are also an exporter of sweet chestnut.

Although the presentations were interesting and informative I was now in some degree of discomfort so felt grateful that Jez Ralph from Timber Strategies was to the point and brief. From what I understand, Timber Strategies is very similar in its aims to those of the FTT, though less science-based and more about information, communication and inclusion of the community.

The presentation was on silviculture enhancing the end properties of timber, with an emphasis on landscape value, future forests and the ‘replant–regenerate’ cycle that is possibly slightly absent in government policy.

Jez talked of historic failings in selective seed science and the resultant poor form and usability of thuja in Devon and Dorset, demonstrating visually the release of stresses in wood at sawmilling and the resultant wasted boards. Jez’s friendly, concise and brief presentation was good.

It also tied in again with the FTT, particularly with the mention of the historic mistakes in seed selection.

Jenny MacDonald, marketing manager at Vastern Timber, rounded off the presentation with elaboration on the Brimstone product, including its innovation, history (Scandinavia 1960s) and its very obvious potential. Samples were handed around of birch, sycamore and ash and the merits of super-dry cladding discussed.

Now with no feeling at all below the waist, I was slightly upset that Tom Barnes was back in front of us, but he had an announcement.

As well as the one per cent funding (turnover) currently donated to the FTT, he generously agreed an additional sum to the enterprise, which I believe doubled this amount.

The exact figures elude me, sorry, but the phrase ‘Woodland Tax’ seemed to be the term used. Dr Clark was grateful, obviously, and said as much in a short recognition speech and to my relief announced lunch.

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Everything went horribly wrong for me at this point.

Opting for a walk, to try and recover some feeling in my legs, I ignored the buffet and returned a few minutes later.

Better suited to outdoor survival situations, my social skills have always erred on the side of cautious, so I failed to fight my way through to the meal table.

I could see the buffet, I just wasn’t equipped to risk muscling my way through, trying to look journalistic rather than greedy and unable to balance sausage rolls and professional behaviour.

“Shall I get some for you?” asked Kath from Timber Strategies, on hearing my dilemma.

I really wanted to say yes, but that would have been pathetic, so I opted for a cup of tea and a photo of the finger buffet aftermath; there was one lonesome item left but who eats the last sandwich? I chatted to Adam Topliss, from Tubex, about recycling tree shelters, and on how to play a ‘B’ chord on an acoustic guitar; maybe hunger was causing me to lose focus.

After lunch, or not in my case, we went outside to tour the yard, much more my type of thing. It was noisy enough that I had to shout my own exciting story about a trip to a Polish sawmill in the late 1980s to a polite lady from Confor. Someone told me off for drowning out both the machinery and Tom as I droned on about the former USSR, and I was suitably ashamed.

Concentrating hard above the noise of machinery, I heard Tom talking about the available space in the yard and the incessant and ever-increasing demand for British hardwoods, which are apparently in fashion again to such an extent that oak in particular is fetching an all-time-high price.

We looked at the vacuum tube for the Brimstone range, but I was too far back to hear much so resorted to general journalistic chatter with various group members who were polite enough to allow me to practice my new vocation.

Rather than say thank you and goodbye, I shamefully sneaked off, which was a bit rude, so I do apologise. 

Vastern Timber were good hosts and the Future Trees event was a success – I learned a lot.

My overall impression was of optimism; the management of forestry, British hardwoods and innovation and research as well as increasing value in home-grown timber are all looking very promising.

Thank you to Vastern Timber and the Future Trees Trust for an enjoyable opportunity to represent Forestry Journal.

Two last things; it wasn’t me who broke the toilet lock and in case you were wondering, the two words I wrote down at four that morning were ‘Monkeypox’ and ‘Covid’.

Like you, I have no idea why.