Managed under a continuous-cover silviculture system, Broomhill Wood’s owner describes it as a ‘hobby woodland’. Yet it is a two-time winner of the Royal Forestry Society’s Small Woodlands award. Forestry Journal visited to learn why.

A searingly bright November morning in rural Gloucestershire follows a day of storms. Navigating the ponds that have pooled in the dips of these back roads overnight, the panorama of oaks and western hemlock covering a wedge-shaped hillside are still dripping after the deluge.

On the far side of an entrance gate, Will Wilkinson MICFor emerges from one side of a loading bay. Introducing himself, he welcomes FJ to this private property, a two-time winner of the Royal Forestry Society’s Small Woodlands award.

Broomhill Wood is managed under a continuous-cover silvicultural system. It contains mixed high forest (80 per cent broadleaf oak, beech, ash and wild cherry, and 20 per cent conifer), an understorey of sweet chestnut and hazel coppice (cut every 10–12 years) and a small stand of P55 coast redwood. Approximately two hectares of adjacent fields (bought subsequent to the original purchase) have since been planted and converted to a mixed fruit orchard and nutteries.

Forestry Journal: Cobnut plat. “This is a wildflower meadow. We use a reciprocating mower to cut the grass and rake it up as mulch below the nuts.”Cobnut plat. “This is a wildflower meadow. We use a reciprocating mower to cut the grass and rake it up as mulch below the nuts.” (Image: FJ)

The RFS judges noted: ‘Current [woodland] costs are financed by product sales and woodland grants, with the owners financing capital improvements and machinery purchases.’

Will elaborates: “This is a hobby woodland, but we strive to ensure that it breaks even by selling coppice and occasional sales of bigger trees. Around 40 tonnes of wood products are extracted a year.”

Will’s father bought these woods 42 years ago on the advice of a local forester friend, pleasing Will, then 17, no end. Previous owners include noted estate forester and author C.P. Ackers, who planted the panorama of tall oaks growing up the hillside behind the loading bay. Forester and author Cyril Hart (who owned the wood after Ackers) underplanted the oaks with western hemlock, to reduce epicormic growth and produce a softwood crop. 

Will, now 59, knew he wanted to work with trees from boyhood, having seen a TV programme on Canadian forestry. This ambition was reinforced as a teenager, with time spent among coastal redwood groves on a family holiday in California. Gaining an Ordinary National Diploma in Countryside Recreation from Merrist Wood, Will worked as a Ranger for Bracknell Council, then for a landscaping firm before joining the same local forester friend who had advised his father, who encouraged Will to apply to Aberdeen University where he graduated with a forestry degree.

Will started his own forestry consulting and management company in 1993. Charlton Abbotts Forestry has since grown into a well-regarded forestry consultancy and landscaping contracting business managing 4,000 ha of private estate woodlands in Gloucestershire and surrounding counties, and organising sales of approximately 6–7,000 tonnes of timber annually.

Forestry Journal: Today’s work party (l-r): Will; brother-in-law Richard Turner; James, Will’s son.Today’s work party (l-r): Will; brother-in-law Richard Turner; James, Will’s son. (Image: FJ)

Woodland products line the perimeter of this loading bay. Firewood billets and timbers sawn for cladding or joinery are stacked and drying undercover. Unprocessed logs and housing-grade butts are left uncovered just beyond the woodlands’ dripline. Two rides lead left or right around the hillside, seemingly embracing it. A red admiral butterfly lands on the sunny end of an oak billet, pausing for several beats before fluttering off.

We follow eastwards (right), accompanied by the low thrum of a chainsaw operated by Will’s son James, one of today’s work party team of three.

Walking up the firm track, progressively hardened to allow vehicle access, Will says the woodland management plan favours group regeneration with a long rotation age, “beyond 100 years for all species. I like conifers to be larger. I appreciate this does not necessarily increase their value, but at small scale, oversized is not a problem. Large trees have a greater amenity value than small ones.”

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Higher Level Stewardship management grants pay towards maintenance (ride-cutting, coppicing and open spaces) and (most recently) for squirrel and deer control.

A small larch compartment, its remaining needles glowing gold against blue skies, is underplanted with 0.2 ha of bronze-leafed sweet chestnut coppice on its third rotation.

Mature single-stemmed sweet chestnut and Scots pines grow behind the coppice and a dead tree has been left standing for woodpeckers.

Forestry Journal:  Yews of Millennium Grove. Yews of Millennium Grove. (Image: FJ)

Most of the coppice material (chestnut and hazel) cut (by coppice worker Tim Parry) goes for hedging stakes and furniture. What is left is cut into ‘noggins’ using a branch logger and left to dry in mesh bags at rideside for future use as fuelwood. A ‘noggin’ is sized somewhere between kindling and logs. Will says: “Older people often like noggins. Weighing less, they are easier to handle than large logs and also create a great base to a fire.”

From the main ride, we take a wet path into a dense ex-Christmas tree plantation of Norway spruce, harvested and then replanted with a mix of Norway spruce and Nordmann fir that Will is allowing to grow on to final crop.

“I didn’t have time or the numbers of quality trees to harvest and sell as Christmas trees from such a small area,” says Will. “Accepting oak regeneration between the rows, we are thinning out the conifer nurse crop to favour teenage oak. Getting undamaged oaks this straight shows the benefits of a conifer nurse and that our squirrel control is working.” Uneconomic on a large scale, on a small scale this area satisfies the forester in Will.

He shares some squirrel-control tips learned following the ban on warfarin. “We found ‘Kanya’ traps attached to the side of a tree to be effective, but mice and blue tits ate the bait before the squirrels found the traps. We then tried gas-powered traps, unsuccessfully. We have since found a guy from a neighbouring estate who uses peanut hoppers and an air rifle. Where we were getting 40 a year, he gets 80, far more efficient than the traps. We are embarking on a new grant (an add-on supplement to part of the Higher Tier CS Woodland Option grant) to help subsidise stalking (muntjac and roe) and squirrel control.”

The hillside streams are swollen and the boggy ground rife with (what could be) wood sedge. ‘Stag’s horn’ fungus (candlesnuff) grows on mossy stumps shaded by the lop-and-top left from cleaning and widening the rows in a second ex-plantation. “We are using the plantation trees to create high forest from our best forked hardwoods (trifurcated tops damaged post-wafarin before installing traps). Growing both together produces firewood now and eventually sawlogs if we can.”

Forestry Journal: Another view of the mid-rotation beech compartment.Another view of the mid-rotation beech compartment. (Image: FJ)

Naturally regenerating oak is plentiful below the ex-plantation spruce. Elsewhere, beech, ash, sweet chestnut, birch and yew do well. Aside from ash (showing dieback), Will harvests where appropriate to favour group regeneration and thinning. Group regeneration is facilitated by natural regeneration or planting, or both.

He has no problem ‘assisting’ regeneration by planting Douglas fir (from Wyevale Nurseries) for timber or filling a rideside corner with Bhutan pine (Pinus wallichiana) just to see how it fares, sharing the knowledge with forestry consultancy clients where appropriate. “Bhutan pine is an attractive species with needles growing in bundles of five. It is more commonly used in amenity plantings than woodlands. We planted (approximately) 20 in one corner. Look at that basal sweep. Some are growing so quickly they cannot hold up. It’s a graphic demonstration of a non-native unsuited to this climate and site type.”

Conversely, a nearby self-set yew will be kept as a future ‘feature tree’. “Yews are an underrated tree, a survivor and good to develop. We don’t have animal stock to consider, so we can accept it.” He also welcomes the self-set grand fir growing alongside self-set beech.

In the south-west of Broomhill Wood, a 0.2 ha planting of P55 coast redwoods is growing stunningly well. Tall, orange stems stand proud amid the prodigious, dripping, self-coppiced emerald regrowth. They have been thinned three times and the understorey last coppiced six years ago by James. Will says: “Coast redwood is a recommended climate-change species, for growing fast and being tolerant of hotter conditions. The market for timber is small, but there is one (fencing or furniture). It is such a good amenity species, there is almost an argument to plant another group, in addition to our trials of Japanese red cedar and black walnut, species that should grow if natives suffer.”

Forestry Journal: View of the mid-rotation beech compartment from apple orchard.View of the mid-rotation beech compartment from apple orchard. (Image: FJ)

The flatter slopes to the north support a Kentish cobnut (hazelnut) plat and apple orchard. “After reading in the paper about Professor Stern’s report on climate change, it seemed we should eat less meat. I subsequently succession-planted the cobnuts during the last five to eight years and this year we got five wheelbarrow loads (cobnuts) that went to family and friends. Soon we should have enough to sell locally.”

The apple orchard (also containing pears, plums, damsons, cider apples and a few cherries) lies just below maturing compartments of beech still holding their leaves (as seen across most client estates this year). Fifteen years ago, Will’s mother chose varieties of apples for planting that would fruit consecutively throughout the season from June to October. “We have not been able to keep up the apples this year. Now, in November, some still hold their fruit.”  He offers a drip-laden October-fruiting Ashmead’s Kernel (russet), a Gloucestershire variety plucked directly from the tree. Biting into the gold-green skin through to the white-green flesh, it is crunchy and juicy with a hint of Nashi pear.

Will has employed local contractors to undertake large thinnings, felling and extracting large hillside beech two years ago and some of the redwoods eight years ago. “When we started, contractors came in on standing sales. Increasingly, bigger parcels are needed.

Mostly, we fell and extract ourselves, improving the woods’ ecology, durability and sustainability, selling the produce at roadside. The wood does not produce a vast amount of income, but neither does it drain resources. This will continue as long as we, family, friends and local volunteers are getting some benefit from it.”

Forestry Journal:  Larch sawlogs awaiting pick-up. Larch sawlogs awaiting pick-up. (Image: FJ)

On the far side of the hill, Will has cleared a scrappy plot and restocked with Douglas fir, Corsican pine and a lime edge that has been high-pruned and thinned once. “We are selecting restocked lime over ash regeneration, which will start to die from ash dieback.

"We are just getting ash dieback.” The last works contractors carried out (18 months ago) were for roadside safety, felling ash along 350 metres of roadside. “Fortunately, we didn’t have that many road safety works.” Sales of products from the works have not covered the associated costs.

On the hill’s top, glowworms have made a home near the clump of Scots pines towering over Millennium Grove, yews planted by friends and family in 2000 and since twice-pruned. 

Woodsmoke wafts past a Druid’s head carved from a standing ash stem. We follow the sound of hammering to the shed, where Will’s brother-in-law Richard is re-cladding the back wall, picking up where he left off two weekends ago, the last time a work party of family, friends and local volunteers met here.

Work parties are generally groups of four to eight people that visit every six weeks or so.

“Not so frequently as to become ‘wood proud’, tidying up too much, but just enough that it feels like a holiday,” says Will. There have been four weekend-long work events this year, with payment in kind, logs, noggins, nuts and apples and the camaraderie around a warm fire. “We have to produce enough work for all ages, young and old. My parents like picking apples. On our last visit, I marked the thinnings. All firewood-grade produce is converted to three-foot lengths, split and stacked. Billets are subsequently logged with a circular saw. Today, James is felling more of the infected ash, a thinning to release the oak, not a premature felling for replanting. The woodland has very few pure ash stands, it grows mainly as a ‘weed’ species in the oak stands.”

Forestry Journal: Ride whose surface was hardened with grant aid. Pre-formed concrete channels form cut-off drains.Ride whose surface was hardened with grant aid. Pre-formed concrete channels form cut-off drains. (Image: FJ)

The shed walls are decorated with animal skulls, signs bearing the names of tree species and photographs of school visits and charity events. During a week-long series of woodland events, Gloucestershire schoolchildren followed an instant trail called ‘Hunt for the Lost Pirate’ (Will) and tried their hand at willow weaving and bark rubbing. A charity Christmas-tree sales event raised money for the RNLI.  The pandemic paused all work party visits, and they are only just starting to catch up.

Winning two RFS awards offers Broomhill Wood prestige and Will hosted the first RFS Gloucester site meeting post-COVID. He says: “Personally, the wood is an important part of my life, a major hobby, relaxing and great fun.  Professionally, I talk to clients about what we do here: squirrel control; the shed; nut orchards as a diversification. For some clients, we have organised the use of their own timber in their own structures. Others are planting a nuttery.”

Stepping into the sunshine, our walk downhill is caught on a Bushnell (movement capture) camera strapped to a tree and used for capturing squirrel and deer movements.

In the nuttery, once a plum orchard, double rows of native broadleaf intersperse French fruiting walnuts, almonds, sweet chestnuts and five varieties of bushy cobnuts growing so tall Will is actively reducing them. “We tried hand pollinating the cobnuts once, but there are enough wild natives around and pollination is not a problem. This year we collected a bucket of small but flavoursome almonds from these six-year-old trees. The good thing about almonds is the squirrels don’t tend to take them.”

A tall coast redwood guards the nuttery’s bottom gate, beyond which a fibre-optic broadband company has permission to store equipment in exchange for stones for the tracks. Rejoining the hardened track leading back up a slope that Will estimates as one in four, he says it was severely rutted until a grant helped towards the cost of hardening the surface. They have incorporated concrete gullies to deflect the streams and stop water scouring the surface.

Back at the loading bay, of the wood products laid around the periphery, the sawn larch planks drying under corrugated metal will be used to reclad the woodland structures. 
Ash and oak planks are just beginning to dry, ready for future use in furniture-making when Will retires.

Forestry Journal: Red admiral butterfly on oak billet. 18-months drying.Red admiral butterfly on oak billet. 18-months drying. (Image: FJ)

Just beyond the oak and hemlock dripline, sizeable larch butts await pick-up. They will be planked by the buyer and used in a house self-build.

Will says: “Most of our income comes from occasional sales of sawlogs to a local sawmill. We have approximately 40 cubic metres of hardwood firewood billets drying, including oak, which makes good firewood if dried for say five years, the ash for two or three. We did sell the billets by the cubic metre for buyers to log up themselves. It worked reasonably well, but I have less time to sell them and we (work party volunteers) use a lot more ourselves now.”

With that, he heads back up the hill to rejoin the work party for a lunch of pasties, beans and camaraderie.

In payment for a bag of noggins, some pounds are left by the woodland gate.

Will, you are still owed another three.