Since its launch in 2008, firewood business Northumberland Logs has gone from strength to strength. ‘Boss’ James Cookson shared the story behind the growing company and explained the importance of selling a service.

ON a Friday in mid-May, James Cookson of Northumberland Logs has already been working for hours. “Getting into the office at 6.30am for 45 minutes sets me up for the day. By 10am, my diary has usually gone to pot,” he says cheerfully over Zoom. “Log-wise, at this time of year, we are trying to maximise production. I spend more time in the yard getting physically involved, making sure production is going smoothly and finding ways to make processes more efficient.”

Last year, Northumberland Logs firewood sales reached almost 3,000 m³ for the first time and the business continues to develop.

Forestry Journal: New Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill cutting larch for what will be 3 x 3 inch posts, with Valtra forestry tractor and forwarding trailer.New Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill cutting larch for what will be 3 x 3 inch posts, with Valtra forestry tractor and forwarding trailer. (Image: Supplied)

Earlier, James was looking at new models of log delivery trucks and the upgrade of one of three firewood processors while considering how to maximise production of a new product, ‘Logs in a Box’, already selling well to local holiday lets and glamping markets. “People running these sites are busy. If they can offer their customers a box and make a margin on it, that is easier than sorting a load of logs. We sold some last year and are looking at selling many more going forward. This is a product that can be sold nationwide. Finding markets is a matter of finding the time to do it.”

Today’s conversation follows on from one that began at the 2022 Confor Forestry Conference. Having said that Northumberland Logs has seen steady growth over the years, he then highlighted an accidental discovery, a way of naturally drying logs resulting in an extra 8–10 per cent of moisture loss in just three weeks. What he didn’t mention was his stewarding of the 3,800-acre Meldon Park Estate near Morpeth, including 500 acres of woodlands, or that Northumberland Logs is one of a few entrepreneurial timber businesses started (or restarted) since taking on the estate in 2001.

On LinkedIn, his profile states that there is no suitable title for his role other than ‘Boss’ and James, 58, talks like a marketing man. It turns out that he was and still is. Studying Agriculture and Food Marketing at the Royal Agricultural College (Cirencester), he joined Knight Frank selling farms “until they sacked me after five months. It was probably the best thing that ever happened,” he says, laughing. He then joined the food industry, marketing and selling produce to supermarkets, latterly with Cherry Valley Farms in Lincolnshire, one of the largest producers and processors of ducks in Europe.

James took on the stewardship of Meldon Park, the family home, during ‘Foot and Mouth’. Of the wider estate, now a mix of farmland (arable and livestock), let properties, a DIY livery business, sporting concerns and woodland and timber businesses, he says, “The estate had been run in a traditional style. When I took it on the properties needed some maintenance, but overall it was in good nick, but not doing anything. Taking it to the next level needed another source of income.”

To concentrate on where his assets were and to ensure they worked, in 2004, James left a marketing directorship (for north-east food processor Golden Feast) and took on the direct management of 80 estate agricultural, residential and commercial property leases. “I felt we could improve the buildings, but every time I went into the office, I was told another log order had been placed and required delivery. I didn’t have the time. Finding time is a battle I have on a continuing basis.”

Forestry Journal: Learning, in 2018/19, eucalyptus was planted in solid tubes. These eucalyptus were sourced from ‘Eucalyptus Renewables.’Learning, in 2018/19, eucalyptus was planted in solid tubes. These eucalyptus were sourced from ‘Eucalyptus Renewables.’ (Image: Supplied)

By ‘log orders’, he means the start of Northumberland Logs, a cottage industry launched in 2008.

“We had some roadside ash trees that needed felling as a result of old age that we then sold for firewood.” (Ash dieback arrived circa 2020, which will see the removal of a further 300 trees.)

“Someone helped me cut the logs and I did all the deliveries. In the first year, our turnover was less than £10,000.” In 2015, turnover reached £24,000. “That was when I thought the business might have legs.”

Initially, hardwood firewood came from estate woodland thinnings. Employing an external woodland manager to organise the paperwork and licences, James organised the works contractors. Alongside two prized plantations of P1920s Scots pine and Douglas fir, the majority of woodland compartments are P1960s plantings of Sitka spruce, Scots pine and larch planted to supply the estate sawmill. “The sawmill was one of the first things I shut down. On a good day, it cut 56 rails. It didn’t make economic sense. The woodlands didn’t make any money until clearfell, therefore we started buying all our materials in.”

Hardwood firewood stems were also bought from timber merchants. “I asked whoever was thinning our woods to let me know of any firewood they had for sale. It still works like that. This year, we will buy in 1,000–1,500 tonnes, with 300 tonnes coming from the estate. I consider any estate hardwood a bonus.”

Firewood sales were steady until 2015. From 2015 to 2018, they grew exponentially. “We are still experiencing high levels of growth, last year (almost) 30 per cent, for a number of factors. During COVID, people at home used their solid fuel stoves a lot more and then we had the energy crisis. Those are external factors. We have also done a good job. We are competitively priced and people like the service we provide.”


Selling firewood is often less about selling product and more about selling a service. Northumberland Logs offers free delivery within a 15-mile radius of the estate. Customers living off-grid, or reliant on oil, buy logs by the trailer-load. Northumberland Logs’ bestselling product is a bright-white vented cubic-metre bag filled with splinter-free logs delivered on an Isuzu Grafter drop-side (with grab arm). “When you go to a supermarket, you like to buy a nice-looking apple. It is exactly the same with firewood; people expect a nice-looking log.”

Forestry Journal: Mixed hardwood timbers: oak, ash and cherry boards cut on a hired-in Wood-Mizer LT70, whose quality inspired Northumberland Logs to choose the same model when they subsequently invested in their own sawmill.Mixed hardwood timbers: oak, ash and cherry boards cut on a hired-in Wood-Mizer LT70, whose quality inspired Northumberland Logs to choose the same model when they subsequently invested in their own sawmill. (Image: Supplied)

The four-acre log yard currently holds 500 tonnes of GiB-certified timber. The stems brought in for firewood are dried down ‘in stack’ for 12–18 months. When seasoned, they are loaded onto a Vreten 900N trailer and pulled by a Valtra forestry tractor to the processing shed, where they are loaded onto log decks and processed through two Hakki Pilke 43 Pro processors and a Posch SpaltFix S375. Cut and split, the logs pass over a riddle – a mechanical sieve with rolling bars that shave off shards and splinters before being loaded into vented bags. The bags, filled with Woodsure-accredited logs, are then stored in one of three purpose-built polytunnels where they remain until sold.  

Using polytunnels is the result of an accidental discovery. “I was processing firewood for my mother. With too many logs to store in the shed, I put the rest in a small garden polytunnel. Removing them five months later, I couldn’t believe how dry they were.”

Seasoned (dried down) for 12–18 months, Northumberland Logs’ firewood is often already near the (legally required) 20-per-cent moisture content before processing. “It is important to say this: to get the most out of firewood there really is no shortcut. Our main competition is from kiln-dried logs (often imported). I don’t believe in burning wood to dry wood and comparing our product to kiln-dried is like choosing which of two bottles of wine worth the same amount is better. It is down to taste and preference. We have a good British product, as good as – if not better than – what kiln-drying produces. The only difference is that I have a story behind my business more in line with modern thinking. Polytunnels work well with the environment and we are planting trees through new woodland creation, so everybody – and the environment – wins.”

How long firewood stays in the polytunnels depends on the time of year they go in, the temperature outside and how much firewood is left in stock. “Last summer, when it was really hot, we were losing 8–10 per cent moisture in as little as three weeks and selling firewood with 15 per cent (and below) moisture content (much to the surprise of those who dry with kilns).” To compliment the firewood, James is investing in a kindling machine.

Forestry Journal: Log yard and polytunnels.Log yard and polytunnels. (Image: Supplied)

Further product developments include a small sawn timber business. Any oak, beech, elm (or other) stems coming into the yard but too good for firewood have been put aside for sawing into ‘live edge’ boards. “Who would have thought I would bring back the mill? I shut the fixed mill because for every four rails we made we lost one in dust. However, our woods contain quite a bit of (undiseased) larch. Four years ago, we invested in second-hand Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmill and began milling larch for our own fence posts and Yorkshire boards (boards for the side of sheds). At the time it seemed a large expense. I suspect the money saved has paid for that machine five times over.”

Members of the multi-tasking estate team of five are as likely to be found in the office taking orders or developing social media strategies as they are repairing farm fencing or topping Christmas trees, a business restarted in 2015. “We began by planting 2,000 Norway spruce a year over 20 acres. Last year, I planted 6,000. People come to the estate and we give handsaws and they go off and cut their trees. It is a great family day out.”

The team was preparing for the annual Christmas tree-cutting event when Storm Arwen hit in 2021. When Durham Cathedral rang in its order, the team was clearing windblown Christmas trees. “I explained that we had a number down, but that I would find one to send. After the holidays, they politely explained that their tree had been a bit small and not very bushy. I suggested they had a word with their boss, as I felt he was responsible for giving us Storm Arwen, which affected the availability of stock.”

Forestry Journal: On the firewood production line with the Isuzu Grafter truck. On the firewood production line with the Isuzu Grafter truck. (Image: Supplied)

Storm Arwen affected 21 out of 30 estate woodland compartments, many with the middle taken out. In 2020, James had marked a six-ha roadside compartment of Douglas fir and Scots pine, “thinking I should fell it before it got blown down across the road. We cleared it two weeks after the storm struck.” He thinks the timber went to Taylormade. “There was so much timber on the market, I knocked 40 per cent off the price, and it has not recovered since then.”

As yet, the estate has done little with the remaining storm-blown timbers, although this could change later this year. The hope is that the delivery of a Wood-Mizer LT70 (capable of milling butts 6.2 metres in length and up to 105 cm in diameter), bought through agent Keith Threadgall (and supported by European funding), will take the sawn timber business beyond the estate gate. Local builders (small), DIY enthusiasts and hobbyists have already placed orders for larch and oak cut in sizes not readily available in the local builder’s merchants.

As the firewood business has grown, so have estate woodlands. In 2016, James repurposed a 20-acre field of sour grass. “The sheep didn’t like it and it needed re-fencing. It had good access, so creating new woodland made sense. In 2018/2019, we planted up a 70-acre wheatfield. The field produced crops when dry. When wet, it was not the best. Again the fencing was knackered, but it had good access.”

Both woodland-creation schemes contain a mix of commercial Sitka spruce for timber and silver birch and eucalyptus (coppice) for hardwood firewood. Experimental plantings of sweet chestnut for future fence posts will first illustrate whether the crop grows in the north. “Foresters say, ‘Eucalyptus doesn’t like cold weather’ and look at me like I am crazy when I say we planted it. They are probably not far off the truth. Although, looking back 50 years, there were not many vineyards in southern England. We now have a vineyard in Yorkshire. The country is losing larch – to my mind the best timber we can grow – to Phytophthora. What will replace it? We have to plant something to make our fence posts with. Forestry is about planting now for the next generation who will live in a world with a climate that will be very different to the one we now experience.”

Forestry Journal: Posch SpaltFix S 375 firewood processor.Posch SpaltFix S 375 firewood processor. (Image: Supplied)

James planted eucalyptus having observed five trees growing in the stable yard attached to Meldon Park’s main house (sold last year). “They grew well, even in winter when frost was on them the whole time. We planted a few varieties in sheltered spots, knowing they would survive provided they don’t get hit by the frost with the wind behind it.”

Some eucalyptus planted in 2016 is now nearing 12 foot tall. “We planted them in netted tree guards. They grew so quickly that the guards snapped, the edges rubbing and damaging the bark.

"Learning from the mistake, we did things differently in 2018.” An estate stalking team manages 35 roe deer each year, with an intention to raise numbers to 50. “Squirrel damage has yet to come.”
One topic not yet covered is woody biomass production, which began shortly after the firewood business started. Annually, 350 tonnes of softwood chip power three Froling boilers installed (2012 to 2015) under the RHI, to supply heat and hot water to some of the let properties. “It was one of the best things we did. We had a high turnover of tenants in our north-facing cottages, cottages that we were redecorating on a regular basis due to condensation. Now, the properties are much better. Tenants get cheap heating and hot water and they don’t want to leave.”

Forestry Journal: Hakki Pilke log decks and firewood processors.Hakki Pilke log decks and firewood processors. (Image: Supplied)

On his LinkedIn page, James wrote years ago: “Being an entrepreneur is easy. It’s being successful that is difficult.” Having forgotten his password, he has been unable to rewrite the quote, but doubts whether he would, even now.

Has he experienced difficulties? “With the log businesses, we are permanently spinning plates, finding out which we are prepared to let go of or not. Two years ago, sales increased to such an extent that we were close to running out of raw material, our yard was empty. Getting in raw material is always a challenge.” Maintaining processing machinery is also a case of spinning plates. “We have been quite close to dropping a plate on that issue too, but we are now better at it.”

Today, James has been generous with his time. Throughout his stewardship, people have shared their knowledge with him. In June, he will share what he has learned when the estate hosts a visit from the RFS North East.

Forestry Journal:  Following Storm Arwen, the tree that went to Durham Cathedral. Following Storm Arwen, the tree that went to Durham Cathedral. (Image: Supplied)

Does he consider his entrepreneurship successful? “We are going through a turbulent time. The estate losing the European Single Farm Payment will create a big gap. When the firewood started, I saw that it could be a vehicle to replace that. That is the target and actually we are getting there.

"The timber business is bigger and better than I anticipated and continuing will involve more time and capital management. I don’t want another enterprise. I want to consolidate the firewood, milled timber and Christmas trees, develop them and make what we do better. If I can make it bigger, then that is great. If, in future, I could double what we do now, that would be fantastic.”