Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, Say It With Wood’s Toby Allen returns to address growing media hostility towards woodfuel.

I’LL start with a story. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – actually two or three years ago in Kent – someone pointed out what appeared to be a picture of my digger posted to a Facebook page called Thanet Trees (unofficial name ‘Karens and Kevins in Kent’). The page is mainly there to complain about tree felling for development, but they are just as happy to be outraged by any felled trees. There it was, at the end of a very tidy looking cant of freshly felled chestnut. The comments were predictable: “Blatant deforestation!”, “Ecological crime!”, “Don’t they know we’re in a climate emergency?” and so on.

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I was a little offended. Most people know I’m a raving hippy and I do this job because I care. So, although it turned out not to be my machine, I couldn’t help trying to defend tree felling and explain it can be good. I posted a reply pointing out that, contrary to what they thought, this wasn’t me raping the woodland for the nasty biomass market, that most of the wood was being made into lovely things that will store carbon for a while and only the low-quality wood would be going to the CHP to provide sustainable energy.

I also told them how important regular coppicing is for wildlife. I gave a lesson in how tree felling can be good or bad, even explaining that deforestation is a change of land use, whereas coppicing is simply part of an ongoing cycle. In retrospect, I should have kept my mouth shut. No-one believed me. A lot of unhappy emojis and comments followed. Oh dear! I came to the conclusion these people were trying hard to hate forestry. In the popularist, one-sided world of the internet, ‘it’s complicated’ isn’t what people want to hear. Since then I’ve become determined to find out why we have the paradox of living in a country that loves using wooden products, but can’t accept the felling of trees.

Around the same time as my Facebook scrap, Nigel Farage posted an anti-tree-felling video on his YouTube channel. It’s worth searching out if you’ve not had a giggle at it yet. To anyone with an ounce of knowledge about woodland management he comes across as a fool. On the opposite side of the coin, both Chris Packham and George Monbiot have had a pop at us recently. So at least that’s something the left and right agree on then. But why do the public believe a badly informed piece of self-promotion over the learned knowledge of a professional forester?

Ecological destruction and climate change are biggies. It’s been important to communicate these are very real things. Unfortunately for us, the imagery and language to do this has got us mixed up with the bad guys. To the untrained eye, a picture of a destroyed rainforest isn’t that different to a picture of what we do. Humans tend to make an emotional decision, pick information to bolster that opinion and then like to be seen to be consistent. Once someone puts us in the ‘bad guy’ box, it’s very hard for us to convince them otherwise, no matter what facts we throw at them. It’s easy to fall into a positional argument which pushes us further apart. Especially on a public domain where changing our minds is seen as a weakness. Which makes forestry an easy target for anyone wanting a crowd pleaser.

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A quick look through the updated DEFRA statistics of air pollutants shows they are firmly laying the blame for not hitting air-quality targets at our door. Since 1980, levels of PM 2.5 have dropped considerably and, they say, these are offset by the increased emissions from domestic firewood burning and biomass. George Monbiot has started a campaign to ban the domestic burning of firewood, and over Christmas the Guardian published an article he wrote revealing his ‘shame’ over fitting his house with wood-burning stoves. It was clearly written to cause a reaction in his target audience, which it did. A friend who was concerned burning logs would harm his child sent me the link. There’s more to unpick than I have space for here, but he writes of his dismay at finding lichen on his logs because that must mean it came from a venerable oak and so his log burning was causing ecological destruction. Obviously I am heavily biased against what he said and again felt a little offended.

While it’s doubtful firewood will be banned any time soon, the thought of logs being seen as ecological vandalism terrifies me. Firstly because, being a hippy, I do my job to make the world a better place and don’t want to be causing asthma in children. Secondly, just try to imagine how we’d fund woodland management if people stopped buying firewood logs. Do you remember what it was like 15 years ago, before the firewood boom? While it’s obvious we need to have a conversation about firewood and emissions, this has to include all the good things about felling trees. The benefits of healthy, well-managed woodlands providing a sustainable material to replace environmentally damaging things like concrete, plastic and steel. Plus the ethical argument for using a renewable resource for energy that doesn’t cause wars abroad. Even how fast-growing trees absorb more pollution from the air. It’s a shame a certain woodfuel accreditation body hasn’t made more effort to help the industry it lives off with some positive press releases, to reassure the log-buying public. They were certainly keen to promote their brand in the media before being given the contract by DEFRA.

I did contact Woodsure twice by phone and email before writing this to give them the opportunity to tell us how they are communicating the great story of using firewood from UK forests. I’m still waiting for a response.

Luckily we do have some great organisations that demonstrably care about British woodlands and are working to educate the public. The Royal Forestry Society runs a Junior Forester Award, getting engagement from children from primary age upwards.

They have also produced case studies of thinning vs deforestation, and the products gleaned from the operations such as tipi poles, cladding and decking. Along with pushing for excellence in UK woodlands, Confor has also been busy. Its website contains lots of useful tools to help us instruct the public about forestry. It also works hard to get the voice of forestry in the media, with occasional success.

Forestry Journal: Stuart Goodall of Confor Stuart Goodall of Confor

We also have Grown In Britain, the Small Woods Association, Woodland Heritage and several others, all running campaigns for us to get behind (or at least share on social media), with websites packed with resources. However, a trade body will never have the same success at gaining trust as the ‘real’ voices of the people working in the industry. We are blessed with some great forestry ‘bloggers’, often featured in this magazine, who are doing a great job of showing what goes on day-to-day in forestry.

The one thing we have up our sleeve in getting the public on board is psychological jujitsu. The fact they care about trees enough to feel felling them is wrong means we have something in common. We also love trees; it’s why we do the job. We’ve witnessed first-hand how a well-thinned woodland grows and is more abundant with wildlife. We have the knowledge, backed up by some great online resources, to prove the benefits of looking after woodlands properly. We also provide the grooviest raw material on the planet, which people in this country love to use. Plus it’s one of the sexiest jobs in the world (London now being full of people dressing like us in checked shirts and sporting beards). In principle, we can all be influencers.

I’ve said before that now is an important time for UK forestry. There are some crucial conversations to have, which will be more productive with a public that loves what we do. It’s up to every one of us to put the effort into winning the hearts of the people that we ultimately rely on to buy timber.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.