Felling Oaks in the Woodlands

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The able official who practically created the Forest Department of India once remarked to the writer that the strongest evidence of the wealth of the English landed proprietors was the large-minded way in which they refused to have anything to say to scientific forestry.

They keep enormous parks, in which the timber is intended solely for ornament, and ancient and decayed trees are left till they rot, beautiful ruins of trees; and in their woods and coverts the picturesque and not the profitable is the apparent aim of the British woodman. The trees are left at wide distances apart, they throw out branches from the sides, the stems deteriorate, and though British oak was famous stuff for making curly-grained dining-tables and the “knees” of old line-of-battle ships, builders will not buy British timber, and special clauses are inserted in contracts forbidding its use.

What, then, do they prefer? The rivals of the English woodland produce are the hard-woods of Germany, Austria, and France—teak for ship work, and for other purposes foreign deals and pine. Their superiority lies partly in the way in which the timber is grown. The ground is planted with beech, ash, elm, and oak, mixed with other species, as close as they will grow together. There is almost no “thinning,” so dear to the English woodman, and the maximum quantity is raised per acre. Being crowded, it shoots up tall and straight, throws out no side branches, and makes those straight “sticks” which the builder’s heart desires.

These woods, though profitable, are not beautiful, neither are they ideal covert for game. At the same time they are in all stages of growth, because a certain part of the wood is cut every year. The income is regular, and it is always known what area will be in “low slop,” and suited for young pheasants, what will be growing saplings, and what tall timber.

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Let us see the opposite system, or want of system—timber in An English Wood. Here we may have one of two kinds of covert. It either consists of a mixture of fifteen or twenty kinds of tree, usually planted with little regard to soil and suitability of site. There will be elms, oaks, ash, cherry, beech, sycamore, poplar, plane, horse chestnuts, hornbeams, sweet chestnuts, and below anything, from English yew to rhododendrons from the Himalayas. It is very pretty, rather expensive, and very fair covert for game.

The woodman’s idea is to make each tree as large and branching as possible, to let in plenty of light, and to grow plenty of branches. The trees are of all sizes and ages, and the time at which felling should be done is usually determined by the state of the owner’s pocket. He gets no annual return whatever.

Or it may be an oak wood, the natural growth of a good clay soil, such a covert as that in which the work of felling and cutting up the trees is going on in our illustration. This is one of the most ancient forms of English timber growing. The trees grow up as they can, from seedlings, and are felled according to age. This has the disadvantage of disturbing all the covert just at the time when pheasants are laying, for the oak must be felled in the spring when the sap is running up.

The reason for this is that the bark, which is carefully removed to be sold to the tanyards, always comes off easily at that season. Oak felling is then a charming business for those engaged in it. The woods are quite at their best, full of birds and spring flowers, yet it is not too hot, and the work, though hard, is not exhausting.

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As even English oak is too valuable to waste (there are always local wheelwrights and small builders who will buy it), the trunk is carefully sawn through, so as not to waste wood, though before the saw is applied a shallow ring is notched round with an axe. Then the bark is stripped, not only from the trunk, but from all branches from which it can be detached, and set up to dry—the large parts in long rows, on end, with slabs of curved bark laid lengthways over them like a ridge-tile, the smaller bits in lightly-built stacks.

These small portions are collected in very large baskets, which sometimes are used as panniers, and carried from one part of the wood to another by horses. The bare white trunks then lie among the growing fern, teasels, wood elders, and other plants, until the woodmen think the time has come for Carting The Top And Lop.

The larger branches are stacked for cutting into firewood (of the expensive kind), or making into those uncomfortable rustic seats for which the useless angular oak boughs of our English-grown trees are suited. The smaller branches are cut up and tied into faggots for ordinary firewood, namely, that which is cut up with the billhook for labourers’ cottage fires.

Lastly, The Wood-Cart transports the remains of the oaks along the marly woodside to the timber-yard. But in most cases the “top and lop” and bark go many months before the trunks, which are left to “weather” in the wood.

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Great quantities of English oak are used for barrier known as “split oak fencing.” It is almost the best of wooden fencing for parks and gardens, lasts sometimes for fifty years, and is very ornamental. It seems probable that we are on the eve of an improvement in the management of woods on our landed estates.

Without imitating too closely the methods in vogue on the Continent, there is room for the profitable employment of capital in planting and improving woods. See, for example, a valuable chapter in Mr. H. H. Smith’s “Principles of Landed Estate Management” (Arnold), lately published. If such a conviction is justified, we shall see a great improvement in the landscape and amenities of rural England.

Country Life Illustrated – Feb. 11th, 1899

—Jeff Burks

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3 Responses to Felling Oaks in the Woodlands

  1. Rick says:

    An English friend told me there is still a tannery in Devon, I believe, which uses oak bark to this day. Thanks for posting –

  2. Wonderful to read this. Thanks.
    “Without imitating too closely the methods in vogue on the Continent….”

  3. Richard O. Byrne says:

    Jeff – You guys should talk: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/14704e85a96fdbe5

    Richard O. Byrne

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