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BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: Wood and Trees – War and Remembrance

July 1, 2014

Gabriel Hemery

BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: Wood and Trees: War and Remembrance

BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: Wood and Trees: War and Remembrance

I recently joined Paul Gough and Gail Ritchie to discuss, with presenter Samira Ahmed, the meaning of trees and wood in war and peacetime for BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking.

Discussions ranged from Paul Nash’s paintings of blasted tree stumps in the first world war and the army’s amazing periscope trees, to today’s commemorative planting initiatives. James Taylor from the Imperial War Museum also shared some fascinating insights into the role of wood in the Great War.

The programme is broadcast today at 22:00 or you can catch up afterwards via the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking web page


Public attitudes to trees and wood – survey results

February 18, 2012

Gabriel Hemery

Q7 When were you last in a woodland?

I conducted a small online survey concerning public attitudes to trees and wood over the Christmas period (December 2011 – January 2012). I collected 83 responses to the survey, which I designed using Survey Monkey. I am the first to admit that the survey had some shortcomings in design, in that my lack of understanding of social sciences and in questionnaire design, probably led to some curious phrasing.  Nonetheless I think that the results make for interesting reading.

My intention was to explore some of the deeper public attitudes to forestry as an industry; what people perceive it to be about, its importance and power. I also asked questions relating to the importance and prominence of wood in people’s lives today.

The questions emerged from some of my personal everyday experiences as a forester in talking and working with members of the public. For instance I have held conversations with a number of people who have felt that trees should never be cut down in any circumstances, and that it is quite possible for wood to be harvested from trees that have died naturally. Question 10 confirms that this view does exist although it is held by a rare minority. Clearly this is a view that demonstrates a disconnection from the realities of the amount and importance of timber in our everyday lives (Q5 & Q6), and that the needs of modern society could never be amassed from unmanaged forests alone. It is also, perhaps, prejudiced by a view that forests cannot be managed sustainably and that forestry is a powerful and harmful industry (Q9).

I explored in Question 8 what activities people thought ‘forestry’ concerned. I was very surprised that 23% of respondents thought that it had little or no relevance to green energy. Within the sector, the emerging opportunities for wood heat and energy are driving forestry policies and seen as the economic saviour for struggling woodland owners. Yet externally it is seen as irrelevant by many. Quite a large proportion of respondents also thought that forestry was not particularly relevant to flood management (e.g. planting trees in water catchments, reducing bank erosion) or climate change (e.g. reducing heating/cooling needs in cities, providing habitat for displaced species). The examples here are my own and were not included in the survey. A lack of appreciation by respondents for the diverse benefits arising from sustainable forest management is the main message here.

I also wanted to explore a fundamental area that I have written about before on this blog and spoken about publicly; namely the concept that cutting down trees is seen as a bad thing, even though wood is commonplace for all of us in modern society (e.g. The Art & Joy of Wood).  I have drawn comparisons between farming animals for meat (shrink-wrapped supermarket meat and the idea that it was once part of a living animal), and forestry and the concept that we surround ourselves with wood in our homes and workplaces yet object to the concept of felling a tree for its wood. I have referred to this using the term nature deficit disorder. I am not sure that I have been successful in teasing out any data on this here so I may need to return to this area in the future.

Gabriel Hemery

Summary results for the 10 questions

Question 1: In what country do you live?

The majority of respondents (77%) were from the UK.

Q1 In what country do you live?

Percentage of respondents from different countries (N=83)

Question 2: Are you male or female?

There was a fairly even split between the number of respondents being male (58%)  and female (42%).

Q2 Are you male or female?

Percentage of respondents male or female (N=83)

Question 3: What category is your age?

Most respondents were aged between 50-59 (N=24), followed by those between 40-49 (N=20). Only 3 respondents were 29 years of age or less. 17 respondents were over 60 years of age.

Q3 Age category

Number of respondents in different age categories (N=83)

Question 4: Have you ever worked in any of the following professions or consider yourself an expert in any of the following subjects?

53% (N-44) of respondents did not consider themselves to be experts or to have relevant professional experience in a number of related subjects. Among those who did consider themselves experts, 16% cited forestry, followed by 6% in arboriculture. No respondents cited wood technology experience.

Q4 Non-expert or relevant professional experience?

Number of respondents with relevant professional experience (N=83)

Question 5: How important do you think wood is to modern life?

88% of respondents believed that wood is very important to modern life; the remaining 18% believing it is quite important.

Q5 Importance of wood to modern life?

Respondents' answers to the importance of wood to modern life (N=83)

Question 6: How much wood is there in your life?

This question explored the presence of wood in people’s homes and workplaces. Very few respondents had woodchip boilers at their workplace (N=2) or home (N=4). Most respondents recognised the importance of paper and furniture. Some additional responses to this question included: rustic use in properties, timber-framed roofing, wooden beehives, guitars, carvings, cooking fuel and packaging materials.

Q6 How much wood is there in your life?

Multiple category answers to "How much wood is there in your life?" (N=83)

Question 7: When were you last in a woodland?

The majority of respondents (47%) had last visited a woodland within a week. Two respondents had never visited a woodland. One respondent added that they lived in a wood.

Q7 When were you last in a woodland?

When were you last in a woodland? (N=83)

Question 8: How strongly do you think the following activities are part of Forestry?

This question provoked some complaints from respondents in that Forestry was not defined. Indeed it was not defined but this was deliberate as I was seeking to explore what people believed forestry was about. The activities thought to be least part of forestry were landscape design, followed by flood management and green energy.

I explored these data further by filtering responses from experts and non-experts (Question 4). Of the 18 respondents who cited flood management as being rarely or never part of forestry, 10 were experts. Of the 19 respondents (23%) who cited green energy as being rarely or never part of forestry, 8 were experts.

Nine respondents (3 were experts) cited climate change as being rarely (N=5) or never (N=4)  part of forestry.

Q8 How strongly do you think the following activities are part of Forestry?

Scores for how strongly respondents thought the following activities are part of Forestry. (1) NEVER, (2) RARELY, (3) USUALLY, (4) ALWAYS

Question 9: How strongly to you agree with the following statements about Forestry?

In line with Q8 some respondents complained about the lack of a definition for Forestry. The strongest disagreement concerned the statement that Forestry only concerns timber production. The statement that Forestry is a powerful industry was most contentious, in terms of similarity of responses (15 didn’t agree/17 totally agreed).

I explored further the question concerning whether respondents considered forestry to be an Environmentally Sustainable Industry. There were no significant differences in the responses from Non-experts and Experts (Q4) with both categories having 10 respondents answering Partially, and 2 and 1 respectively answering Don’t agree.

Q9 How strongly to you agree with the following statements about Forestry?

Counts for strength of view on statements about forestry (N=82)

Question 10: Which of the following statements about tree felling do you agree with?

Most respondents agreed with the statement that Trees can be cut down if they are replaced with new tree(s). One respondent answered that Trees should never be cut down, and 2 respondents answered that Trees should not be cut down in my country.

Q10 Which of the following statements about tree felling do you agree with?

Counts for agreement about statements concerning tree felling (N=82)

Biochar explained

December 12, 2011

Gabriel Hemery


Biochar was one of those terms that when first heard left me none-the-wiser. You mean it’s charcoal but with a different name – why’s that? You bury it – that seems a waste, why not burn it? In case it’s a new term to you, here’s a brief overview of biochar.

Biochar – what is it?

Biochar is a plant-based product, generated by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. It can be made from wood, in which case it is no different in from charcoal, except that producers say the manufacturing process is more efficient and greener with the modern equipment used for biochar production than old-fashioned charcoal kilns.  It also differs from charcoal in that it can be made from other plant material including straw, grain, stalks and roots. It is normally of fine size, for example tiny fragments or even dust.

How is biochar made?

By burning in a kiln without oxygen and at very high temperatures, typically over 350°C,  the plant cells breakdown with the cellulose and lignin forming amorphous carbon (biochar), CO2, water and some other volatiles. The technical term for this process is pyrolysis.


Biochar in the hand - used here for soil improvement in a new tree planting scheme

Biochar – what’s the big idea?

Biochar first surfaced when Peter Read, a research fellow at Massey University in New Zealand, coined the term in 2005 to describe finely divided pyrolysed biomass material prepared specifically for soil improvement. Biochar can improve soil fertility, structure, acidity and water quality, while also reducing the need for fertilisers and watering. Biochar is not a new idea but one based on a technique used by Amazonian Indians to improve soil conditions, where it is called Terra preta.

What really excited environmentalists was the idea that biochar can sequester carbon (capture it). Instead of burning organic material (as in the traditional use for charcoal), if biochar is buried instead then the carbon ‘locked’ in it will be permanently removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, using biochar could in theory help us lower our carbon emissions and prevent climate warming.

Biochar – debate and contention

Biochar has attracted much heated debate. Among its supporters is James Lovelock, the founder of the Gaia hypothesis, while against has been Biofuelwatch, the Organic Consumers Association, and the Rainforest Action Network. One of the most interesting discussions was initiated by a damning article by environmental commentator George Monbiot in UK newspaper The Guardian in 2009. In the defence of biochar, both originator Peter Read and James Lovelock, responded in what turned out to be a fascinating debate.

“This gift of nature is the best way to save us from climate catastrophe. Biochar schemes would remove carbon from the atmosphere and increase food supply.” Peter Read

“There is an outside chance that one procedure could really turn back the clock on Global warming and that is burying carbon. All you have to do is get every farmer everywhere to make a profit by turning all his agricultural waste into char and burying it. “James Lovelock

Gabriel Hemery

Further reading

  • The Biochar Debate: Charcoal’s Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility
    By James Bruges. 120 pp. Chelsea Green Publishing. (2010)
  • Oxford Biochar
  • Biochar Innovation

Survey on public attitudes to Trees and Wood

November 28, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

Poll at

I am conducting a survey on public attitudes to Forestry, specifically Trees and Wood. The results will be published publicly when analyses are complete; possibly as a research article.

To produce a meaningful result I need as many respondents as possible. I encourage you to take part; it will take less than five minutes of your time. It is open to anyone … anywhere.

Please also forward this post, or if you prefer the link below, to your friends:

To take part in the survey click the link below. You will be directed to a survey page hosted by Survey Monkey:

Click here to take part in the Trees & Wood survey

Thank you

Gabriel Hemery

Top ten gifts for the tree and nature lover

November 11, 2011

Gabriel Hemery

tree gifts

With Christmas just over one month away, we are all beginning to think about gifts for friends and family. Here’s my top ten list of gifts for all tree, woodland and nature lovers.  If you’re looking for a little inspiration, I hope this is of some help. If you know of other ideas, why not add them as a comment and share with other readers?


A tree! Maybe this should be number one.  Look for the unusual and beautiful, such as those that produce food too: e.g. Black mulberry or a walnut cultivar. There are several companies that can deliver trees direct in the post presented in gift wrap. For something a little different why not gift some native hedging, containing dogwood, spindle, wayfarer, hazel and hawthorn (or ‘quicks): you need to account for about 6 plants per metre (or yard) and about 50% should be hawthorn.


Top quality pruning tools make all the difference when caring for your trees; reducing tree damage while improving your safety.


Tremendous tree books and Magical films


A camera to provide a focus for tree and nature interest. Read more about Tree Photography.


Why not have a hot drink in the outdoors without having to make up and carry a flask?  The engineering of the kelly kettle or storm kettle are fantastic:- boil enough water for a couple of mugs of hot tea with just a few twigs. It’s good fun too and kids love it.


If you live in the UK the ForestXplorer app from the Forestry Commission for use with the iPhone: “carry the forest in your pocket”.  Download or gift from it from the itunes store. An alternative smartphone gift would be a level or theodolite app, which can be used to measure the height of a tree.


A quality bushcraft knife, using handmade quality steel using local hardwoods for the handle, such as the Woodlander series from Ben Orford.


A top quality tree planting spade. Look for full strapping, where the metal extends right up the wooden handle. Foresters prefer to use a Schlick:- a design that can be used anywhere and will last a lifetime.  Here’s one UK forestry supplier’s description.


Serious forester gadgets to help measure and assess trees and woodlands.  Consider a clinometer (for estimating tree height), diameter tape (for measuring tree stem diameter), or a GPS for plotting the location of trees and woodland boundaries.  When it comes to keeping all those notes dry, I’m a huge fan of the WeatherWriter clipboards.


Being comfortable in the great outdoors makes all the difference, and will help make most of many of these gifts when using them in the woods. Quality jackets such as those by Patagonia or Swanndri (especially the latter’s famous bush shirt) combine unique features and construction to provide silent wear (great for watching wildlife) and comfort in inclement weather. Don’t forget feet either, as cold toes will ruin any day in the countryside. You can’t beat a pair of neoprene-lined wellington boots for the ultimate in luxury and comfort, such as those made by Chameau or Hunter.

tree giftsSome free ideas

  • Sign up or gift a membership to – adopt a local tree and help contribute to the future of trees across Europe.
  • A subscription to this blog – it’s free!  Just enter your, or a friend’s, email in the FOLLOW ME box at the bottom of this page ….

Gabriel Hemery

Sandalwood – fragrant finery

Sandalwood billets and chips stacked ready for processing at the Mysore factory

Sandalwood Santalum album L., commonly known as East Indian Sandalwood or Chandan, is a small tropical tree highly prized for its wood and scented oil. Its wonderful fragrant oil is used in perfumes, toiletries and incense. It is a fascinating tree in many ways.

Sandalwood: the tree and its cultivation

Sandalwood is found throughout India, and most commonly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but is found rarely growing in the wild and classed as having ‘Vulnerable’ conservation status. It is has since been introduced to other countries, including Australia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Sandalwood trees thrive on a wide range of soils including sands, clays and loams, while some believe those growing on gravels or stoney soils have more highly scented wood.

It is a small tree growing only to about 13m and a stem diameter of 30cm to (rarely) 75cm. It has slender elegant branches. It flowers twice a year so flowering and fruiting often overlap, meaning that there is a steady supply of its small purplish-brown drupe.

Sandal is a semi-root parasite or hemiparasitic; requiring a host plant such as Acacia nilotica, Cajuns cajan, Cassia siamea, Casuarina equisetifolia, Mimosa pudica, Pongamia pinnata and Wrightia tinctoria. Trees can be raised from seed but must be planted next to one of these or other host species. The host tree is then carefully managed to ensure that sufficient light reaches the sandalwood seedling. Sandalwood will grow quite slowly in forest conditions (less than 1cm diameter a year) but can attain 5cm increment in favourable soils and climatic conditions. Later they are pruned regularly up to about one half of their height by removing all lateral branches. This promotes heartwood formation, which can start at about 7 years of age.

Sandalwood: uses

Only the heartwood of Santalum album has the properties that are most highly valued. The whole tree is harvested, including its roots, and any stem or root larger that 2.5cm in diameter is valuable. The wood is priced by weight, after cleaning, and categorised into billets, roots and chips.

Its wood has a very fine texture and is thought to be second only to ivory for use in intricate wood working. A large number of boxes and religious icons are made from its wood, which benefit from its perfumed scent. A wonderful collection of antique sandalwood boxes exist at the Palace of Mysore.

It has the highest oil and santol content compared to other species in the Santulum genus. The oil is extracted by distillation, from wood once it is split into small billets. Smaller parts and even the sawdust are also used; for example in incense sticks. The extracted oil is used in the manufacture of soaps, talcum powder, perfume and many other toiletry items.

Sandalwood factory photo story

During a recent visit to India, I was fortunate to visit a Government-run sandalwood factory at Mysore. About 140 employees work in the factory, where there is also a small shop. Up to 5kg of oil is extracted from 1 tonne of wood, bought in for about 300,000 Rupees. The oil fetches 100,000 Rupees per kg. Here is a photo story of my visit.

Gabriel Hemery

Related Links

Fragrant and Odiferous Trees

Art and Joy of Wood

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