Burning ambition - the charcoal business helping woodlands flourish
Anna and Pete Grugeon concluded a European odyssey to look for some land of their own to settle on. They eventually decided to adopt a 12 acre woodland in Devon where they now live and work producing ethical and sustainable artisan charcoal products. Here they discuss how they have taken an area of largely commercially inert woodland and turned it into a successful business and self-sufficiency adventure – The Bulworthy Project.
When we first got together we spent some time travelling around Europe in an old split screen camper van. Sometimes we stayed at campsites. Sometimes we parked up at the side of the road. We really enjoyed our travelling and the freedom of it but felt inspired to own our own plot of land to have as a base. Back then we had a very different view of how we would use the land. We saw it as route to a free and easy life where we wouldn’t have to ‘work for the man’.
It took us five years to find the right plot of land. We wanted somewhere that had good road access and was relatively level. We knew we wanted woodland as we both spent much of our childhoods playing in the woods. Our budget was tight and most of the land that we looked at was unsuitable, either under water or on such a slope it was virtually a cliff. We were living in Bristol and wanted land not too far from there. Devon was further than we would have ideally chosen but the woods we finally decided on ticked every other box and as we are just off the A361 it was easy to get to.
During the time we were looking ideas for the project evolved. We always knew that we would need some source of income. As we got a better understanding of planning permission, we knew we would have to run a business that required us to live on the land. Our woodland is young and in need of thinning for environmental reasons. This thinning is time consuming and produces small diameter wood of little or no commercial value. Charcoal was one of a number of ideas we had for products and it soon became apparent that it fulfilled our requirements perfectly because as well as requiring residence, charcoal making is the ideal way to turn this otherwise limited commodity into a high value product. We did not foresee ourselves making as much charcoal as we do but as soon as we started selling it we realised that we had found a niche in the market. Most barbecue charcoal used in the UK is poor quality, imported charcoal which often contains chemical additives. There is a growing number of people who want to buy ethically and sustainably produced products and no-one really wants to cook their food over an unknown cocktail of chemicals.
There is a resurgence of charcoal making in Britain. It is hard to tell how many charcoal makers their are due to the solitary nature of the vocation and most produce only a relatively small amount of charcoal as part of a woodland management plan.
We now manage another woodland which belongs to some friends of ours, but most of the wood for our charcoal comes from our woods. As you can use every part of the tree down to branches that are just over an inch thick for charcoal, you get the most from each tree you harvest. By managing the woodland sustainably the trees grow as fast as you harvest them. We use a number of forestry techniques including pollarding, coppicing and continuous cover forestry. High quality charcoal can only be made from deciduous trees, so although we have removed a lot of conifers, as these are of little use to us, there is also an environmental advantage as they shade out our crop of deciduous trees. Our artists charcoal is produced from coppiced willow cut on a two year rotation. This is crack willow and goat willow which both grow prolifically on our land and has no commercial value otherwise. We know our land intimately and although there is no written management plan, each area is managed as well as possible for environmental reasons. Devon Wildlife Trust described the result as “a mosaic of habitats”.
We have always been able to sell as much charcoal as we can produce and we now have to turn down new outlets so that we can keep up with demand. This is partly the reason that we are so keen to teach others how to make charcoal. The more people who make high quality charcoal the more the market for it will develop and expand. Many people, however, only want to make a small amount of charcoal for their own use. For this reason we are setting up a very basic small kiln made from an oil drum to demonstrate how it is done for this year’s charcoal courses.
We also love to teach people not only about making charcoal but also about food-smoking, foraging and various other aspects of our lifestyle. Because we are relatively new to all this, having only lived like this for five years, we can demonstrate that you do not have to be born into this lifestyle to live it. It has been a lot of hard work to set up this project but it is immensely rewarding and hopefully we can play a small part in inspiring others to follow their own visions of how they want to live their lives. We also occasionally host courses taught by interesting people who have skills to share and whom we feel are inspiring teachers.
We have always wanted to live a low impact lifestyle and this was the driving force behind the project. We never wanted to be entirely self-sufficient although we have always wanted to produce and forage much of our food. There is something about being close to the source of your food that makes you feel connected to the earth in the same way that producing a high quality cooking fuel from small bits of wood does. As a result the effect that your actions have on the earth seems more real. We also eat better than we ever have before. Our chickens forage much of their diet which makes their eggs and meat so much more flavoursome than anything that you can buy. We eat large quantities of mushrooms from ceps and chanterelle to beefsteak fungi and hedgehog fungi. Wild salad is abundant for most of the year and has that seasonal variation which enforces constant change in diet. Wild meat has the best flavour and is the most sustainable form of protein available. We regularly eat pigeon, venison and rabbit. We have also tried squirrel many times but unfortunately it is not that tasty. We are getting pigs soon and we’re very excited about this. We have been making our own bacon using locally produced pork for a couple of years now and we are really looking forward to tasting our own bacon from our own pigs.
The South West is a popular choice for many people who live a more self sufficient lifestyle. However, the very nature of self-sufficient setups is that they are scattered around, but we are lucky that our convenient position just off the North Devon Link Road means that our friends in the area who have similar projects often drop in when passing.
With the courses that we run we attract like-minded people which makes them an opportunity to share ideas. We also host networking events that enable people to share skills, ideas and resources and with more and more people looking to get involved in environmental projects this becomes an invaluable facet of these gatherings.
You can find our more about the Bulworthy Project by visiting its website here.
Most recent Crafts articles
- Paracord weaving: make a survival bracelet 17th January, 2015
- Picture tutorial: Make a PVC pipe bow 03rd January, 2015
- Shake it up – handmade coconut shell maracas 05th November, 2014
- Craft Project: Handmade Bamboo Flute 30th October, 2014
- Craft project: DIY bottle cap tambourine 21st October, 2014
- Project: Making a CD drop spindle 24th April, 2014