Tor McIntosh | Freelance writer and photographer

Charcoal Burning

Feature on charcoal burning for BBC Countryfile magazine

TOR McINTOSH learns the ancient woodland skill of charcoal burning, which is helping to manage and protect a unique woodland habitat near Tiverton, Devon.

Charcoal burning, as the name suggests, is a dirty business. Dressed in suitably scrubby attire, I arrived at Pete and Anna Grugeon’s woodland near Rackenford in Devon to learn this ancient craft. The couple produce charcoal for a living with wood from their mainly deciduous woodland, using oak, cherry, birch, willow, hazel and ash. “We manage our woodland as continuous cover forestry, which means trees are selectively felled,” Pete explained. “This ensures there is a balance of differently aged trees and sufficient light for regeneration.”

The production of wood charcoal – soft, brittle carbon created by heating wood without oxygen and removing water – dates to at least 6000 BC. Bronze Age Britons
used charcoal to smelt tin and copper to make bronze for swords, axes and jewellery. Charcoal is a better fuel than simply burning wood, as it has a higher energy
yield and burns longer. The process of making charcoal takes 36 hours, which includes 24 hours of cooling time, so to see the whole process, the course works backwards through the stages.

After a walk around the wood, we launched straight into grading the charcoal from an earlier burn. With Pete inside the metal ring kiln, shovelling the charcoal on to a chute, Anna and I checked each piece of charcoal for quality – discarding any ‘brown ends’ (part charred pieces of wood) – and breaking large pieces to a suitable size before placing them into branded brown sacks, which are then folded and stapled. It’s obvious Anna has done this oodles of times; her bags look perfect, mine a little less so. It’s reassuring to see that the charcoal still looks like pieces of wood rather than the neat charcoal briquettes many of us pile on our barbecues.

Read the full article here.

Published in BBC Countryfile, May 2011.