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The Burning Issue

Having a summer barbecue? Watch what you put on it

Daily Telegraph , July 2006

Behind a locked gate somewhere in Richmond Park, in Surrey, is a hidden clearing in a wood of beech, birch and oak. The clearing is dotted with stacks of logs and lined on one side with three battered old tractors. Pink foxgloves grow in the spaces that have been opened up by the thinning of trees.

In the centre of the clearing stand two enormous rusty kilns. One of them is stacked full of cut wood, on top of which rests a wide, round lid. The other is full of charcoal. In the middle of it, wearing a grey boiler suit and a protective helmet, stands Simon Levy, charcoal maker. He is shifting great spadeloads of charcoal into bags. As he does so, the clearing fills with grey dust, through which the midsummer sunlight filters before it hits the thin trunks of the oak trees beyond.

‘I can’t tell you how lucky I am to be here’, he says, through his mask. ‘This park is just stunning.’

Levy has been a charcoal maker for a decade, and has worked in this patch of woodland for half that time. This time of year, as millions of us drag our barbecues from the shed and dust them off for the summer, is his busiest. He is passionate about the woods he manages, and passionate, too, about getting people to understand that when they buy charcoal, they should buy British. This is not some jingoistic prejudice, he says: it’s about a genuine example of that much overused phrase ‘sustainable development.’

When he’s finished shovelling, and changed out of his stifling costume, he walks me around the clearing explaining what he means. Over ninety percent of the charcoal we buy for our barbecues, he explains, is imported. A good deal of that will be the by-product of destructive tropical logging, or the clearing of mangrove swamps for shrimp farms. Millions of bags of half-burned tropical wood will be flown halfway around the world so that we can burn it further to cook our sausages. Meanwhile, our own woodlands are neglected and underused.

‘This is an industry that can that benefit environment, economy and society’, he tells me, ‘and there are very few examples of that. Take this woodland here. When I came in it was overgrown and dark. The trees were too close together, so some of them would die off. What I’ve done is to open it up. That has meant that wildlife has flourished and I’ve produced wood products like planks, firewood and charcoal which I can make something of a living from.’

Levy speaks from experience. A qualified environmental scientist and professional forester he has seen, and helped to manage, forests all over the world. He certifies woodlands for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international body which promotes responsible forestry, and is one of the founders of the Bioregional Charcoal Company (BRCC).

Now in its 11 th year, BRCC co-ordinates a national network of 25 charcoal producers like Simon, producing 300 tons of charcoal a year. They say that their charcoal produces 85% less CO2, the main greenhouse gas, than the imported variety – largely because there is no need to fly it around the world. Their work supports 16 rural jobs and the sustainable management of around 400 hectares of woodland.

As Simon Levy explains, the apparent paradox is that having people like him working in our woodlands, producing wood products for sale, is the best environmental approach.

‘You have to remember that British woods are a manmade environment’ he says. ‘We don’t have intact virgin forest; the nearest thing we have is ancient semi-natural woodland, and that environment is the result of coppicing and felling. The wildlife – the fritillary butterflies, the nightingales – all relate to the management of the woodland. If we don’t manage it, the diversity disappears.’

As the evening sun floods the glade, Levy shows me how his kilns work. First you fill a kiln with dry wood, he tells me: you lay air channels in the shape of a cartwheel at the base, and light it with bits of charcoal that haven’t quite made the grade. After an hour you fix chimneys on the top and seal the air inlets with sand. Very little air gets into the kiln as it burns, but enough to do the job. After 28 hours the burn is finished, and – assuming you have let just the right amount of air in – you have a kiln full of charcoal. It sounds, I say to him, like a real skill.

‘No, not at all’, he says, cheerily. ‘A baboon could do it! It just gives me the opportunity to spend my time here, hopefully to improve it – and just to mess about, really. I love this place, and I love getting dirty.’ He grins. ‘I know how lucky I am.’

Bioregional Charcoal Company products can be purchased at B&Q and Asda. http://www.bioregional.com/programme_projects/forestry_prog/charcoal/char_hmpg.htm