Editor’s note: On 22 November, Tom spoke with Doug King-Smith about the challenges facing small woodland owners. This is an edited transcript of the first part of that conversation. Watch it in full on youtube: https://youtu.be/hMQXf8-fkuc


Tom: Watching the film I was inspired and also felt sympathetic for you – there were parts of the film that really made me feel quite sad, watching you looking at your oak trees that have been stripped by squirrels particularly got to me. So I guess my first question to you is why do you do it? Why did you take on this woodland and why do you continue to try and battle the elements, and battle the planning authorities to to improve what you have?


Doug King-Smith: It’s a question I don’t often ask myself, you know why am I doing this? It’s under the skin, and in the blood, I think that kind of commitment to a place. There’s a chap local to me here in Devon, called Martin Shaw who’s a storyteller and myth teller and he’s written a book called Scatterlings that in it the phrase that really grabbed me is being “claimed by a place” so I think why I do it is that I am passionately in love with that bit of land. The effort of it doesn’t come as an effort like that; it’s like a mutually enriching relationship. 

So even with all those struggles it’s not that I went into buying it in an illusion that it was going to be easy, I knew it was going to be difficult. I’d worked that bit of land for a couple of years as a volunteer before I bought it and I knew the challenges that were or some of the challenges that were going to be ahead. 

I didn’t realise it was going to take 10 years of struggle but it’s that sort of “commitment to a place.” I think that’s one of the things that I feel is definitely encouraging, in the small woodland owners group you know in people who are committed to small patches they have a personal vested interest in a piece of land, in bettering it, in caring for it and optimising it for whatever management criteria inspires them, whether that be environment, or small wooden produce, or community engagement or whatever else. 


Tom: I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s not the financial return from the woodland that inspires you or many of your fellow small woodland owners. 


Doug: I don’t think that’s a motivating force – that isn’t a motivating force for me but it’s one that has to be absolutely married with what we’re doing. When you commit to the level that we have as a family to the place, it’s not possible to keep doing that work without it working out financially. So it’s not that I don’t see the returns from managing 46 acres of pretty poorly managed woodland as a high-income earner, but as a sustainable enterprise. I think that is important, so that has to be balanced. 


Tom: I think a lot of kind of budding small woodland owners out there, a lot of people out there, would quite like the idea of owning a piece of woodland for themselves, I know I certainly would, but for those, it possible for the woodland to at least “wash its face” even if it isn’t going to be a highly profitable venture?


Doug: Absolutely, when you look at the economics of small woodland management, if you think of your basic inputs – the actual initial investment, aside from the value of land, at the moment which is quite even for small woodlands is is a significant investment, but it holds itself aside from that… The infrastructure and development equipment that you need for small wooden management is much lower than large-scale forestry. Machinery like a small tractor, a chainsaw and we bought a harvester secondhand, which was a fantastic bit of kit to enable us to deal with a phytophthora diseased wood, and with those investments it’s not a massive outlay, to then be able to be earning money.

With selling of timber, the initial products of firewood you’re looking at a small profit margin from the amount of work you put in, and then you can add your value by adding value to the product so as you create higher value products, you’re getting much more return from smaller amounts of timber. So that’s the model that works for small woodlands is by adding value to the timber it’s not just the large sawmill stems that can be sold as added value it’s also the small coppice products.

You know, we had a volunteer stay with us and he was earning his living by processing the twigs into keyrings which every Friday he was selling on the market! So there was stuff that I would just chuck back into the woods, as a biodiversity gain, and he was going through and going oh they’ve got some cherry twigs and and selling them as key rings. 

So it depends how creative you want to get with your product so a small woodland can – actually if it’s if it’s embedded in its local community and people see the value of of supporting that enterprise – then you can you know sell every bit of a tree. 


Tom: Yes, which is amazing to me because you know running running a reasonable sized sawmill I know we have to be quite fussy about logs being of a certain size to be economically viable, to be of a certain quality etc to get the products out of it that we can sell. It’s really interesting and great to hear that you know actually at a small scale you can utilize far more of the tree than we ever could, and actually get get an income as you say i mean if you can start even turning the twigs into something then you then you know you want to a real winner there… 

Doug: It was quite funny doing the economics of spoon making, and you know in a cubic meter of wood – if you were to look at it on a spreadsheet a cubic meter of wood as spoons, is a million pounds a cubic meter! 


But of course no one’s selling that amount of spoons… or I know i haven’t met anyone selling like that! I started this as a sculptor so sculpting wood. I’d visit a sawmill and pick up the waste wood from the sawmill planks that didn’t make it past the cut and then I’d turn them into sculptures, and that was so the sort of thinking of how do you add value to an element of the waste um yeah was what got you know how I earned my living for a while, and then that gave me the inspiration and also sort of the desire to share experiences in the natural world. So recognizing the importance of sustainable land management and the opportunity to engage other people in that that was a motivating force for me, in caring for the land was the engagement of others. Those two things together have sort of married well in this idea that the small woodlands can be economically viable and creative in using bits that otherwise wouldn’t be seen as a marketable product.


Tom: I really picked up on the fact that volunteers are an intrinsic part of of what you do and and and the way you kind of involve them obviously varies and you mentioned having the forestry course for for women um you know the olympics and and you know watching all those people raising the crook barn was amazing yeah now how how have you managed to inspire people to get them to come and lend a hand because obviously you know to be blunt you know you’ve got some some really good free labor there which is going to help you to to make your woodland work financially so how do you inspire them how do you how do you kind of get them to feel this this connection to to to get them to give up their time 


Doug: I think if anyone’s watching then you know send something in let us know what inspires you! Early on in Hillyfields, every winter I would host an event locally, a music night so separate from the woods and but each month we’d invite a folk artist to come and play and sing and that had a lovely feeling about it. So in the town, we’d host this concert and then I’d tell people about the work we were doing the activities we were doing. 

Every month we would hold a volunteer weekend, so an invitation for people who wanted to get out of their homes bring their children, get involved in the annual cycle of the woods and come for a couple of days or for a day each month. So we we were doing that for every month for 10 years, and these events happened in the winter months, so six events over the winter and at those events and then the story of Hillyfille had itself had like this sort of scale of epic proportions. 

The larch had disease, you know, it was a horrible thing to have to carry, to have to fell so many trees. There was a sort of interesting story to the woods itself, and with our desire to set up a small business that could sustainably restore the woodlands and provide products for the local communities, people are interested in doing it. 

I think what motivates people to come and volunteer is that hands-on engagement, and learning skills, sharing skills. and doing that in a community of other people it’s fun! It’s engaging, and people want those skills. 

There’s a there’s a disconnect at the moment between a lot of our lives and the practical hands-on experience that that a lot of us recognize as being very important for the transition period we’re in.


Tom: Have you found that the people that have come to volunteer – has their perception of what a woodland should be changed – after spending some time there and actually actively getting involved. I get the sense, and actually surveys underline this, that people’s perception of woodland is that it’s a static thing that should be protected and and left alone. That nature will take its course, and look after it and any kind of intervention by humans is a bad thing. Do people come with that perception and then change it after being involved…?


Doug: It’s a great question and I wish I had a follow-up questionnaire to people who volunteer and cut!  Ii can’t really say i’m sure that coming and volunteering does change people’s perception of what it takes to manage a woodland. It’s in a small scale management – the hands-on the actual labor that’s required because you’re not using large machinery. If you watch a harvester in action it will fail and clear a hillside in a matter of days, but for us, for a much smaller area, it took three months of solid teamwork to do that.

Yes, small woodland management is labour intensive work that brings people to their senses of what it takes. And for people who’ve been staying out in the woods, living simply, having to pump our spring water, break the ice in the winter you know they’ve really faced what it is to be connected to nature. Through the whole season’s work, it takes a lot, so I think yes in the context of what it takes practically in the work to manage woodland, but also what it takes to live in a connected way with the environment that you’re working in. I think that has a transformative power on people – in a positive way – absolutely.


Tom: As a as an industry you know we’re always trying to get the message out there that simply because a tree is being filled it’s not necessarily a bad thing and it can be a good thing if it’s part of management and people should understand this, but you know, always it seems like we’re pushing against a closed door and I think the way that we try and market that concept is all wrong because you’re telling people that they have to accept something they fundamentally think is wrong. I think because of the fact that in this country we have a disconnection from nature, and we have a disconnection from woodland because there just isn’t much of it. We don’t live in it and amongst it like they do in France or Germany or North America where it’s part of everyday life. 

So it’s a bit much to ask people just to understand a concept like forestry and how it works… It seems what you’ve got there is a really interesting model maybe for other small woodland owners and also I guess the industry in the forestry industry as a whole that to actually involve people on a more fundamental and physical basis is the best way to get people to understand what active management actually means in a landscape and in a woodland.


Doug: Yeah it’s that,  and it’s telling the story. So the event that we organize it’s a music night you know with soup! And then over the years it progressed to having slides on the walls so cinema where there were artists coming and taking photographs in the woods and then those were being projected on the walls so there was you know the woodland came into the room and we’d bring in coppiced hazel poles, and willow from the willow that we were growing and sell some of our products and then we started working with other land-based projects locally so there was a youth initiative and we got them on board and they were advertising what they were doing and inviting people to volunteer with them so there’s that telling of the story really counts and it’s like what you were sharing then Tom, is absolutely critical that that misunderstanding of oh a tree is this static object that you mustn’t cut down and to do that is harming the tree in some circumstances of course it is. 

We’re chopping down the oldest pear tree in the country to make way for a high-speed railway, that’s not okay in my book, that is not an appropriate respect for the veteran trees of the country. But for a coppiced woodland, or for pollarding, or for selective thinning to allow the trees around to reach their maturity – that’s an essential part of management, and something that just takes talking to people and explaining that process. Let them see that some of these trees would be dead had they not been cut periodically over their lifetime, so that story has to be told. 

And it’s really unfortunate that we have some of the most influential woodland organisations like the Woodland Trust just sent out for the celebration of the Tree Charter year, they sent out a plywood disk with a poem written saying “Oh cutter,” you know, really dissing the forester. “Have you got a heart?” it was saying, because of cutting the tree, and that is just so insulting to the public.  

People need a change to actually understand what a healthy managed woodland is. That’s something that I think we really need to get our heads around, with this push to plant trees, that we have so many neglected woodlands which are decaying. It’s not just that they’re sitting there and the wilderness, this wildness, is in a healthy balance. They are getting completely taken over by something like sycamore or rhododendron where it’s been planted up for shooting, it’s smothering the flora that should be a healthy diverse flora.

Woodlands are decaying we’re losing our biodiversity, and that to me is like one of the most significant things that we can inspire small woodland owners that whatever their interest, is if they put in a bit of energy into that management and engagement – whether it be pulling out some firewood and just giving it away or selling it locally (and you know there’s another conversation about where firewood selling is going at the moment and how that might be too costly for small woodland owners)… 

But if you put the energy into the land then you get the returns.

If you look at the benefit stacking of the environmental return, the community engagement, the products that are sequestering carbon – by making them into something rather than burning it, and the added value that you could have a an actual income working a place you love and engaging other people in the process… I mean that’s just a vibrant woodland culture, in my mind. 

You know what I’m seeing in our woods is the beginning.

Yes it’s been hard to get to where we are now and we’re only just getting through the building up of the infrastructure that will really support us with that but it’s it’s a very exciting time. How do we get these woodlands that have promised the millions and millions of millions of trees that we need?


Tom: Well, if you look at some of the numbers now, some of the the government pledges; 11 million trees by 2022, targets for 30,000 hectares a year every year. In England, in the last year we’ve managed 2 300 hectares and it’s commonly accepted that if you subtract from that the cutting from ash dieback, that we’re probably in a state of deforestation in England at the moment.


Editors notes: Watch the rest of this conversation on youtube: https://youtu.be/hMQXf8-fkuc?t=1299

Find out more about the series ‘Wood For The Trees’ and watch part six, filmed at Hillyfield Woodland Farm: Challenges and Opportunities for Small Woodland Management: Part Six of our series Wood For The Trees