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Forest Diary, entry four

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Row of Oaks

Autumn is a particularly busy time for me and my work in the New Forest. It’s this time of year when my plans for felling the oak trees to get timber to auction are put into place – an important part of my role as Harvester for the Forestry Commission.

The New Forest is home to many different sorts of hardwood trees, ranging from the common English oak, ash and beech to more exotic species such as sweet chestnut. These trees are an integral part of the forest, providing a variety of habitats for animals, insects and plant species.

These trees are also crucial to the region's continued supply of sustainably sourced timber – which is where we step in. Trees are thinned, felled and replanted every year, typically starting in autumn.

This seasonal timing for the desirable hardwood is necessary for a few reasons. In the autumn, the sap vacates the oak tree and the leaves fall off, therefore there is less moisture in the tree, making the timber more stable. There are also practical reasons; a bare tree is easier and safer to fell as the skilled chainsaw cutter can see into the canopy more easily.

Logs are then extracted from the forest using a vehicle called a skidder. The logs are presented at roadside ready for tagging - a method of measuring and numbering the logs. The branches are cut off, stacked and set aside (to sell as firewood and wood chipping) and timber lorries then transport the wood to the merchants and sawmills.

Any smaller branches, twigs and leaves that are left in the forest rot down and generate nutrients into the ground. Importantly, thinning woodland also opens up the forest canopy to provide more space for the other trees, while letting sunlight through to the undergrowth and wildlife. Birds, butterflies and insects, as well as plants such as orchids, primroses and fungi, all thrive on the sun’s energy.

Selling timber remains a large part of the Forestry Commission's business, with the income that’s generated ploughed back into managing the forest, protecting wildlife, providing healthy recreation and producing more renewable materials.

A key opportunity to sell timber is November's annual Westonbirt Hardwood Auction - where our New Forest District typically auctions between 1,000 and 2,000 cubic meters of hardwood. Merchants and sawmills from all over the UK will purchase timber from the New Forest, but often it is bought locally and it is always satisfying to see how local trees are used by people within the local community. Look out for next week’s column as we celebrate National Tree Week (26 November – 4 December 2011).  

Tim Dicker, Forestry Commission Direct Production Harvester