First published August 2009, updated September 2011.
I kept the shed on my previous property out in the boonies warm, well; sort of warm, using a pretty efficient modern slow combustion wood heater. I was revegetating the block and there wasn’t much wood laying around so consequently I was buying extra wood in. I didn’t think to find out where it came from.
When travelling back to the city one day, I noticed a local farmer was cutting down windbreak trees. Trees in that area grow very slowly and the ones being felled were decades old. It had been a poor season due to the ongoing drought so he was cutting them down to sell as firewood.
I felt sorry for him that he had to do such a thing. Then it struck me – was the wood I bought acquired from a similar struggling farmer? Those trees are so important for reducing soil erosion by acting as windbreak. The removal of trees also contributes to salinity in the local environment and interferes with movement of water under the surface. Trees also provide added fertility to the soil when they drop leaves and branches, plus habitat and shelter for animals.
This farmer was actually probably causing himself more long term problems – if the soil was poor before he cut down the trees; it’s going to be even worse after doing so. However, he was caught between a rock and hard place financially.
The next time you’re buying wood; ask about the source – does it come from a wood lot (renewable resource) or is it from general clearing?
Farmers need to be encouraged to set aside land for wood lot purposes or to extend the depth of windbreaks just in case in the future they need to harvest some trees to get them out of a tight financial spot; rather than clear what little protection their land has in times of drought.
Also check to see how far away the wood has been shipped from; try to source it relatively locally – in some instances, it may be transported hundreds of miles, giving it an extra fossil fuel footprint.
Handy firewood buying tip:
Ensure the timber you buy is dry. Damp or “green” timber will create more smoke and carbon dioxide emissions. You’ll also pay up to 25% more when you take into account water weight. The easiest way to gauge if wood is reasonably dry is through sound. Rap on a sample piece with your knuckles. Dry wood should make a “toc, toc” type sound whereas green wood will make more of a dull thumping sound.
Collecting your own wood
There are a few important points to bear in mind when collecting your own wood
Never, ever trespass onto someone’s land to collect wood – if the land owner is anything like me, he’s likely to view it dimly … at best. You’ll not only be at risk of being prosecuted for trespass, but also theft… among other undesirable possible consequences such as damage to your vehicle or person inflicted by the irate farmer or land owner.
Even collecting wood from roadsides can be an offence; so you should check with your local authorities about whether it is permissible and if you’ll need a special permit.
Dead trees still standing may seem like a great candidate for an axe or a chainsaw, but they can be important habitats for birds and other creatures that utilise hollows for protection or nesting purposes. These hollows can take decades to form and are prime real estate for these creatures. Dead trees also attract bugs that other creatures may feast on.
As with dead trees, fallen wood is a habitat for many creatures. As I was gathering wood on my current property and noticing all the bugs, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a good idea to clear an entire area of fallen wood for this reason – to leave some behind. Additionally, the wood also adds nourishment to the soil as it decomposes.
Instead of buying or collecting wood, consider wood pellets. These are generally made from compacted sawdust and are a byproduct of milling operations. Given their density and low moisture content, they have excellent combustion efficiency, burning very cleanly.
… and don’t forget – there’s a stack of uses for wood ashes!