Hazel, willow, beef and storytelling from Bedfordshire

Fuel for thought. How your choice of charcoal affects the world

Last September, I met Lyndsey from Central Beds Council at Centenary Wood, near Greenfield, to talk about some ride widening she wanted us to do for her. In return for taking out some young trees that were overshadowing some paths and causing them to stay muddy through most of the year, we’d get to bring the wood home for use in our developing charcoal business.

wassledine british lumpwood charcoal
Charcoal from the retort

Come January, we are ready to start, so agree to put up signs to warn local people that there will be some tree cutting happening in the next couple of weeks – it’s a well-liked and well used bit of woodland and keeping people informed is always a good plan. Shortly afterwards, Lyndsey calls to tell me that she has received an objection from a local man who doesn’t approve of what was being proposed. I’ve been involved in plenty of projects where cutting trees down in public places was required so wasn’t greatly surprised, but generally, once they have all the facts, people tend to approve of this kind of thing. Not in this case. Our bloke wasn’t to be persuaded. He didn’t like our plan to make charcoal from the trees cut and considered it a better option for the cut wood to be used for furniture or just left to rot. Here’s someone, I thought, who cares.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t burn anything that releases carbon to the atmosphere. However, for any of us who eats cooked food, that’s difficult currently. The ideal world needs to be where we end up but we aren’t there yet.

We all love a barbeque and even though it isn’t essential, I’d hate cooking on coals to be seen as a guilty pleasure. Whether you’re eating aubergines, sweet corn or an organic banger, it all needs cooking and there’s some who would suggest that locally made charcoal from well-managed British woodlands does less damage to the environment than natural gas and the oil many of us use in Gravenhurst.

Wassledine lumpwood charcoal burning bright and hot
Wassledine lumpwood charcoal burning bright and hot

Which brings me to choices in charcoal. Currently, imports into the UK are unregulated; a supplier doesn’t have to state the country of origin or manufacture or what else has been added to the product before it reaches your grill. The UK imports something like 90% of the barbeque charcoal used and like so many things we buy, if it’s very cheap, we should perhaps suspect that somewhere in the supply chain, something or someone has been exploited. It’s difficult to be certain but there is strong evidence that at least some imported charcoal comes from illegally logged, primary forests, where local people are working for little pay in dangerous conditions and damaging or even destroying pristine habitats in the process.

Even without those compelling reasons, buying British charcoal makes a lot of sense. If it’s made somewhere close to home, relatively little energy has been used to get it to you. In addition, purchase from a maker in Britain and you’ll probably be supporting a small, local business run by people obsessed with the conservation of British woodlands and the species they support.

Wassledine’s charcoal bagged and ready for sale at Franklin’s Farm Shop near Sandy

Many of our purchasing decisions are fraught with difficulties if we give them more than the slightest thought, but that’s not the case with charcoal. So how do you know your charcoal is from the UK? Easy. If the packaging doesn’t actually tell you then it probably isn’t. Every maker we know makes a point of shouting about the provenance of their product.

And what about Centenary Wood and our objector? After long discussion with him and various of Central’s staff, we went ahead and haven’t heard anything further; indeed everyone else we’ve spoken to seems to think it’s great – the rides in the wood are looking wide, green and airy. The trees felled have been sitting in our wood for a few months and will be cut and split soon, to season and be converted to charcoal next year.

As well as selling our charcoal direct, by appointment, we sell through several local outlets, including, we hope, the much-awaited Disco-licious farm shop at Lower Gravenhurst very soon.

More information about our charcoal at www.wassledine.co.uk/woodland-products/charcoal

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