History of Woodlands in the Surrey Hills

BluebellsThroughout history people have been at work in the woodlands of the Surrey Hills. Swineherds brought pigs to feed on the beech mast, charcoal burners set up their camps to provide fuel for the iron smelting furnaces, and woodcutters sought timber for fuel and construction. Almost all parts of the tree were utilised. A single woodland, systematically cut and felled in rotation, would generate sustainable supplies of durable and attractive hardwoods such as oak, sweet chestnut and ash for use in a whole range of products including building timber, fencing material, charcoal, firewood, pea-sticks and oak bark for tanning leather.

A proportion of the Surrey Hill’s larger woodlands were once part of private estates such as Wotton and Albury Estates and as such were primarily retained to provide fuel and timber for use in the house and throughout the estate. There were also areas owned by the Crown and set aside for hunting, usually for deer but also other forms of game. These areas would not be solid woodland, rather a mosaic of woods, copse, wood pasture, heaths and commons.

Within the Surrey Hills are areas of conifer plantations, where the trees are managed for timber and planted with non-native trees, especially conifers. Many of these areas were once ancient semi-natural woodland, which was considered uneconomical after WW2. With the Government offering grants to landowners to replace existing woodland with more profitable conifers, many areas of ancient woodland were lost to conifer plantations. These areas are now known as PAWS (plantation on ancient woodland site) and today the opportunities for reversal are being investigated across the AONB.

Throughout the Surrey Hills you can still find people working in the woods but their numbers are much smaller than a century ago or even during World War Two. About 11% of the woodland is under active coppice management. Sweet chestnut is the most frequently cut wood today, because of its value for fencing, construction and furniture. Among the signs that indicate that a wood is being worked is the buzz of chainsaws, blue tarpaulin shelters of the coppice cutters with their stacks of split timber and plumes of smoke that drift up through the trees. However all too often today there is instead an eerie silence in winter, traditionally the busiest time of year in the woods.

WoodlandsHowever woodland is a sustainable resource and the industry is due for revival. It could play a bigger part in meeting the needs of the residents within the Surrey Hills and beyond; across the county wood boilers have been installed in several public and private buildings including Guildford University, High Ashurst, Birtley House and St James Primary School to name a few. The boilers require wood to be converted to chip and/or pellet and this is ideally sourced from local woodland. An increase in demand for timber for commercial and domestic wood burners could be one stimulus that brings more of our woodlands back into management.

This is one option; there are many others that should be undertaken to benefit the woodland, its wildlife and the people who use the woods for recreation. More needs to be done to make people aware of the benefit of local products like charcoal, fencing material, logs, bean and pea sticks, kindling, garden mulch, grass edging, hurdles, handles as well as home and garden furniture. The list is almost endless but one of the biggest reasons for the decline in the management of the Surrey Hills woodland is that the public have been offered (what appears at first glance) cheaper alternatives to all of these products. However, there are people out in the woodlands making these products and when people try, for example, the charcoal, they can see for themselves that it is a far superior product than the cheap imports.