Sounds of success as Countryfile's Tom Heap visits sustainable forestry business near Buckingham

The Whittlewood Concept was interviewed for BBC Radio 4's '39 Ways to Save the Planet', broadcast today, Thursday

Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 11:51 am
Updated Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 11:55 am

The members of a sustainable forestry business based in the Whittlebury area are being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 today, Thursday, September 2, by Countryfile presenter Tom Heap, in an episode of '39 Ways to Save the Planet'.

The episode, entitled Black Gold which goes out at 1.45pm today, is about the group's production of biochar - a charcoal-derived soil enrichment product that is also a carbon store.

Black Gold, recorded with Tom Heap in Seven Copses Wood near Whittlebury, is also available as a podcast via the BBC Sounds App.

Dave Faulkner discussing The Whittlewood Concept with Tom Heap and producer Anne-Marie Bullock

The Whittlewood Concept comprises a group of forward-thinking sustainable forestry workers - Bohumil Masnicak from Whittlebury, Adam Bacon and Matt Griffiths, both from Brackley, and brothers Dave Faulkner of Whittlebury and Jon Faulkner from Silverstone.

The professional foresters set up The Whittlewood Concept to focus on restoring hazel coppice, which is commonly found under oak trees within the fragmented woodlands which would in the past have made up 'Whittlewood Forest'.

The coppice is worked on a seven-year rotation, to harvest material for stakes and binders used in hedgelaying, amongst other thing. Neglected hazel coppice yields only a small amount of useable products until it is brought back into rotation.

Jon Faulkner told the Advertiser: "What we wanted to do was utilise the woodland to its maximum, the understorey, because that's the bit that gets left behind. So while we're cutting our stakes and binders, the stuff that's no good for firewood is often left. We wanted to maximise production, for economical as well as environmental reasons. A certain amount of material goes back on the coppice and that protects it from browsing deer, and then you've just got the excess. So we wanted to make a way of earning money that from that that would work."

The Whittlewood Concept and Tom Heap. From left: Bohumil, Dave, Adam, Matt, Tom and Jon

This led first to the production of charcoal, and thence to their soil enrichment product, biochar - in a process believed to have been used thousands of years ago in the Amazon but since forgotten, which actually locks in much of the carbon captured by the trees.

Jon said: "One very wet November day, we sat in the truck, sheltering from the elements, we spoke of using this excess material and decided to look at charcoal. We looked at traditional charcoaling methods, which we found to be labour intensive, polluting and damaging to the environment. These kilns damage the ground through heat transfer and in moving heavy machinery throughout the woods causes compaction damage to the soil and tree roots. The gases produced contribute to the pollution of our planet.

"We looked at other sustainable methods of producing charcoal and came across retort kilns. After much research, the main features of our kiln would need to be: light in weight, portable, minimal pollution to the atmosphere and heat transfer to the soil. So we made our own.

"After 18 months of testing and development, we are now able to produce a clean, lightweight, charcoal product, which became the last key to our hazel restorations, making it viable."

Tom Heap inspects the retort kiln

After producing a virtually smokeless charcoal, the foresters stumbled across the use of biochar and its many uses in soil enrichment.

They have already gained worldwide interest in both their kilns and their biochar products, which led to an approach from BBC Radio 4's '39 Ways to Save The Planet' programme.

Presenter Tom Heap, of Countryfile fame, and producer Anne-Marie Bullock visited the woodland in July, the day after England's Euros defeat to Italy.

Jon said: "We were up early, 5am, to start a burn so when they arrived they were able to record the sound of the kiln flaring at the maximum.

Recording in process

"We were also able to record the sounds of us quenching the coals, an important part of the biochar production.

"Tom and Anne-Marie were very relaxed and made the whole experience very enjoyable. They seemed enthused and happy to talk at length about our whole concept.

"The two hours flew by and then it was time for them to leave for their next project."

Black Gold is broadcast on BBC Radio 4's '39 Ways to Save the Planet' today at 1.45pm and is also available as a podcast on the BBC Sounds app. It is set to feature in Friday's omnibus edition of the programme.

For more information about The Whittlewood Concept, see www.whittlewoodconcept.com