A wood of their own

Miriam O'Reilly meets a young couple who have bought their own slice of the British countryside

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The sky was free of clouds, allowing sunshine to break through the canopy of leaves and settle on the rutted path that led down to Mike and Tracy Pepler’s chestnut wood. I had only walked a few yards, but surrounded as I was by trees on all sides, it suddenly felt as if nature had swallowed me up. This is ancient woodland; there could have been woods here for a thousand years – and the Peplers own eight acres of it.
Mike and Tracy inherited £39,000 and, since they didn’t own a house, one would have thought they might have used the money to put down a deposit on a home, but they wanted a wood and were prepared to move to wherever it took to fulfil their dream. They longed for a complete change of lifestyle and, after a five-month national search, they settled on this stretch of woodland near Rye in East Sussex, and now rent a house nearby.
“Our lives have been completely enriched by the experience,” Tracy told me over a mug of tea. The three of us were sitting on tree trunks in a clearing they’ve made into a little camp. A wood-fired kettle had been boiled and a tin of biscuits produced. “I used to be an itchy foot kind of person. I’ve lived in four different countries, but since we bought the wood I’m completely content to settle now. And there’s so much to do. We never sit at home watching TV or go to the pub – not that there’s anything wrong with that – we just prefer to get on our bikes and come up here on our own or with friends. The other day, 30 kids from the local school came to find out about the wood and they loved it.”
The Peplers are among a growing number of people who are buying woodland. For some it’s an investment; others just want to appreciate nature and how it works. While Mike acknowledges that woodland is a sound investment in troubled financial times (the value of their eight acres has increased by more than £5,000 in the last 18 months), as committed Christians and environmentalists they simply wanted to live in a more sustainable way.
Mike used to work in silicon-chip design and software, but in 2004 became interested in the future of energy supplies. It was while researching when the global supply of oil would reach its peak that he realised he wanted to retrain and work in renewable energy. 
“The implications of energy shortages and rising energy prices require us to make big changes in our lives across the whole of society, whether it’s for climate change or whether it’s for energy security, it doesn’t really matter, because the solutions are the same,” he said.
“The money we inherited might have got us a 15 or 20 percent deposit on a house a year ago, and then along with that we would have taken on a huge mortgage debt.
“Knowing where energy prices were going, I thought people would struggle with their mortgages and we would end up with some kind of national difficulty, which has happened. So the right thing for us was not to buy a house. Instead we were able to buy the wood with cash and, as we don’t have a debt we have to service, we can enjoy working it and looking after it, and at the same time earn a small amount of money.” 

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Sustainable forestry
They have more than 100 oaks, but most of the trees are chestnut and it’s with this hardy and versatile wood that the couple are planning their future. Historically chestnut is used for fencing, but it’s also good for garden furniture because it will last outdoors for up to 25 years without the need for preservative. 
The sweet chestnut arrived in the UK with the Romans – Mike calls it an “honorary native”. They brought it to this country because it grows quickly, so it’s excellent for producing firewood and charcoal. The Peplers have tried charcoal making themselves, but for now most of their surplus wood is sold as logs for burning, and for this they need to coppice. As we walked in among the trees, they showed me what coppicing – an ancient art of forestry management – entails. It involves cutting the tree off at ground level, leaving a flat clean cut on the top. New shoots then spring out of the stem where it’s been cut, allowing vigorous regrowth and a sustainable supply of wood for many years to come. The advantage of coppicing is that it produces a large volume of wood very quickly – up to seven or eight feet a year, which is far faster than planting a new tree – and it is also a great way to harvest wood from a tree without killing it. 

In tune with wildlife
The UK is one of the least-wooded countries in Europe, with woodland covering just 12 percent of the land area compared to a European average of 40 percent. All our woodland has had human intervention at some point and because of this a lot of our wildlife has adapted to the way the woods have been managed. And while the methods we use to look after trees have changed very slowly, management is still essential for healthy woodland.
Coppicing isn’t just a good way of harvesting a tree, it’s also vitally important for wildlife because it allows the light to reach the ground, which encourages biodiversity. “Cutting back along the paths and letting in the light is like opening up a door to wildlife,” said Mike. “If we left it dark it would attract dormice, but a lot of butterflies and birds wouldn’t be tempted to nest here.” 
“We are still learning about the wildlife we have,” added Tracy. “And to be honest it’s more daunting as time goes on, because a little bit of knowledge makes you realise how much you don’t know.”
On our walk around the wood we saw red and purple fungi that looked as if it had come straight out of the pages of a fairytale. More familiar was the distant hammer of a woodpecker and the robin that hopped into our path with a territorial glare. We also came upon wild boar tracks in a muddy gully with large holes nearby where they’d dug for bulbs and roots. Then I almost walked past one of the rarest trees in Britain.

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Profitable future?
The wild service tree Sorbus torminalis looks like an oak, but if you study the leaves you might think it was a maple. “The word ‘service’ is said to derive from the Anglo Saxon for beer. Apparently they once made an alcoholic drink called chequers from the berries that grow on it during really hot weather, but no berries have grown for many years now,” explained Mike. “This tree indicates that this area is top-notch ancient woodland.”
Because they both have such affection for their wood, I asked him if they minded other people walking through it.
“There is a right of way alongside but people do stray off the path and we’re OK with that. Obviously when anyone buys a wood they might say ‘wouldn’t it be nice if it was just mine and all private?’ but it’s good to have folk around because we’ve made friends with them, and when they walk through the wood they keep an eye on it for us.” 
The couple both have part-time jobs – Mike for the Ashden Awards, a renewable energy charity, and Tracy as a primary school teacher; the rest of their waking hours are spent in the wood. They coppiced five tons of logs for firewood last year, which earned them £1,000, but they would like to begin making garden furniture, which would bring in more. At the moment, learning about the woodland, and the cost of courses and equipment like chainsaws, means they’re not breaking even, but they’re confident of making a profit in a few years. 
Keeping the woodland in shape is hard work. Like Mike, Tracy is proficient with a chainsaw and holds a licence. But although it may take only 40 seconds to fell a tree, it takes a lot longer to remove all the branches, cut the logs to the length required and move them to be stored, then to collect the branches for burning or to be piled up to make a wildlife habitat. Fortunately, organisations such as BTCV run woodland management and conservation courses for novices all over the country, and teaching these may be an area Tracy gets involved in at a later date.

Try before you buy
Mike suggests that anyone who has the cash and wants to invest in woodland should first decide on what type of trees they want to manage and how much work it will take. Before taking the plunge, they spent a few days as volunteers in woodland to determine whether it really was what they wanted. In all, the couple spend about 30 days labouring in their woodland each year and the rest of the time enjoying the fruits of it.
It’s also important to make sure the access to the wood is flat enough so you can easily get in and out from the road. The Peplers use electric bikes to get to their wood, as they don’t churn up the mud as much as a car would during the winter months.
Being among trees you are swallowed up by nature; everything slows down and you become much more aware of silence. Tracy says this is what gives her the most pleasure, as well as a joy and respect for the wildlife. “I find myself rescuing a spider from an awkward place, or trying not to step on a beetle. It’s immensely restful just to sit and watch a piece of dead wood rot away with all the different fungi on it,” she said. After spending a day in the wood, I now know exactly what she means. 

ONE MINUTE GUIDE: SO YOU WANT TO BUY YOUR OWN WOOD?

Where do I go to buy a wood?
The first place to check out is the internet. There are a number of key sites to look at, including www.woodlands.co.uk, which buys larger woodlands and sells them as individual plots. Other sites to visit include www.woodlandowner.org.uk and www.woods4sale.co.uk. Mike and Tracy also run an independent wood-owners forum at www.woodlands.co.uk/swog.

How much will the legal process cost?
Solicitors’ fees cost around £500 and conveyancing can take around a month. You will have to pay a land registry charge of around £40 to get the title of ownership registered but as long as the purchase is below £150,000 there will be no stamp duty to pay. Also, as long as you own your wood for two years before you die, there’s no inheritance tax to be paid. 

What about annual charges?
Generally there aren’t any: woodlands attract neither council tax nor business rates. In rare cases you may have to pay an agricultural land drainage charge if your woodland adjoins rivers and marshlands. However, main rivers are managed by the Environment Agency so they do not attract charges for neighbouring owners. 

Can I build a house in my wood?
Only in exceptional cases, but planning permission is extremely difficult to get. It is possible to sometimes build shelters to store equipment, but any building has to be solely for forestry purposes and you should advise your local authority of your plans.

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Will I have any special responsibilities?
It is your duty to maintain any public rights of way or footpaths on your land. You are allowed to thin your trees but if you want to fell more than 5 cubic metres every three months, you need to contact the Forestry Commission for a felling licence. The only other restriction is if your woodland is subject to a Tree Preservation Order, in which case you’ll need to contact the Forestry Commission before any work. 

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These are extracts of a feature that appeared in issue 16 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.