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Stuck in the sticks

Keeping the home fire burning at a social and environmental costShirley Clerkin 


Things are tough in the country. Winter always maintains a presence including as I write with the Irish summer again failing to load. So one of my obsessions is firewood. Among the biggest pains for any independent woman is the procuring and lugging of wood. It pays to have a stash, neatly-arranged, close to the back door – rather than a shed-full across the yard. Especially when you arrive home from work in your good clothes and heat is a priority. A man with a trailer full of logs who will deliver and even stack at a reasonable price can become unviably popular around here, his phone number like illicit contraband to be shared with your girl friends only.

I hate to be sexist, but I’ve noticed it’s generally men who have a trailer full of logs. I imagine it relates to their mysterious  interest in the manners a chainsaw (or whatever it is) can put on a wild hedge. I for one have never seen a woman manoeuvre a tractor with a spinning flail lunging at every trunk and wayward branch while little brown birds (LBBs) flee. And therein lies the dilemma for the independent female stuck in the sticks. How independent can she remain when she (a) needs the wood and (b) is not a chainsaw-wielder herself?

The austerity measures have created a relationship, never anticipated, between mature hedgerows, dormant kit  and the underemployed man.  Oh, and the unwarmed woman.

It doesn’t take long for a cutting-disk, a jib and a tractor to eliminate  a few kilometres of hedgelife. The canopied hedges with whitethorn blossom, heaving boughs of elm and ash, primroses and mouse ears on shady banks, and the winter silhouettes of split trunks have been scythed down.   The large trunks and branches are cut into firewood neatly, to fit a wood-burning stove, and the scrubby bits and pieces burned like a pyre in the field.  From green three-dimensional to black and grey unwanted cinders, all in a few hours.  Of course this is surely done for money, a few extra ‘bob’ for the cash-strapped. A simple case of supply and demand.

This particular supply chain wrestles environmental consciences. Eventually the hedge will rejuvenate, the green shoots will sprout from the stubby bases like badly-balanced party-gear and thicken up over time. The LBB population on the other hand will have taken a permanent hit as its habitat is gone. Gone too perhaps the soprano pipistrelle bats that hunted the hedges for midges at dusk  and that badger sett that was stuck under the scrub in the field corner. The firewood is costing more than its sale price.

Sustainable Energy Ireland recommends the use of wood for fuel as it does not contribute to net greenhouse gas emissions because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.  It also notes that wood-fuel industries create long-term jobs, many of which will be in the sort of rural  communities that are currently suffering acute social and economic decline. However, it has little advice on the sourcing of such firewood, except to note that it should be used sustainably and that a new tree should be planted for each tree used as fuel and that the trees should be managed as coppice. We the independent women need to be more demanding. If the man with the trailer of logs seems to be too good to be true then it’s likely that he simply is. It takes time sustainably to grow, harvest and dry firewood and this is duly reflected in its price. If the wood is cheap then the birds have also gone: cheep, cheep.

Ireland has adopted the Wood Fuel Quality Standards (WFQs). Although it is not a legal obligation for fuel suppliers to apply this standard, it is strongly recommended by the SEI that purchasers look for fuels meeting the recommendations provided in the WFQs. However, there appear to be only four suppliers in Ireland who meet the Standard (see A perusal of the National Workshop Agreement, which lists the guidelines for the implementation of the WFQS authorised by the National Standards Authority of Ireland is a disappointingly unchallenging affair. Where the wood comes from and how it is felled does not seem to be much of a concern. The guidance states “The country of origin should be declared so that the customer can have confidence that there is management of the supply chain” and the retention of felling permits or similar records recommended.

I want to break free from the man with the trailer and the dirty phone number. The four suppliers who currently meet the WFQs at least offer a place to start a new firewood flirtation.   I am preparing to be impressed. Again.


Part one of a series on being stuck in the sticks