The 6,500-acre Ragley Estate in Warwickshire is home to the 9th Marquess of Hertford, whose family has lived there since 1680. Now, Lord Hertford wants to restore what was once an ancient woodland site.

Within the estate, western red cedar was grown as a nursery crop among 40 acres of oak to make them grow straight and tall. A large number of these oaks were felled as part of the war effort in the 1940s and the estate was left with a mess, at which point part of the woodland area was leased to the Forestry Commission. The commission underplanted the small amount of residual oaks with a “shade bear” of western red cedar.

When the western red cedars were felled, good quality hardwoods emerged, giving a 60% cover of up to 150 oaks. These will grow on for another 80 years, accompanied by natural regeneration of younger oak, and the woodland will be restored to something very much like its pre-second world war glory. It will be sensibly, selectively harvested, replanted and will retain some conifers for an even canopy, with minimal gaps.

The estate has its own large band sawmill which converts oak and other hardwoods, plus some conifers, from its 1,100 acres of woodland to estate fencing, barn cladding, sheds, gates, picnic tables and certain specially ordered items. The sawmill also sells some wood, especially chip mulch, to gardeners.

Wasted timber

However, until recently, the estate struggled to convert its western red cedar, with the result that the timber was often wasted.

Now, with the help of two Wood-Mizer LT40MDs, Ragley Estate has converted 1,500 tonnes of western red cedar that would normally be dumped into wooden products sold to builders and the public.

This kind of wood processing work is difficult for the major softwood sawmills which have tight diameter and taper specifications. Also this species’ bark is stringy and clogs traditional mills. The sawn red cedar is not of high value so conversion has to be economical and the estate was offered a derisory £3 per tonne standing for it.

Now, however, the estate calculates it will benefit from the equivalent of £30-40 per tonne standing.

The key to the western red cedar harvest lies in the use of the two portable band sawmills rather than local static sawmills which can be costly and lack the flexibility of the bandsaws.

When forestry manager Mike Box suggested using small narrow kerf mills, the estate’s sawmill manager expressed doubt that they would achieve a quality of cut sufficient to make the western red cedar marketable.

“However, we find the accuracy of these relatively small sawmills is excellent,” said Mr Box. Additionally, the two Wood-Mizer LT40MDs are towed to ready-stacked logs of anything from 40-380 tonnes brought by a forwarder. The logs are sawn on the spot, minimising the forest floor damage usually inflicted by big sawmill lorries.

The mills’ hydraulic handling system makes the non-sawing activities, like handling the logs, quick and easy. Wide hydraulic roller toeboards compensate for log taper and make positioning easy. Via a lever, hydraulic arms load logs in seconds and self-levels them. An hydraulic log turner rotates a log or cant, again through lever control. Two-plane clamping simplifies sawing any stressed logs. Stephen Cull, who runs the older of the two LT40s, reports that they got as close as 2.5cm cuts from the bed.

Cost saving

Harvesting western red cedar this way costs a fraction of traditional sawmilling. Combine that with the normally relinquished income from fence posts, Arris rails and gravel rails sold to builders or the public through the estate sawmill and Ragley has come up with an attractive process.

Furthermore, estate chief executive Alan Granger reveals an investigation into the possibility of exploiting the waste western red cedar slabs – usually consigned to landfill – to fuel boilers to heat the 17th century hall or even to generate electricity, saving an estimated 100,000 litres of oil, worth £35,000 per year.

A dedicated plant to generate electricity might need 100 tonnes a year of biomass like the western red cedar, but as the estate generates a lot of waste wood he isn’t deterred.

“An option might be a woodchip boiler, fed by a chipper, to heat most of the house but later to drive a turbine for the electricity – in which case the heating would become a by-product,” said Mr Granger. “That would require 1,000 tonnes a year but I’m confident about providing that too,” he added.

This, plus the practical use of generally discarded western red cedar, would further reflect the estate’s reputation for sustainable forestry practices, typified by coppicing, thinning, clearing and natural regeneration.