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Monday, 16 January 2012

Renewable firewood, Breton style

At about this time every year, the local farmers put down their hunting rifles in favour of their chainsaws and for the next month that is the main sound that fills the countryside. For the first few years that I lived here I just could not understand why the trees looked such a funny shape in winter and were then 'butchered' into an even uglier shape by what I saw as a chainsaw massacre.

It was not until we visited a temporary exhibition on trees at the Ecomusee de Rennes (well worth a visit anyway) that light was shed on a lot of the issues that I hadn't understood. Well I'd realised it was some sort of firewood harvesting, but quite why they did it like that I was totally in the dark about.

So, the history goes something like this. Back in the olden days, the peasant farmers who rented the land from the landowners were allowed to harvest the firewood from the trees which bounded their fields, but only up to so many metres from the ground. The landowner retained the rights over the tops of the trees. This explained why so many trees were nothing but a straight trunk with what looks like a small tree growing out of the top of it! 

It was done on a rotation basis - every few years all the whippy growth would be taken off and this would be bundled into what was called 'fagots' which were used to fire the breadovens, which most farms and rural hamlets would have as their only means of baking bread (not having ovens in their houses). Leaving the larger side branches a few more years would result in firewood for heating their houses. Also as the town of Rennes (the capital of Brittany) grew, the bourgeoisie were demanding more and more firewood to heat their homes, so this also became a means of revenue for the peasant farmers. 

A third reason for pruning the trees in this fashion was because the fields were very small and the trees would cast shade over the crops; cutting the side branches off the trees and keeping them straight like this with just a crown higher up would allow maximum light to penetrate.

Some photos now to illustrate what I am talking about! If you click on any of these photos you will open all of them full size which is a much better way to view them.  

You can see the whippy horizontal growth which
hasn't yet been cut off

A better example, this is a good size
tree and there's several years growth
to remove from the lower half

Even small trees like this
are not exempt from the treatment

So how does this translate into modern day practices? One thing that is very noticeable is that a lot of trees have their crowns cut completely off these days. This isn't killing the tree but it looks very ugly! It seems to be completely random, you'll get a line of trees with one or two cut like this amongst others that still have a crown. I still don't understand this. Another thing is what they do with the whippy growth that was used in the past in the bread ovens - we've all got ovens in our houses these days so they are very rarely used for their traditional use so I can only imagine this kind of wood is sold as kindling. I also feel that the trees are pruned on a much more regular basis than they would have been in the past as often there is not much in the way of any real firewood (i.e. logs) coming off them. So modern practices often involve just cutting down the entire tree for firewood which is very sad. Many of these don't coppice, not when they are mature trees, so when they are cut down that's it.

These trees have already had their side branches
and whippy growth taken off

Bit of a mix of pollarding and coppicing here

Done. I think this photo shows just how barren the
Breton countryside can look by the end of February!

I should point out that I no longer think of this as an ugly blot on the landscape but just accept this as a traditional practice which has been going on for centuries; after several years (and with understanding) I am not unduly bothered by it any more - and anyway, come summer when the leaves are out and the new growth albeit whippy starts growing you don't really notice at all.

However this is what I take exception to. When all the trees on a field margin are cut right down to the ground, they won't grow back again and this seems to be happening around where I live more and more. The view from my veg patch (facing north and east) now has very little in the way of any trees or shrubs to block the cold winds which blow - plus I LIKED seeing the trees on the horizon. But perhaps we have only ourselves to blame; whilst the current 'bourgeoisie' of Rennes are probably more reliant on CH these days, it's us lot out in the countryside demanding more and more firewood to keep us warm (and I bet, we want to be a darn site warmer than the folks of days gone by). On the other hand, who can blame us as it's by far the cheapest way to heat our houses and is in fact encouraged by our government who give us grants to install wood burners!

An entire line of trees on a field margin destroyed -
quite why one tree remains is a mystery. Perhaps they
haven't got to chopping that one down yet.

On our land we have the remains of an old field margin with an ancient oak which bears the scars of having had its side branches cut off over the decades (or possibly even centuries), but in recent decades since being part of an enclosed garden it now bears what looks like one tree growing out of the top of it and another growing off to the side! It has a huge girth and I keep meaning to get some string and measure it so I can try to figure out how old it must be. What it must have seen in the course of its lifetime!

Our tree - I'll try to take one when
there is no vegetation as it will show better


  1. The trees are odd here aren't they, but having said that, I quite like them. I supposed I've got used to them now and they are the Breton countryside somehow. When I first arrived here, a neighbour brought me over two faggots for our fire - the customs continue still. Sandra

  2. A really interesting read, I have seen many trees pruned in this way and did wonder about them, now thanks to you I know :)
    Last year on holiday I saw the daddy of all trees called the General Sherman in Sequoia National park in California the diameter ( Not the circumference ) was over 11 metres!

  3. I looked up that tree - thought it was the one you could drive thru but that must be another one. Makes even the Major Oak look diddy! Glad my posting helped you Colly - I wish I could have had more time at the exhibition to learn even more but it was so interesting we ran out of time as the place was closing and we hadn't even finished visiting all of the farm at the Museum! Sandra what exactly did you do with the fagots - did you have to cut them up to size before you could put them in the wood burner?

  4. Enjoyed reading this thanks for sharing :-)