28 July 1995

opportunity wasted


Large areas of a traditional south-eastern crop and its associated wildlife are under threat because of misguided decisions on renewable energy, claims a Kent farmer and his land agent.

Andrew Blake reports

KENT Bio Power was the brainchild of farmer Keith Laugharne and agent Henry Holdstock. It was designed to revitalise the areas hard hit coppice industry.

But the scheme was one of 70 projects nationwide which failed to gain a contract to supply electricity from wood in last years round of the governments Non Fossil Fuel Obligation programme.

In losing out, through what Mr Laugharne believes is civil service shortsightedness and/or failure to stick to its own rules, existing chestnut coppice has been "sacrificed on the altar of short rotation arable coppice" – based mainly on willows.

Willow and other crops like miscanthus for fuel continue to soak up about £2m a year of public money in research after 15 years of support, they point out. Sweet chestnut and other species of traditional hardwood coppice however is a proven performer, which until a regional pulping plant closed, had a sound infrastructure and provided a distinct habitat for flora and fauna through regular cutting.

Mr Laugharne estimates there are 24,300ha (60,000 acres) of such woodland in Kent, much of it several hundred years old originally planted for fuel. The timber, cut on a 13-15 year cycle, is widely used as fencing stakes and poles for the areas hop gardens, although demand is fast disappearing.

Until 1989 much of the wood went to a paper mill in Sittingbourne for pulping. Since then the nearest outlet has been in Wales. "It makes little economic or environmental sense to haul timber that far, so this outlet is effectively virtually uneconomic," says Mr Laugharne. "Energy production seemed an attractive alternative market under NFFO."

Official bungling stifled a promising wood energy project and could ruin local countryside, claim Henry Holdstock (left) and Keith Laugharne