2 April 1999

RIVERBANKS:

A NEW OUTLET

FOR FARMED WILLOW?

A tie-up between a pioneering

farm in Oxfordshire and a

willow specialist is producing

a valuable new outlet for a

novel farm crop. David Cousins

heard about how it works

WILLOW is versatile stuff. It grows 6ft a year and is ready to be coppiced after three years. It can be used as a fuel to power boilers or woven into hurdles or garden shelters. It is also very vigorous. Push a stick of it into the ground it will take permanent root; make an archway in a garden and it will become a living structure.

It was this latter quality of willow that attracted Ian McCulloch. He had learnt about willow spilings (stems) while working on a project for the Environment Agency, and realised there was a big potential for willow as an alternative to steel or concrete piling when repairing river banks.

The principle is simple enough. Four-inch-thick willow posts are driven into the ground along the proposed edge of the repaired bank. Willow spilings are woven back and forth until a fence of willow is formed and the space behind the fence is then backfilled with soil. Two months later the willow will start sprouting leaves and as the years pass will gradually form a solid barrier against further erosion. It can be trimmed with a hedge cutter, is vastly nicer-looking than concrete or steel piling and will last for ever.

In the three years since Mr McCulloch set up his company Waterside UK to carry out willow spiling, he has been called in to reinvigorate numerous stretches of river bank, including a section underneath the concrete bridge supports of the infamous Newbury bypass in Berkshire. He is now widening the business to include watercourses passing through farmland.

Here, a common problem is erosion of river banks by cattle and fast-flowing currents and for £42 a linear metre Waterside UK will put in willow spiling that will still be there decades hence. Or they can just supply you with the materials and you can do the rest. Either way, there is no need for underpinning on the bank as the willow roots go deep and no heavy machinery is required.

Where do Waterside UK get the willow in the first place? Here is where Friars Court Farm at Clanfield, near Witney, enters the equation. Farmed by John Willmer and his son Charles, this is one business where diversification has been undertaken with considerable vigour and imagination.

Its 230ha (575 acres) – farmed with conservation in mind – support 160ha (400 acres) of arable, 40ha (100 acres) of grassland and a Friesian/Hereford suckler herd. There are also 30ha (75 acres) of woods and lakes. But over the years a series of other enterprises have been added, including farm walks, ornamental gardens and lakes, tea-rooms and a private and corporate entertainment business. More than 4000 people visit the farm each year.

Friars Courts connection with willow began in 1986, when John Willmer planted an acre of the trees to see how they would do. In 1992 it became one of five farms around the UK to take part in a DTi project to assess the potential of coppiced willow as a fuel crop. A total of 10ha (25 acres) was planted over three years, the idea being that it would be chipped and used in heaters and to generate electricity.

Ironically, says Charles Willmer, the renewable fuel option has still not taken off. "The problem is," he says, "that no one grows it because there is no outlet for it. And there is no outlet for it because no one grows it." But the farm has found three uses for its 10ha of willow. Local riding schools buy it chipped as an all-weather surface covering. Local craftsman Matthew Meers makes hurdles and living structures for gardens from it. And Waterside UK makes its riverbank reinforcement from it.

In fact, demand from Ian McCulloch and his team is increasing so much that the Willmers are about to plant more willow. And Waterside UK is now based in a converted building on the farm, which saves unnecessary hauling of a bulky crop.

Waterside UK can be contacted on 01367-810684. Friars Court Farm is on 01367-810206.