This article was written by Simon Burvill as a trustee of Woodland Heritage for the 2019 Woodland Heritage Journal.  For more information or your own copy, visit the Woodland Heritage Site here.

Last August, while staying with Christian Gaze, co-founder of Gaze Burvill who lives in the Midi-Pyrénées, I visited Daniel Darré our French oak supplier and Richard Muzas a silviculturist who invested in Daniel’s business in 2010 (see article on this subject in the WH Journal of 2013). This was the first time that Christian and I had met Richard who had agreed to show me some of the forests in the region where the oak we use comes from. As soon as we met I knew that we would get on well, Richard is a charismatic Gascon with broad shoulders and an energetic stride, lead singer and guitarist in a local rock band, he is a gregarious companion, but with a deep understanding of the woodland, and the importance of the long term view when it comes to trees.

Unlike oak forestry in the UK, which is best managed when in private hands (as observed on WH Field Weekends), both Richard and Daniel are emphatic that in France it is in state-run forests (ONF) that the oak is best managed by far.

Indeed the most prestigious oak forest in France (and arguably the world) is the Forêt de Tronçais, planted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister, who in the mid 17th oversaw the creation of oak forests to supply the French Navy 150-200 years later, not knowing the changes in shipbuilding that were to come. The code of practice for an admirable French forestry tradition was then reinforced by Napoleon and in the Forêt de Tronçais there are stands which still operate on a 200 year cycle.

As Richard explained to me, France is approximately 25% forested, and 30% of forests are state-owned, 70% private-owned, however, in the South West region which I was visiting, the ratio is 20%/80% state/private.. and the majority of the oak in Gascony is Quercus robur – (interestingly also known as ‘English Oak’, particularly in the USA!) rather than Quercus petraea which is more prevalent in other areas of France. The problem with private ownership in France is that forests get divided into ever smaller parcels, because of inheritance laws. Richard took Christian and me to visit the ‘Bois des Moines’, or Monks Wood, unsurprisingly close to a monastery, where he and his team were doing some work, and which he explained has reached a point where its 70 hectares (170 acres) now has 70-100 owners. Evidently trying to get a coordinated forestry plan together with so many owners is impossible, particularly as many of the owners do not necessarily know that they have inherited it, let alone having any concern for its management. This is where a combination of dedication and technology have helped Richard bring some of these neglected forests back into management and he is producing some very fine oak from them.

To keep his team of foresters occupied and run his company, Adour Forêts, at a scale where it is sustainable, Richard needs to be working a minimum of 250 hectares of oak woods per year, extracting about 150m3 of firewood and 50m3 of ‘Bois d’oeuvre (saw logs) per hectare while leaving the best semi-mature specimens to take advantage of the light created in thinning to mature, for a final cut in 30-50 years time, in the meantime promoting natural regeneration in the gaps between. Richard has acquired 350 hectares of woodland of his own, as well as developing a system to bring absent owners into the fold, to bring as much woodland back into management as possible.

As we crossed the gently undulating hills north of Tarbes he demonstrated his approach. We were driving up a wooded escarpment and Richard’s keen eyes spotted that although the woods surrounding us had not been managed recently, they had been managed originally and there were some good oaks of varying size in there. He got out his smart phone and on it he had a special GPS app which not only showed a satellite picture of where we were located but also, superimposed on it, a grid of all the different parcels of land. He could therefore note down the reference numbers of those with woods that need managing and send them through to his assistant whose full time job is finding owners out from the Town Hall, tracking them down and finding out if they knew they owned part of a forest and would they like it managed? With Richard’s company sharing the proceeds with the owner, it is a win-win-win situation, the woods get brought back into management by Adour Forêts, the owners get some income and Gaze Burvill amongst others gets some very fine oak to produce our furniture with.

There is however room for unscrupulous players to abuse the situation and Richard pointed out evidence of this as we were driving around. To cut trees in privately owned French woods under 25 hectares there is very little regulation. The temptation is great and an 80-90 year old good quality straight tree will fetch a much higher price than a scrappy 40 year old one, even though, if the older tree were left to mature, it would fetch a considerably higher premium. The photo shows a woodland where this has happened, the contractors have taken all ‘cream of the crop’ and left scraggy trees behind just so that they could say that it had not been ‘clear felled’. This is a very sad sight for a proud forester, and Richard is infuriated by this greed and short termism, as not only has a great opportunity in the future for more mature fine timber been lost, but the best acorn sources too, as the good seed comes from the best trees (and their genetic code), so future regeneration of the good trees may also be lost without the ‘grandpapa de la foret’, as Richard calls them.

Throughout the day Richard pointed left and right to indicators of both good and bad practice, friends and foes.. Friends include the jay (‘geai’ in French) which is a significant help in regeneration as they plant the acorns a good distance from the tree from which they came. The biggest menace is roe deer (‘chevreuil’), but, interestingly, there is not the big problem with squirrels, because the resident species is the red squirrel not the grey, which has become a scourge in the UK. An avoidable problem is a kind of grass which comes into the forest in damp areas when too much felling has been done, and where openings are too large. It comes from contractors/foresters who do not know what they are doing – the grass suppresses regeneration to create gaps in the forest, leading to epicormic growth and other issues.

After a fascinating visit and greatly encouraged by meeting Adour Forêt’s young team I came away thinking that as long as people like Richard continue their good work, there will always be fine ‘English Oak’ grown in France!


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