Dorset magazine - June 2010
Jim Bettle: Charcoal Maker
A pall of smoke hung over Turnworth Wood, clearly marking the spot where Jim Bettle was at work making charcoal. This isn't a permanent site for him though, for he moves his kilns each season, taking them to woods which are undergoing coppicing and general management schemes. 'I burn the thinnings and discarded misshapen timber, providing a return for the owner for wood that would otherwise be uneconomic to extract,' Jim explained, 'therefore making woodland management a much more viable proposition.'
And it is this encouragement towards the viable maintenance of sustainable woodland that Jim sees as his all-important part in maintaining an ecosystem that provides the ideal habitat for some of the country's flora and fauna. Indeed, his whole philosophy evolves around a 'green' world, which is why he set up his charcoal burning business four years ago. 'Ninety percent of the charcoal used in this country is produced from trees from endangered rainforests in countries such as south east asia. The harm they are doing doesn't bear thinking about.'
Imported charcoal is produced using very dense wood, and the problems encountered when we use it on our barbecues is testimony to this. 'You have to throw fuel on to get it to light and it takes hours to get going, whereas british charcoal
production uses more porous hardwood like oak and ash, and it can be lit with newspaper and reaches cooking temperature in 15 minutes. People worry about the quality of the sausages they use on their barbecue, and then go and use all sorts of horrible firelighters and fuel to get the imported charcoal going.'
It's never going to be easy to persuade people to change to British charcoal, but Jim is certainly determined to make the benefits known to as many as he can. 'I really enjoy the marketing side of the business, and it's as big a part as making the charcoal,' he told me. 'I have great support from switched-on local stores, garages and garden centres, and I find that once people have tried the charcoal they always come back for more.'
Jim now has a website which lists his outlets, and he loves the 'diversity' of the age-old tradition of making charcoal and the modern technology he uses for selling. As he says, 'Charcoal burning has been going on for thousands of years, but I doubt they were on the internet then!'
Below the woods where he's working at the moment is the site of Turnworth House, where Hardy's The Woodlanders was set. Jim feels justly proud to be carrying on the tradition of charcoal burning in the same area that probably inspired the great man himself to write of characters who earned their living from the woods.