EBTS member and box woodland and timber expert Huw Crompton describes how boxwood makes its way from standing trees into the hands of musical instrument makers around the world.
The estate straddles high and low ground on the north west facing Chilterns escarpment just south of Chinnor in Oxfordshire, close to the M40. The steep loose chalk offers the perfect growing conditions for native box woodland, and owners Harry and Philippa Shepherd have been keen to productively manage the area with an annual selective fell. The trees have grown vigorously in their favourite place, and offer excellent clear-grained straight English boxwood timber.
Sustainable selective extraction means removing a small number of commercially viable trees, leaving 95-99% of the standing crop untouched, and the body of woodland largely ecologically identical to before felling. In the case of box woodland, older mature trees which lack straight sections are left in situ, whilst sometimes slightly smaller trees with clean straight stems are removed. The box timber market demands a wide variety of sizes and this translates into a cross section of ages and forms extracted. Small clearings are opened up to favour growth and recruitment.
The correct felling time for box is between November and February, when the trees are less active. Towards the end of this short window, avoiding the pheasant and partridge season, in 2021 a team of 3, led by Huw Crompton, spent a couple of days delicately removing about half a tonne in two locations on the estate. More than half of the timber is destined for musical instruments worldwide, mainly woodwind. Turning, toolmaking and carving demand their own specific boxwood billet size and grade.
Harry and Philippa have added a new area to the next phase of extraction for 2022 together with further selective in the main belt of woodland on the steepest ground.
Since 2020, the woodland has been monitored for the presence of box moths which is minimal at the time of writing, small numbers trapped during the summer heatwave only. Further motivation to make full use of the timber where there is the threat of total loss in the near future.