A private mountain-top sylvicultural, forestry and timber processing operation in the south of France has overcome drought, hurricanes and the potential stalling of log conversion by planned planting and harvesting, as well as 'in-house' sawing.
The owner, Pierre Bremond, runs his diverse 250-hectare forest in the Alpes de Hautes, in Provence.
Devoted to exploiting his cedars, oaks and black pines, he saws his finest trees himself and makes tree houses using the boards and cants. At an altitude of 1100 metres, on a plateau, tree houses seem particularly appropriate.
Actually, he lives a double life. Down in the village of Banon he is the local pharmacist, and up on the 1100m plateau he transforms into arboriculturalist, forester, logger and sawyer. Only a 4x4 can get up there and snowshoes are essential in winter. There are many compensations. For example, a fine panorama spreads out before him, spanning the mountains of the Lubéron sloping down to the Mediterranean.
It was Pierre Bremond's parents who bought the 300 hectares of undeveloped land thirty years ago. It comprised farmland and natural woods dominated by Scots pine, old oak and beech coppices. In this beauty spot Pierre Bremond built his house in what is an ideal location for mushrooms, for indulging in his passion for hunting and above all, nurturing his trees.
Twenty years ago, when they signed their first simple management plan, the Bremond family reckoned they could produce timber at reasonable cost.
On 30 hectares, which they stripped, bare, they planted forty thousand cedars close together to avoid early thinning and foster natural pruning. Pierre Bremond comments:
"I believe we have the right strategy for producing good timber, especially when I see that there is a wood yard near here with stocks of badly grown cedar logs full of knots, making them difficult to saw".
He also claims his is a sensible approach to the exploitation of young oak in fine coppices with deep soil.
"Actually, cabinet makers here don't value this type of wood much because it tends to twist as it seeks the light. However, the grain is pleasantly aesthetic. With proper thinning, you can create funnels of light for these trees to grow straight".
Even so, he acknowledges the need for the family's descendants to wait 150 years before the finest can be harvested.The great joy of exploiting your own wood
Harvesting brings jubilation to Pierre Bremond. Whilst thinning is carried out by professionals, he is intent on enjoying the
harvest for his own consumption. Fitting a studio next to his house, he needed 45mm oak boards. For the first time, he took the timber from his own forest, sawing oak boards from a block of oak. After planing the wood looked splendid.
This successful experience sparked new ideas. From the start the family had tried to derive sufficient revenue from its property to maintain their roads and woods. They tried growing lavender on the farmland but much of it was lost in the 2003 drought.
"In four years, we went from 800kg of lavender to nil", he says.
The quest for a replacement of the lavender led to tree houses. He felt why not build tree houses for holidaymakers looking for unusual accommodation? Not seeking to start a serious tree house business, he saw them as a way to use mature wood or trees blown down in the 2007 hurricane, which destroyed 60 cubic metres of his black pine. Now the fine tree houses are assembled by a sub-contracted carpenter.Very comfortable tree houses
His use of a chainsaw eventually became far from cost efficient and was also tedious, so Pierre Bremond found himself considering contracting out sawing to a small sawmill. However, he soon decided against this for several reasons, including lack of punctuality, relative inflexibility and considerable extra cost. He reveals:
"A few years ago, during a hunting trip in Canada, I came upon a mobile band sawmill powered by a generating set". This
appeared to be the ideal machine for sawing his wood himself. So in early 2009 he bought a small Wood-Mizer LT15 band sawmill with a debarker for €7000 plus tax – and he acquired another forestry skill: professional level sawing!
The LT15 is the second smallest in Wood-Mizer's range of band sawmills. It can be equipped with 'Setworks' to preconfigure dimensions and sometimes has a moulder/planer attached, adding profiled beams and moulded boards to its output. It is easily towed into the forest to saw logs on the spot.
Pierre Bremond plants, grows, fells, hauls and positions his timber with a fork mounted farm tractor and saws up to four cubic metres of it daily. Is there anything he cannot do? For now, he contracts out the actual construction of his tree houses to 'Arbat', a carpentry contractor in Saint-Martin-les-Eaux. A 24 square metre prototype is being erected in oak forests on one of his mountains.
Pierre Bremond assembled the platform himself with material from his property: oak beams, bearing joists and cedar decking. The house has a black pine framework, cedar cladding and a cedar shingle roof. Walls are insulated with cellulose wool and covered inside with cedar panelling. The only 'foreign' species are the chestnut window frames and locust duckboard in the shower. In effect it is a 100% environmentally friendly tree house heated with wood and which will generate electricity using solar power.
The first tree house will be ready by next season. It seems inevitable that lovers of the great outdoors will enjoy staying in it and chatting with the owner.
Pierre Bremond is also an amateur pilot – one wonders how he finds the time – and has just created an 800 metre long runway on the plateau to allow small private aircraft to fly in and out of his bit of paradise.Producing timber without hurry
At 52, Pierre is uncommonly fortunate: he will be able to harvest the trees planted more than twenty years ago at the time of his first simple management plan.
"Then, I was lucky to meet an official from the DDAF (French Agriculture and Forestry department), who became my mentor.
"With Bernard Tron, we studied the topography and the soil, worked out a planting programme and defined the populations to be improved". Atlas cedar covering 30 hectares was selected as the dominant species and planted close together.
"It grows well and withstands harsh weather, and it provides good timber that doesn't crack and resists bending", he points out. It was to be thinned for the first time this year but will be put off until the lower branches fall.
"Twenty years ago, we decided to let nature take its course to save costs. We are sticking to that and in twenty to thirty years we will see if it was the right decision. That's the strength of private forests: among the wide range of decisions made by foresters, there has to be a relevant form of management".
The plantations were supplemented with Corsican pine (20%) and sprinkled with a mixture of species: Douglas fir, larch, thuja, sorbus, walnut and chestnut. He is currently converting 100 high up hectares of coppices in deep soil into 100ha of high quality. Another 100ha of coppices with poor soils have been devoted to heating wood, much appreciated at these altitudes.From an article by Luc Léger,
in the influential French forestry magazine, Forêts de France