IN THE heart of Delamere Forest, smoke can be seen rising from a new venture that is helping to keep the forest alive and creating environmentally-friendly charcoal for summer barbecues.
Charcoal burning is an ancient craft in which high-quality charcoal is made from timber that would otherwise have little use. Now - thanks to one man and his horse - an environmentally sensitive new business is being created from this old wood.
The charcoal made at Delamere Forest comes at a much lower cost to the environment than a lot of the imported charcoal that ends up on our barbecues, much of which comes from environmentally sensitive areas or endangered forests in West Africa and South America.
Forester Vernon Stockton, who helped to devise the scheme, said: 'It's a very eco-friendly project. We are util-ising a natural resource that we've already got and turning it into a useable product.
'It's good woodland management that helps the forest to be sustainable. We are reinvesting in nature for every-body's future.'
Charcoal burner Alan Williamson and his long-serving horse Domino begin by taking the timber by cart to a dry area where it is stacked and left for up to 12 months. It is then chopped and placed into the kiln.
This is where the expertise comes in. The wood has to be burnt for just the right length of time to make perfect barbecue charcoal. Left too long and it simply turns to ash.
'You have to know what colour smoke to look for,' explains Alan. 'As soon as it becomes quite clear the kiln has to be shut down immediately and left to cool. There is a bit of an art to it.'
It can take from as little as a couple of hours to three days depending on the wood.
Alan is convinced the end result is well worth the wait. He said:'It lights easily and burns longer than imported charcoal because it is denser,' he explains. 'I've used it on a few barbecues this summer and it's been excellent.'
The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 to create a national reserve of timber in case of war. Today the organisation has a much stronger focus on the social and environmental benefits forests can deliver.
The charcoal project is the result of a partnership between the commission, Cheshire County Council, Mersey Forest, Fox Howl Outdoor Education Centre and Groundwork St Helens.
The charcoal is on sale at Delamere Forest Visitor Centre at £4.75 for one bag and £12 for three.