There can be money in willows, but it can take many years before you see a profit. The Wind in the Willows made its author, Kenneth Grahame, financially secure despite the book’s unpromising beginning. Early reviewers were baffled, that of The Times declaring: ‘As a contribution to natural history the work is negligible.’ This wasn’t helped by the original illustrations depicting the animals to scale, rendering Toad riding the horse bizarre. But, 20 years after publication, E. H. Shepard contributed new drawings and the book’s enduring popularity was assured.
Twenty years is also about the time it takes to grow cricket-bat willows before they can be harvested. But Alexander Creed at Strutt & Parker in Chelmsford says: ‘Many farms and estates are finding growing cricket-bat willows a profitable sideline.’
Rob Riekie, landscape and forestry manager for the Parks Trust, which cares for many of Milton Keynes’s green spaces, explains: ‘Growing bat willows helps pay for the maintenance of the parks. We’ve identified the most suitable areas for growing and built up a stock of trees so we can take a regular harvest. Last year, 138 trees were taken from four areas to create cricket bats. This generated £39,000.’
The willow’s natural moisture and ability to be pressed in the manufacturing process gives it great ball-striking qualities. Cricket-bat willow (Salix alba Caerulea) is also grown in Asia, particularly Kashmir, but this is used for the cheaper models, as it’s of poorer quality.
Recently, there’s been a growing demand for cricket-bat willow. J. S. Wright & Sons supplies about three-quarters of the cricket-bat willow from England, and is overseeing a huge planting programme to ensure that demand can be met in future. ‘Each year, about three times as many trees are planted as are cut down,’ says Oliver Wright of the company, which was founded in 1894. ‘If someone thinks that they may have a suitable site, we urge them to contact us.’
If landowners buy nascent willow sets from the company, J. S. Wright will agree to buy the wood when it’s ready for harvesting, as long as it’s been looked after. If you don’t want to manage the willow yourself, the company will do so for a percentage of the final timber price. ‘Maintenance is of paramount importance. Trees neglected for even a single year have little or no commercial value,’ warns Mr Wright. ‘Fencing against livestock is essential, horses and cattle in particular. Sheep may graze only when the trees are at least half grown.’
Willows for bats also have to have their shoots rubbed off twice a year. ‘It’s particularly worth checking after a spell of strong winds, when the bark can get stretched,’ advises Robert Goodwin of R. Goodwin & Son, who farms willows in the Blackwater Valley in Essex. If the shoots are allowed to grow, they leave knots in the wood, rendering the timber less marketable. However, former England batsman Geoff Boycott advises buying a bat with a knot in it as it will perform just as well, but will be cheaper simply because of its looks.
J. S. Wright and Sons Ltd, Coles Farm Works, Boreham Road, Great Leighs, Chelmsford, Essex CM3 1PR (01245 361639; www.cricketbatwillow.com)