Seaweed fuelled fires!

I have been experimenting with local fuels, here in the Orkney Islands where trees are rare.

The obvious potential fuels include: Driftwood, peat, grass, animal dung, heather and seaweeds. Land sources of scrap wood are not discussed here.

Driftwood used to be plentiful with lots of shipwrecked sailing ships and the abundant native woods of the Americas floating over on the North Atlantic Drift. Nowadays we get plastics washed up on the shore.

Sporadic bits of wood can be found, especially in bays, but this is mostly fast burning pallets and rarely bits of boats. These can supplement and slow down the burn but are insufficient for a winter supply.

Animal dung is not easy to collect and dry for domestic use, so I’ll leave that for methane digesters.

Peat is effectively made up of dead but not rotted heather, grass and sphagnum mosses. When dried this has been a a major fuel in Scotland and Ireland, in the absence of wood (for the poorer folks).

Spagnum moss is protected, it’s environment being endangered.

Grass is hard to collect in large enough quantities, burns with an acrid smell and has to be tied into faggots to slow down the burn. Faggots are bundles of small fuel made up usually by poor people who were forced to scavenge on the woodland floors owned by their overlords.

Heather goes up like rocket fuel, giving a hot and rapid flame with a lot of sizzling and a beautiful smell. But it too is now scarce and it’s environment needed for wildlife habitat.

Seaweeds are often very wet. The thick Kelp used to be dried by being draped over stone walls until it had dried in wind and sun (like peat) and was much reduced in size and weight. If gathered at the right time of year, large quantities can be harvested from the strand line when sun dried and reasonably crisp.

Wrack seaweeds cover the inter-tidal zone here beside our house and are the main weed of the strandline, useful for improving soil fertility. When dry they burn well too.

When a few days of dry weather follow a storm it is possible to fork good quantities of relatively light seaweed up to the house, where it needs to be stored dry. The wracks don’t really shrink much, just forming near black tangles of crispy weed. (Tang or Tangles are the local names for the traditional kelp fuel).

Most precious find on the shore forage is white coils of birch bark, rich in oil and traditional fire lighting magic. The fewer the trees, the less there is of this great material. Reforest folks, please.

What are most other people burning to heat their houses and cook food? Imported coal, oil, gas and electricity dominate, with imported peat and wood also on the market. Some electricity is generated locally on the islands, so this is the bulk local fuel, coming from wind and wave / tide.

How to best use these meagre local fuels? They all burn differently, with their own characteristics, flame colours and smells (lovely).

On a bed of dry wrack set a tiny piece of birch bark and lay over this bundles of dry heather tops. Add to this the thicker stems of the heather. Around this place the blocks of peat, with smaller pieces on top of the heather so that as it burns this collapses slowly, avoiding it bridging.

More seaweed can be added above the peat, to help weigh down and also dry it in preparation for burning.

A lot of ash is produced, so keep a good airflow.

Oh, I should point out, the smells of these fires are wonderful, with peat, seaweed and wood being very distinctive. Imagine walking home in the dark, being guided by the familiar smell of your own hearth, different from your neighbours.



4 responses to “Seaweed fuelled fires!

  1. tammi dallaston

    I am interested that you seem to be advocating the use of peat as fuel. I live in the Dyfi valley biosphere area, where we have the largest low lying raised bog in Europe – at 652 acres. It has multiple designations, including Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Biosphere site, National Nature Reserve (NNR) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). As peat is host to an amazing array of biodiversity – including carniverous plants, whimberries, and bizarre invertebrates – is it right to advocate it as a source of fuel in any circumstance? Please note that this is not in any way intended as criticism – I am genuinely curious. x

  2. I too share your concern of peat use, especially in the most sensitive areas and I do not see it as a fuel for mass use.
    I’m sorry I never acknowledged your comment sooner, the arrival of a baby in our life inhibited my blogging. However, now I am awake once more.
    My view is generally that we must do without fuels of all sorts and use serious insulation or renewable energy / passive solar to keep our homes warm. So I think you are right to make the point you do.
    My comments are from within a cultural context and traditions that also need to be kept alive.
    The personal choices made for fuels were out of necessity and poverty, which is often exactly the conditions causing desertification and resource depletion elsewhere on the planet. It is for this reason we need joint action and a united approach to climate change (global heating!) because we cannot leave it to individuals acting in their own immediate interest.
    Thank you for your comment and I hope you receive this belated reply.
    Best wishes

  3. Hi, your post on seaweed fuelled fires is very interesting to me! I am currently in my final year of architecture and doing my design thesis on Inis Oirr, Aran, Co. Galway. My brief is to make a member of community as self sufficient as possible making the land work for him. Like the Orkney islands, Inis Oirr has little or no timber. Any fuel for burning is imported from the mainland. Mostly turf from Connemara.
    Years ago when the land was divided among the islanders into farmsteads, families were assigned plots in which to collect seaweed around the coast of the island. In past years seaweed harvesting played an important role in the reclamation of land (turning the skeletal limestone pavements into farmable land) to fertilise the hard won soils in their farms. However in recent times people are not harvesting their seaweed so much as the farming culture is dying away slightly and also seen as much land is already reclaimed there isnt much need for it.
    I am interested in how the seaweed might have other uses either individually or collectively in facilitating the livelihood of islanders. If the dried seaweed is to be used in fires how much burning time would say 1 tonne of dry seaweed provide in a domestic fire?
    Warm regards,
    Laura O’Gorman

  4. Very interesting, especially the sea weed part. I would love to hear more about it as it may solve our problem of deforestation here in Africa especially at the coastline.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s