NOTHING says summer like firing up the barbecue to dine alfresco while making the most of the glorious sunshine.

While most of the charcoal needed comes from several African nations which produce more than 60 per cent of the world’s charcoal, the popularity of barbecues has resulted in locally produced charcoal enjoying a renaissance as a fuel and has led to the revival of coppicing woodland.

This technique produces a sustainable supply of young wood. When cut close to the ground, many trees produce quick growing shoots from the stump. Hazel and ash can be harvested every five to 10 years this way while beech, lime and oak can be harvested up to every 25 years.

Charcoal is produced when wood is burned in the absence of air.

Traditionally a charcoal burner or woodcollier would build and ignite a wood stack covered with earth called a kiln, carefully controlling the burning to minimise the amount of air consumed by the fire.

Depending on the wood used, it would take three days or more for the wood to be converted to charcoal. During this time the kiln needed constant attention and adjustment so the charcoal burner would build a small turf hut in which to live near the kiln.

The New Forest has traditionally been associated with charcoal burning.

Charcoal burning is a very ancient craft introduced to southern Britain around 4000 years ago by the Beaker people, so named for the bell-shaped drinking vessels they produced. It is said they accidentally discovered how to produce bronze while firing their pottery.

When copper and tin ores are ground and melted together bronze is produced.

Only a charcoal fire had a high enough temperature and heat intensity to melt the metal which was then used to make tools, weapons and ornaments.

Bronze artefacts have been discovered in Southampton, some in a travelling bronze smith’s cache discovered near Cobden Bridge while an axe head and a rapier blade were recovered locally from the Test and Itchen respectively.

Around 3000 years ago almost half the woodland that had covered Britain following the last Ice Age had been cut down to support metal production and this continued in the South where large quantities of charcoal were needed to produce iron.

Land cleared for charcoal production was used for agriculture and trees planted for coppicing.

Large scale iron making continued with the arrival of the Romans who used the solid waste from charcoal burning in road construction and the wood tar for caulking ships.

We know that charcoal burning continued locally in Norman times for when William Rufus, was killed in 1100 while hunting in the New Forest his abandoned body was found by a charcoal burner named Purkis who placed the corpse on a cart and took it to Winchester.

The Normans also regulated charcoal production locally through licences and charges.

Over time charcoal found new uses in the production of gunpowder and large amounts were used in the casting of cannon.

Charcoal burning using coppiced wood could not keep up with demand and concern was expressed that charcoal burning for metal production was consuming wood needed for shipbuilding. Also, the friable nature of charcoal meant the size of furnaces was limited.

In 1709 Abraham Darby used coke produced by burning coal free from air to fire an iron making furnace. Coke enabled the use of bigger furnaces therefore increasing iron production.

Gases released from coke production known as coal gas was used as a fuel for lighting, heating and cooking leading to a sharp decline in charcoal production and use.

By 1980 annual UK charcoal production had declined to a few thousand tonnes but small-scale charcoal burning using metal kilns continues locally today around Lyndhurst in the New Forest and other parts of Hampshire.

Local charcoal production received a boost when it was used as filters for gas masks during both world wars and, of course, today by the popularity of barbecues.