About this blog

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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Tapping birch trees for sap

Whilst hanging out on some bushcraft forum or other, way back last summer when I was still just dreaming of the new life, I learnt about tapping birch trees for sap. I'd already heard of tapping trees - that's the way maple syrup is made - but this brought it closer to home and made it seem like a realistic possibility. I read descriptions, watched Youtube videos and generally got quite excited about the idea.

Then I had to wait. The time of year for tapping trees is early March, when the sap is rising. So... a couple of weeks ago, when early March came round, I gathered together a tapping kit...

tree tapping kit
Kit for tapping a tree: Knife, pointed stick, and bottle for all the lovely sap

...identified a likely looking tree in the garden...

...and stuck the knife into it...

tree tapping attempt
Attempting to tap a tree

...and nothing. Not even a drop. I wondered whether I hadn't pushed the knife in far enough, or perhaps it was too early in the year, or maybe I was trying the wrong kind of tree. In spite of the convenience of being in my garden, the tree in question didn't have a lot to recommend it as actually being a birch tree. (Note that in my excitement at it being early March, I didn't actually bother to watch the video again, with its helpful advice on identifying birch trees when they have no leaves on).

Considering the last possibility, I set off into the nearby woods in search of a more likely looking tree. Finding one that presented itself more convincingly as birch, I stuck the knife into it... and was immediately rewarded with a gleaming drop of sap! But that was it. One drop was about all that came out. Oh well, at least I'd accomplished the first step - find the right tree. I decided to leave it a while to see whether I'd have any more luck later in March.

So it was that yesterday I set off into the woods again armed with knife, pointy stick and bottle. This time was much more successful - when I stuck the knife in, sap came out of the tree and kept coming. I didn't exactly pour out, but there was a distinct trickle, as in the video.

The next challenge was making the sap run along the pointy stick, instead of straight down the tree. Even in the demonstration video on Youtube it took a few attempts, so I knew this wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't. Still, out of maybe half a dozen attempts on three different trees, I managed to get one (not the last one) to work. Drips formed and fell from the end of the pointy stick - more success!

Then I just had to fix up the bottle...

Bottle collecting sap

...and waited. The sap was coming at a rate of about one drip every five seconds to start with, but when I checked back half an hour later (after trying other trees) it had slowed to one every twelve seconds or so. I decided to leave it and collect it later. It wasn't exactly discreet, being right next to the footpath and at eye level, but I don't think I've seen another person in those woods since we moved, so I thought I'd chance it. What would it matter if someone did see it, anyway?

I went home and spent the rest of the day digging, then went back maybe five hours later to collect my booty. Here's what I got:

Glass of birch sap, with cat's paw for scale. It's not just because she walked in front of the camera, honest.

That glass of sap is all I got. That's not a wine glass, it's a sherry glass, or possibly port. I'm not sure, but it's small. If I'd been dying of thirst I'd have been glad of it, but then if I'd been dying of thirst in those woods I'd have been up for a Darwin award, for not following the sound of water to the stream in the valley.

It tasted nice - bright, fresh and springlike is the best way I can describe it. Not terribly sweet, though. I had optimistically hoped to get enough to make a bottle of wine from, but I doubt there'd be enough sugar in it for that. Similarly, people do boil it down to make syrup, as with maple syrup, but that seemed equally unlikely.

In spite of the very small quantity, I'd still say it was a successful experiment - though perhaps not successful enough to bother repeating. It was an entertaining way to spend an hour or so, anyway.


  1. I'd thought about tapping a birch tree this year but not got around to it - and now I'm not sure it'll be worth the effort... I'd thought about making a wine from it too.

    Have you seen Susy from Chiot's Run making maple syrup recently? I was amazed by both how much they collected - and how much of it was needed to make a decent quantity of syrup.

  2. My Dad was a winemaker and tapped the Birch Trees in our garden. I remember the bottles hanging on the tree but that's about it, I'll for any tips when we get home next week.

  3. Louisa - no, I hadn't seen that, thanks for the link, that's really interesting. They obviously know what they're doing, don't they? I totally share your amazement about the quantities.

    John Seymour recommends drilling like that, but more recent advice I've seen, in the context of foraging, recommends the method I used as being less damaging to the tree. I do wonder if that's excessive concern for the tree - those maples obviously don't suffer too much damage from the drilling.

    Anne-Marie (or Dave?) - thanks, it would be really interesting to get some tips from someone who knows what they're doing. I don't think I'll try again this year (it's probably too late) but I'd like to give it another go sometime. I've noticed that the neighbours on both sides have birch trees in their gardens, even if I don't. I'm sure they could be persuaded to let me try tapping them, especially if there was the prospect of wine!


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