Coppicing - realising the potential of our woodlands

logo: national Coppice Federation

The word coppicing means many different things to different people. From clear fell, slash and burn on one hand and a bit of pruning of the undergrowth on the other. For me the key element is not necessarily how you cut or how much to cut but how you look after the regrowth. Because at heart coppicing is a management system that is about cherishing the regrowth, giving it sufficient light to grow, protecting it from browsing and damage from machinery or fire. Focusing on restocking when needed and ensuring an endless succession of coppice cycles can be cut without reducing vigour or productivity.

Brian Williamson demonstrating layering of hazel at Westonbirt  Arboretum (Rebecca Oaks)
Brian Williamson demonstrating layering of hazel at Westonbirt Arboretum (Rebecca Oaks)

Productivity too can have many meanings, there is a spectrum of outputs from a coppice wood that will be as diverse as species driven habitat management to commercial production of chestnut palings. However all outputs rely on one thing, a sustainably managed woodland that can continue to deliver for many, many years to come.

One thing to remember is that our ancestors when working out the best way to crop trees on a rotation were not driven by the desire to provide habitat for high brown fritillaries this happened as a by-product of our need for small poles for all the many myriad of uses we can put them to. We have a lot to thank the conservation movement for, bringing focus back to what could so easily be lost if we don’t maintain the traditional ways of working in the woods. But now more than ever we need to provide a sustainable financial model for coppicing and focus must be on the new uses and markets we can find for coppice wood.

Coppice products from Deans Row  (Les Brannon)
Coppice products from Deans Row (Les Brannon)

This is why training in coppicing is so essential. A skilled coppice worker will know just by looking what products are possible from a standing crop, they will know that cutting low will create wider stable stools that will withstand future cutting cycles without decay. They will see where stool density has become a bit sparse allowing regrowth to be spreading and branched rather than lovely and drawn up tall, they know about layering to fill in those gaps or how to raise new maidens from seed to replenish the standards within the woodland. They know the damage just one deer pushing through an ill-fitting temporary fence on a winter morning, will do to a newly sprung coppice when there is little else around to eat and new shoots are an irresistible delicacy. They will know to their shame how not dealing with the deer problem can lead to certain coppice death as those beleaguered trees push up new shoots and more new shoots until they are exhausted and die.

Coppicing then is all a bit more complex than just heading to the woods with a chainsaw or bow saw and hoping for the best! That is why more and more folk are now looking into the possibilities of coppice apprenticeships or failing that getting onto a course with someone who really knows what they are doing. The potential of our woodlands is only just re-emerging from obscurity and I urge everyone to take a fresh look at the potential of coppice woods.

Rebecca Oaks, NCFed Chair

NCFed are leading the way in bringing the needs of conservation and commercial coppice together and had a conference entitled ‘Coppicing, Conservation and Commerce’ on 9/10 May 2016 at the Weald and Downland Museum, in Sussex. A synopsis of the discussion at that event was published on the NCFed website

First published in CJS Focus on Countryside Skills (traditional & modern) with Field Studies Council (FSC) on 23 May 2016