Coppicing – a career in the woods

Logo: National Coppice Federation

By Guy Lambourne, Wasseldine

A man in protective gear working through sections of cut hazel
Working through cut hazel (Guy Lambourne)

My dad died more than twenty years ago. I don’t therefore know what he would make of the way I earn my living now and as I approach the age he reached when he popped off, I do sometimes wonder. He made a point of telling me he was proud of me (top father!), but I always felt he didn’t understand much I was interested in – music, science, guitars, trees – he said he admired my lack of ambition to earn a huge salary. But I never really believed him.

Studying biology at college was certainly not a pathway to lucrative employment and the jobs I ended up taking were with government research organisations, local authorities and a charity, all in the agricultural or environmental sectors, none offering great financial rewards. I first heard about coppicing whilst at college and although I had up until then strongly believed that woodland should be left to nature without human interference, coppicing lodged in my brain and when later I actually did some cutting whilst working for Hertfordshire County Council in the 1980s, a mental seed was firmly sown.

Bundles of hazel on the ground after cutting
Hazel after cutting ready for working through (Guy Lambourne)

Many years later I am in the very fortunate position of running a small farming and coppicing business in Bedfordshire with my wife, Jane and daughter, Molly. We cut hazel and willow, selling the resulting sticks and products made from them.

Many deciduous, woody plants will regrow when cut, vigorously throwing up a new batch of stems the following spring. Gardeners know this. Some plants seem to relish it – the more they are cut, the more stems they produce. In a wood, this is coppicing. Humans have been doing it for many years, in fact several millennia.

Coppicing as a profession has waxed and waned over the centuries, in tandem with the industries it supplied. These are many and various – basket making, leather tanning; charcoal making for iron and steel making, gunpowder, cooking and now barbeques; thatching, hedge laying, firewood, house and ship building, fencing. It’s a long list. These days, much of our product ends up in gardens, either as sticks to support plants or in woven fencing panels. There are still thriving markets for paling fences, thatching spars, hedge stakes and binders, firewood and charcoal. The current and very welcome interest in locally produced goods has been of great benefit to coppice workers who will exploit any opportunity to sell their wares.

Another very strong selling point of things made from the coppice is the powerful positive effect that coppicing can have on the wildlife that might enjoy a woodland. Once a potential customer begins to understand coppicing, they are likely to support a small-scale coppicing business if they are able. Our marketing majors on the fact that cutting trees can be a very good thing for wildlife and that a coppiced woodland can support an array of special plants, animals and fungi because of the diverse mix of habitats it creates in a small area. A woodland with an established rotation will contain large open spaces, soon after cutting, that are sunny, warm and sheltered – in which many wild flowers and invertebrates can thrive. Later mid-cycle, impenetrable thickets of young coppice stems develop, so attractive to nesting birds and some mammals. In the latter stages of a rotation, when stems are tallest, the woodland floor can be in deep shade which suppresses much of the ground flora – a factor that favours many woodland wild flowers and has helped create our fabulous bluebell woods.

Hazel bundles on the back of a trailer
Hazel stakes and binders on their way to a hedge layer in Bedfordshire (Jane and Guy Lambourne)

Many coppice workers, like myself, are self-employed, running microbusinesses that operate over a fairly small area and in just a few woods. But there really isn’t a single model. We are all different and it’s rarely a job for which you’ll see an advert. Some just cut and sell sticks, but most make products such as bean poles, thatching spars, fencing, brooms, charcoal, firewood, to add value and thus increase their income. Apprenticeships do exist but not many, and there are organisations whose employees will do some coppicing, for example, the Wildlife Trusts and possibly local authorities. What coppice workers do seem to have in common is a passion for trees, woodland, crafts and nature. It’s definitely a vocation rather than something anyone chooses to do for money or status.

Is coppicing for you?

A hazel sapling in the woods
New hazel growth in June after cutting the previous winter (Jane and Guy Lambourne)

I was lucky in previous jobs to have been paid to do training in some key skills – chainsaw use and tree felling, hedge laying, use of a brushcutter. I now have a lot of experience of the practicalities so although I never have done, if I applied for a job as a coppice worker I should do ok. My great age would count against me though!

Previous jobs have taught me or forced me to learn many other skills that are crucial for anyone thinking of trying to run a business. I would put people skills very high in that list. And that’s ironic - since many of us are fairly solitary and happy in our own company. You’ve got to be able to communicate effectively to sell things to people. Having said that I had no previous experience in retail and have done ok, but a natural salesman I am not. In other jobs I picked up enough IT skills to run my own website, to write promotional copy, and to manage projects, money and other people. If you’re self employed, there’s nobody to tell you what to do when, so you need to be able to get out in the morning even when it’s cold and wet. Working for others also taught me something of the internal workings of large organisations.

I was wholly lacking experience of making things when we started. This wasn’t in the plan when we began but I have experimented and we now do make products. It turns out I enjoy it and some of the stuff sells well. Who knew?

As to academic qualifications, the jobs I mentioned earlier may require a degree because other bits may have more intellectual requirements. But really, whilst skills, experience, aptitude, determination and resilience are all important, I think passion for those trees and woodlands or perhaps the wood itself are at the root of it. If you don’t have that I’d look elsewhere.

And what of my dad? I think he would be proud of what I do and why I do it. And that’s a good feeling.

To find out more:

Join your local coppice group that’s affiliated to the National Coppice Federation – The website has loads of information about and for coppice workers. By joining a group you will meet crafts people, coppice workers, academics, scientists, all with that same passion and a willingness to share knowledge and information.

Logo: Wassledine

Read around the subject – of course there’s loads online but I like a book. A particular favourite and one that serves well as an introduction to coppicing and all sorts of other related fields – ‘A History of the Countryside’ by Oliver Rackham.

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Posted On: 05/01/2024

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