What is coppicing?

Coppicing is an 8,000 year old woodland management technique. Small woodland blocks are felled in such a way that the trees regrow vigorously from the stump with multiple stems. The regrowth is cut again every so often, promoting yet more regrowth. Back in history, most of England’s woodlands were managed in this way. The practical dwindled in the latter part of the 20th centuary but is making a comeback again because of the combination of wildlife benefits and sustainable produce.

A brief history:

Before modern day materials were available, wood was in high demand for building shelters and housing, furniture, boats, tools, utensils, fuel… in fact almost anything you can think of. Such a demand for wood ought to have stripped out all the woodland in Britain long before the Iron Age, but it didn’t happen. The human population grew, as such the demand for wood grew, and yet still the woodlands kept producing everything people needed. This is because people knew that they would always need wood in the future, so they had to look after the resource.

They knew that if they cut one tree from under a canopy it would die through lack of light, but if they cut a small block of trees all at once enough light would get in and they would all grow back together. If they looked after this regrowth for a few years they would be provided with some extremely valuable materials. They also knew that they could cut this area again and again, indefinately, because it would just keep growing.

Believe it or not, coppicing actually prolongs the life of trees. Have a look at this BBC News article about a coppiced lime tree near Gloucester that is over 2,000 years old. That’s around 1,600 years longer than uncoppiced lime trees can live for! It is cut every 20 years. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-20313113

According to Professor Oliver Rackham, most British woodland was once coppiced. This makes sense when you think of the scale of demand for wood, even in the not too distant past:

There are many many more examples…

One of the most important coppice products was charcoal. This fuel burns much hotter than seasoned wood, which is essential for reaching the temperatures required for smelting. Without charcoal the advances in metal work that lead to bronze and iron production would not have been possible, and we’d all still be in the stone age. At the point at which steel tools were being produced it became possible to mine coal, from which coke was made – a hotter burning fuel again. This gave rise to the industrial revolution.

So coppice was a victim of its own success, having kickstarted massive advancements in technology and transport. By the time plastic came along, many coppice businesses had shut down and the woodlands fell out of the cutting cycle for the first time in centuries. The trees matured and started to comepete with each other, they became too widely spaced, to thick & too branched – there was not enough value in the rods to pay someone even a meagre wage to cut it.

Coppicing all but died out in The Lake District. One man held on though – Bill Hogarth. Through his apprentice and a dedicated band of enthusiasts, the Bill Hogarth Memorial Apprenticeship Fund (BHMAT) has now trained up several generations of coppice workers…

Coppicing today

So in the 21st century, do we really need all those sticks? Why not just let the trees mature ‘naturally’?

Actually, woodlands that consist mainly of mature trees are not normally very diverse. The shade that the bigger trees cast stops the younger generation from coming through. The woodland plants are suppressed due to lack of light, so there is little to interest pollinating insects and so not much food for birds. Even nesting habitat is scarce, given that most woodland birds actually nest in dense thickets of undergrowth (e.g. coppice re-growth!) rather than up in the canopy.

If all the coppices were left to mature ‘naturally’ all the young and intermediate stages would be lost, and the species associated with these stages lost with them. We know this because that’s what happended when most of the coppice businesses shut down – the coppices stopped being managed, the trees all grew up, and the diversity of wildlife dissapeared and many species that were common became rare.

Coppicing has been going on since the last ice age, and many species actually evolved alongside the practice. Since the decline in coppicing in the 20th century many woodland butterflies have declined to near extinction. The once common but now rare pearl bordered fritillary and high-brown fritillary butterfiles are examples. The same is true for several (now-scarce) bird species such as the nightingale. The now rare dormouse is strongly associated with coppicing…

For me this is a clear illustration of the fact that humankind is a part of nature and in no way separate from it.

Its not just the individual species that are important but also the sheer diversity of creatures that benefit from coppice systems. Imagine a woodland (or a group of woodlands) where one 1/2ha block is cut each year over a cycle of 9 years. Every year there is a freshly cut coupe somewhere in the woodland. The bare ground in these areas allows the dormant seedbank that was previously shaded to spring into life.

Coppiced areas are often awash with wild woodland flowers in the first 2 summers after cutting. This is great for bees and other important polinators, and also the invertebrates that will become food for birds… There is always this type of habitat being created somewhere in the wood because one area is cut every year.

As each cut area regrows it gains in value for breeding birds. Did you know that the most productive woodland for breeding warblers is not mature woodland but coppice between 4 & 7 years old? After this time the numbers of breeding birds drop off sharply. Every year there are at least 7 areas in the woodland (or group of woodlands) that fulfil this criteria, each one year ahead of the next.

Once an area has grown to 9 years old its breeding bird value is already starting to decline. However it now contains valuable materials that can be harvested, which a) re-starts the cycle to give another 7-years of nesting habitat, and b) provides the income to pay for it. All the time it is providing every different stage of habitat from 0 to 9 years of growth for other species, all in close proximity so that those that can’t move around very well can always access suitable habitat.

Of course coppicing is not the only woodland system that is important. Mature woodland is also very important, as is scrub and wood-pasture. They compliment each other for maximum diversity of habitats and species. Not all woodland is suitable for coppicing. If however it is is ‘in rotation’, the value of keeping it in rotation can not be underestimated.

Sustainable Products

Nowadays there is growing interest in products that are not made out of plastic or rainforests, that genuinely biodegrade back to where they came from (the soil) and are not transported thousands of miles unnecessarily. Coppice products are made from natural materials that grow back and create wildlife habitats in the process. What’s not to like about that?

Sustainable Livelihoods

Coppicing is once again providing skilled employement for consientious people in rural areas. Not only is it providing jobs where there would otherwise be none, it is also allowing local people to really become invested in looking after their own environment. We love it, we rely on it, and it relies on us. That’s why we do it.

Cultural Heritage

There are so many crafts to learn about. Some have already been lost for ever. Many have only a handful of people still producing. Often these crafts require highly refined skills and a deep understanding of not only the material but also the way it grew and the conditions it grew under. A great deal of knowledge has been lost, although some of us are working hard to learn it back, keep old skills alive, and pass them on to future generations. I feel that every lost skill represents a strand of connection between people and nature. I believe we have a duty to preserve what we can.