Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.
It’s October, so my thoughts inevitably turn to the woods. Its time to start the coppice cycle again, and this year it’s a little more interesting.
Coppicing is the cyclical cutting down of tree growth in deciduous woodlands, usually lowland ones in England or Wales. It has been documented as happening since Domesday Book times, so traditional it definitely is. As a conservation coppice I have been doing this for over 20 years, and now encourage and work alongside folk who are starting once more to turn this ancient craft into a living. A hard and sometimes frustratingly muddy living, but probably a satisfying one.
Coppicing fell out of favour during the mid 20th century, but its revival started in the 1970s (well late 1960s) within the wildlife conservation sector, whilst woods were still poorly protected and vulnerable to obliteration. It had become clear that cyclical cutting was beneficial for much of the wildlife present in and dependent on the woods – a cycle of hot, bright areas for a couple of years, gradually scrubbing over as the trees regrow and several years of deeper shade.
Coppicing still goes on, and is having a bit of a revival , but I sense a conflict coming in many ways.
With the pressure for access to woods, for people to reconnect with nature, the woods they are used to are those with mature canopy growth, little light and probably an impoverished flora and fauna. Visits to an ancient woodland in full coppice cycle often results in many queries about why we are cutting all the trees down. Explanation and not always understanding usually ensue. I sense it will become greater as awareness of deforestation across the world increases in the general public………this mystifying cycle of tree cutting. They all return to those same woods in spring and admire the flowers, and still fail to make the connection.
There are many issues around coppicing and woodland management and I could probably expand into a whole other blog on the subject, including around the issues with deer, disease, economics etc., where other potential conflicts may arise. It is not appropriate in every woodland setting but its resurgence in the historically coppiced areas, with appropriate measures to ensure tree regrowth, is to be applauded. But how do we get the message out there that a day in the woods, cutting trees which have a useful product outcome, doing something physical, whilst admiring the autumn colours is a great way to reconnect with nature, with our surroundings.
Well, this year we are making a start. The National Coppice Federation, prompted partly by our local branch, the East Anglian Coppice Network, is organising National Coppice week. Running from October 12th to 20th, there will be events in various parts of the UK promoting this traditional woodland management practice, extolling the value of the products produced, the huge benefits to wildlife and, equally importantly but probably forgotten by many of the full-time coppice workers involved (rather than volunteers like myself), the significant human wellbeing benefits. Any way to reconnect the increasingly consumermist urban human population with the kind of activities and practices that have made the country they live in and the landscapes they appreciate what they are has to be supported and celebrated. Check out if there is an event near you, and go and find outmore about woodland management and how it has shaped our lowland landscape.