Guest blog – reconnecting with nature through coppicing by Louise Bacon

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.

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10 Replies to “Guest blog – reconnecting with nature through coppicing by Louise Bacon”

  1. Yes, many times people have complained about the efforts to coppice small blocks of the reserve I warden, but the same people do love to see the resulting fresh vegetation, flowers and buzz of light in subsequent years.

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    1. Indeed Robert. Soemthign which, with Butterfly Conservation days in Essex I have encountered even mor estrongly than back home in cambridgeshire. Those Heath fritillaries just dont thrive without the management intervention.

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  2. Hazel coppice can make a valuable addition to school playgrounds. Whips spaced at 2 to 3m centres to allow for canopies to develop and for there to be space for play between them will develop into a child scale forest in just a few years. (Keep a mulched grass free circle 1m diam around each until established) The hazel can be crown lifted or parts coppiced on rotation by parents and children as necessary so need not require expensive maintenance by contractors.

    It ticks quite a few boxes, improved play environment, wildlife habitat creation, summer shade for children at lunchtime breaks, shelter from the wind, carbon capture, teaching resource, space for imaginative play, outdoor classroom, building the school community, somewhere to be if you feel like being a bit solitary etc etc.

    If there is enough space you can design the planting around clearings and put in new oak sleepers for seats (set on a gravel filled trench for drainage to make them last and stabilised with treated timber pegs on each side to stop them moving). When the grass dwindles in places because of wear and shade a play grade bark can be spread (no splinters). As the canopy closes a woodland ground flora can be introduced. The lower canopy brings the birds down to them. For some children this may be the only experience of ‘natural’ woodland they will have.

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  3. "mature canopy growth, little light and probably an impoverished flora and fauna"

    And with the fallen trees, complete with rootplates, and neglected hazel coppice knitted together by Old Man's Beard and Ivy into impenetrable thickets only fit for Monbiot's Chinese Water Deer.

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    1. well in southern Cambridgeshir ethe Muntjac love Ivy, so you can essentially look through a wood for several hundred metres at below waistheight (browse line of small deer), plus they prefer to eat oxlip, primrose, dogs mecury, young growth of hazel, maple, ash, hawthorn, elm...........and fresh bramble leaves too. But I have been mulling over a further post of the issues around coppicing in the 21st century lowland england!

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  4. Richard Mabey (Beechcombings) - “Managed woods reflect too simplistically our own limited skills and horizons. Wild, unmanaged trees show us possibilities beyond our cultural tunnel-vision”

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  5. The only real problem with coppicing, as far as wildlife is concerned, is that too many coppicers do it on too short a cycle of 5-10 years, when really it ought to be done on a 15-25year cycle in order to let the trees be of most use to animals like squirrels and dormice. Just need to leave it a bit longer, and do it in thirds, only taking one stool out of every stool in any given year, rather than clear cut the whole wood and then wait.

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    1. squirrels are a non-native, tree-damaging nuisance, as are muntjac. We dont have dormice in my part of east anglia, for which specific rules apply regarding coppicing, although the two co-exist OK as far as I know. Evidence implies , from the documented historic record, that the average cycle was 8-10 years. Longer and no useful product other than firewood.

      Many coppiced woods these days only have a portion of the wood coppiced, the rest being left as non-intervention (the wood I manage has 8x 0.3 Ha cut out of 17 Ha). We are simply replacing the role of the megafauna which in neolithic times would have gone round creating clearings in woodland by knocking trees over......

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  6. It seems to me that a natural environment still has its occasional events which take natural succession back to square one, (or maybe 2 and a half), but our busy, densly managed litle island has little space in which these dramas can play out anymore, (e.g. floods, wildfire, migratory grazing herds, landslips, etc). As Louise has said, coppicing, (just like "hay cuts" on meadows), are a pragmatic compromise, allowing human endeavours alongside some natural processes. The solution I think is getting more clever at doing more of this, rather than less.
    Hazel coppice with dormice in our town centres - why not? We cannot turn the clock back to any date in the past, its all about finding new strategies (with new and old techniques) for a new future.

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  7. Interesting to see these well informed but competing management ideas in the comments above. From up here it looks like you have to pick and choose which achievable micro-ecosystem you want, to preserve the fragments of nature you have left. In Scotland we have the opposite problem, huge areas of sheepwalk, plantation forestry and "managed" heather - devastated hills and glens - much of it crying out for large scale restoration to native woodland. Whay arent we doing more of it?..Plenty of room for trying out coppicing or leaving wild...and everywhere inbetween.

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