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.
As a volunteer, I spend about a day a week from late October through to Easter cutting down trees. ‘Shock horror!’ say the urban tree-huggers. Actually, I could equally have written that I spend a day a week engaged in the traditional rural craft of coppicing. I prefer to think of it as the latter. Maybe that would appeal more to the artisan side of urban thinking.
I am a volunteer warden for a wildlife trust ancient woodland SSSI and I spend the winter cutting 2/3 acre of it as coppice with a group of dedicated volunteers. Our ethos is to try and make use of as much as we can from what we cut down, as well as coppicing for the conservation benefits, which are part of the SSSI condition assessment. This blog post explores why we still need to do it and the wildlife and human issues surrounding it, from a very East Anglian perspective.
Coppicing is documented in our history for a thousand years – it is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and then again in 1215 in the Ely Coucher book. It has been part of the existence of village life in lowland England for centuries. Cutting down things like Hazel, Field Maple, Ash, Elm makes them regrow, with multiple stems. It must have been a great discovery that this regrowth was reliable, productive and gave you a useful product.
We owe much of what we know of the history of woodland management to Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge academic who spent his life in the woods and libraries, studying the landscape and studying old tomes and documents, developing an understanding of how woodlands were used. An area of the wood was cut on a cycle of between 6 and 20 years (each wood seems to have had a different cycle – we don’t know for sure why)…. But NOT the big trees, the canopy – those usually belonged to the woodland owner; the agreement would have been for the villagers to cut the ‘underwood’ or coppice, for their use. Autumn probably had livestock in the wood grazing and feeding on acorns etc. Having only a few canopy trees and all of the shorter, coppice stuff cut means there is a sizeable bare, hot area of an acre or two, and whilst the cut trees regrow, it takes 2-3 years for it to start being really thick and tall. Until then its hot, sunny and full of spring and summer flowers, butterflies such as Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Chequered Skippers, etc. The next few years of the cycle had thick multi-stemmed trees, ideal for warblers and Nightingales. Further growth to 8 – 12 years and the coppice are is dark, shaded, no flowers, but full of valuable product ready for cutting. By having the areas cut adjacent to each other, there is connectivity for the species which favour any of these conditions.
In many parts of England, coppicing died out between the world wars, so the trees in many ancient woodlands have had 70 to 100 years to mature. This gives us the impoverished, dark woodland setting we are very familiar with. Most visits to a woodland now are to a site simply of mature trees, often all of the same age, with lots of shade, not many flowers, not much sunlight except maybe on some of the wide tracks (we call them rides)….this has become the norm of what we expect to see when we go into a wood. Yes, it has wildlife, but only the subset of woodland life which prefers mature canopy-woodland. OK, some of that is very special, but unmanaged areas of ancient woodlands can and usually do exist today in a coppice-managed woodland.
Coppicing DOES still continue, and is having a bit of a resurgence for both conservation reasons AND for the products which can come from a coppice coupe each year. It pleases me that more people ARE able to make a living out of it. It’s a tough existence, out in the cold, long days, lots of work to find outlets for specific products, working in all weathers. For instance, here is something that happened last October…..2 1/2 hours to cut, prep, bundle and move 60 hazel binders for hedging competition. Cost assuming 50p each binder, thats £30. Thats £12 per hour (obviously this would be a lot less if I was running a business as there would be overheads to cover….) plus I walked 3km to boot, as we don’t have mechanised access to our coppice on a regular basis. Welcome to the marginal incomes of a coppice worker in lowland England. The upsides of this sort of work – exercise and being outdoors getting fresh air and back to nature. The downsides, having to be out in all weathers all winter, not summer, having to work really hard to secure a market or outlet for what you produce, and physically very hard work. There is now a federation for coppice workers, with regional networks or groups, to make it easier to work together on bigger orders, or to share customers around and to share manpower, equipment and expertise, but its still a tough world, especially when gardeners can buy bamboo for gardens cheaply and thatchers can buy plastic alternatives to the twisted-hazel staple for holding down thatch (its called a gad….). We are dependent on those who want to buy something more traditional and are prepared to pay a premium for it.
Money and access are major constraints of some woods returning to viable conservation coppice, let alone commercially-viable coppice. To make coppice products financially viable needs power tools, a market and a means of getting all the products out of the wood. As a Wildlife Trust reserve, our wood benefits from a once-per-season visit from reserve staff with a woodland trailer to get all the products to an access point. We sell them on to a coppice worker who does not have enough woodland of his own, at a reduced cost, because we are NOT trying to make a living and he is. The money goes into the wildlife trust to fund work on reserves. We do sell some products to allotmenteers and gardeners, but nothing like the volume to other coppice workers or hedgelayers. The woodland benefits, the following two years the Oxlips, Bluebells, Dogs Mercury and Early Purple Orchids flower in profusion. The cut trees regrow, sequestering carbon, and that sequestration in young, vigorous growth is probably greater than it would be if uncut. I haven’t been able to find the evidence for it on a brief trawl of info available online. If we had butterflies such as Chequered or Grizzled Skipper or Heath or Pearl-bordered Fritillary in Cambridgeshire, they would be nectaring on those flowers, following on into the adjacent cut plot the next year; the old name for such butterflies of ‘The Woodsman’s Follower‘ makes sense when thought of in this way. The time and effort creating small areas along rides or in clearings in some woods for these species in the lowlands, at the vanishingly-few woodland sites where they still cling on, is frustrating but currently sometimes necessary.
The woodland however, suffers as well as thrives. Around 30 years ago, coppicing and regrowth worked fine. Now, regrowth of the cut Hazel/Ash/Maple/Hawthorn/Elm is seriously impeded. The major hassle is grazing. The young, tasty shoots of these trees are extremely palatable if you are a deer. Muntjac are an especial problem, being widespread, solitary and with a breeding cycle year round. They are also very fond of Oxlip, Primrose and some of the other rare woodland flowers, so even if they DO flower, they rarely set seed. Control of deer in woods has two elements – culling and exclusion. At low Muntjac populations, when there are no issues from the larger, sociable deer such as Fallow, each cut coppice stool can be covered with some of the cut material and the regrowth will push through it – when its big enough to be out of the range of Muntjac. However, Rabbits can get under this, as can Brown Hare, and when Muntjac populations increase, this doesn’t work, as the grazing pressure increases, so horrid metal panel fencing is the option – temporary fencing around the cut coppice area for 2 years, fencing at 7ft high with 8cm mesh… anything wider and they get through. Culling does reduce the numbers, but relies on a woodland where ALL public access can be removed at times of shooting – private woods with no visitors, fine, nature reserves, much harder to do. However, the culled deer DO have a market, being a healthy, low-carbon source of red meat. Squirrels also do a lot of damage, usually to more mature trees, and don’t really feature high on the problem list of the coppice worker.
There are many dilemmas with woodland management for wildlife and for tradition in the 21st century. Add to these practicalities the perceptions of the public; in my experience in southern Cambridgeshire it is usually understanding of why we are cutting things down. However, in woods I have volunteered in in Essex, abutting towns rather than the isolated Cambs woods, it is often very different, with significant discontent over the cutting down of any tree, and an unwillingness to listen to a reasoned presentation of why the cutting down of trees has a valuable role to play. I have touched upon that in a recent piece on reconnecting to nature, so won’t go much further down the people route; this piece is much more about the issues surrounding tradition and modern woodland management in a fragmented, lowland landscape.
I am certain that the way forward will be an increased promotion of what coppicing is and what benefits it has for people and wildlife with better support for those doing the work through the products produced, both practical for gardens and other land management practices and more ornamental through turning into objects such as bowls, spoons, woven structures, art etc. In my ideal world, after a day walking in the woods, the appreciative public would have the opportunity to purchase these, and of course some tasty venison stew and squirrel satay! Heres to a more biodiverse, carbon-sequestering lowland landscape with fewer management issues.