Guest blog – Woodland Musing 1 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.

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.

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20 Replies to “Guest blog – Woodland Musing 1 by Louise Bacon”

  1. Beavers have been doing coppicing for a lot longer than people have and from a conservation perspective are far better at it - they create a more open canopy that allows ground flora to flourish AND deadwood which is vital for about 25% of woodland species and indirectly/ultimately necessary for the rest because it's a huge part of the natural recycling process. Coppicing would be fine if all/most of the cut material was left behind for wildlife, habitat piles and the slow rot which is great for invertebrates and fungi and eventually soil structure. I went on a coppice crafts course when I was 21 and when I very tentatively asked why even the brash was incinerated was told it was to 'prevent honey fungus'. I also know that some coppicers advocate burning brash to provide a flush of potash to stimulate new growth - not much cop for biodiversity (definitely) and soil health (probably). Let's not get misty eyed over ye olde ways they were done by people trying to scrape a living together not to help nature. Yes more sunlight means more ground flora and more butterflies, but I've also seen a picture or two British butterfly species 'feeding' on one piece of rotting wood from which they were extracting vital minerals. Are our butterflies struggling because something which was common for millions of years is now rare? Yes people do need more education about our woodlands, but that also extends to those that think they need to manage woodland by using it to make commodities for people, any conservation benefit is incidental and also comes with serious disbenefits, as with grouse moors. Making habitat piles with brash is more important than trying to make beanpoles for allotments surely and I suspect a hell of a lot more fun (I've never done the latter). People might be a lot more accepting of true conservation coppicing if the cut wood and brash was used to create habitat for wildlife in situ. When coppicing is to provide more ground level sunlight and deadwood then it's brilliant, it really is echoing natural processes - extraction for consumption doesn't truly do so and the cultural history of our use of woods shouldn't be imposed on the infinitely more complex, dynamic, older and fascinating ecology of them. That's a bit like saying whaling is more interesting than whales, yes you could have both, but if you truly appreciate whales you'd want whaling consigned to books and museums. Sorry to sound an old sourpuss, but I've rather bitter personal experience of the conflict between conservation and what happens when woodland in anyway becomes a commodity going back over thirty years. Recently some secondary school children in my area made a video about the bushcraft skills they were learning - gleefully mentioning that the fires they made were fuelled by cutting down deadwood, and this was happening in a triple SSSI nature reserve!

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  2. What a great account of coppicing - well done ! And the reasoning behind why we should be cutting down trees. It has been incredible how butterflies in particular can be saved by really quite small scale action - but that is the problem. Neglected woodland is probably the biggest and easiest conservation opportunity in England today - and the most neglected. Nearly half our woodlands- 500,000 hectares - have no management and it isn't planned or pretty - vast swathes of stood over coppice in the south east of England, all the same age and dark and biodiversity light. For people obsessed with conifers, there's a couple of compartments in Lower Woods (Glos WT) near here, one stood over Hazel, the other planted with Norway Spruce. I would challenge anyone to tell the difference in the ground flora between the two. As Louise says, deer are a massive challenge. I read somewhere a comment that a nibbled coppice was Ok for conservation but wouldn't be any good commercially. Total, absolute rubbish - Nightingale need the thickest, densest thicket they can find and deer taking out part of the regrowth will almost certainly make a coppice useless for them. And whilst les makes some excellent points, like so much of modern conservation thinking he ignores the scale - over and above the management of each wood (and I think there should be a mix of coppice, managed high forest and planned non-intervention in any wood big enough - RSPB Church Wood, Blean is a great example) there is a huge, overwhelming area unmanaged and that is where our woodland birds are butterflies are going down the spout.

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    1. My 'no kit needed' measure of deer browsing is to crouch down on a woodland path and assess how far you can see at your knee and/or waist height..... in a functional, multi-layered wood suitable for lots of things it shouldn't be very far at all. Usually its several tens of metres or further.. next time you are out, try it!!

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    2. I fully understand your point about total non intervention being a conservation disaster, but I don't think turning our woods into production units for bean poles, logs for stoves or anything else is the best way to provide this. There will be serious compromises from a conservation viewpoint as well as purely incidental gains which coppicers like to crow about, but ignore or are ignorant about. There's an enormous dead wood deficit in most of our woods - at 52 I still have never been in any wood home or abroad that I believe has anything like its natural complement of dead wood. If we want to open up canopies why not selectively ring bark some of the trees where it's safe to do so - creating standing dead wood we are incredibly short off and letting more light in for the shrub, ground flora layer. Wouldn't this be incredibly easy and effective and far better for wildlife than 'harvesting' the tree to make 'sustainable' furniture or logs? Why not extend from the basic and rather predictable community tree planting event into tree cutting and habitat pile construction for nature? We are working on a small project to construct a type of habitat pile that is designed to increase its use to invertebrates, nesting birds and hibernating hedgehogs - kids especially should love making them, hopefully we'll have filmed this early in the New Year - fingers crossed. I am really worried that turning our woods into sources of logs for stoves to help 'manage' them for conservation is and will be an even greater ecological disaster. Already nature reserves are having their 'waste' wood pilfered and there are certainly companies in Scotland promoting 'sustainable' native hardwood logs - which would explain the growing number of old roadside and hedgerow trees I see turned into piles of logs. Two species that are keystone ones for a healthy and diverse woodland ecosystem are making their way back - beaver and boar. We need to encourage them and get back to real conservation and public education to make that and a full appreciation of woodland ecology possible. I have very little faith that this will happen as a byproduct of having a wood stove, coppicing or even bushcraft training. We seem to have lost confidence in people being able to appreciate and conserve nature for its own sake - it needs to be sold on the back of something else now and that disturbs me deeply.

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  3. Thanks Les.
    I agree with much of what you say, but pelase do not tar all coppice workers with the burn-and-tidy brush.

    The wood we manage has a significant amount of habitat pile created each year, as well as producing a viable product sold to raise awareness of what we do. The woodland butterflies which tend to 'feed' on dead wood, or dog poo, or in those places where they are photographed a lot, bananas, and not coppice-loving butterflies but are insects of mature woodland, such as Purple Emperors and White Admirals, and those are doing pretty well for themselves in many places, and the former expanding its range every year.
    We very rarely have a fire - we have had to this year, as the depredations of muntjac over the past 8 years have reduced half of this years coupe to a thicket of blackthorn and bramble... which will of course regrow but the thorny nature means we cannot make use of all of it, and whilst some will be piled, if we turned ALL of it into a habitat pile, where would the flowers emerge from? where would the tree regrowth come from? There is a HUGE amount of biomass in an 8-year grown acre, and to pile it all in situ would obliterate all the ground flora and be against the SSSI designated reasons for existence.
    We NEVER Cut down dead wood, unless we have to for access/public safety reasons.........and that wood would never be extracted as fire wood. Deadwood is not firewood.. that has to be freshly cut and removed to be dried in a better environment, really, and we aren't in that market at any significant scale. Coppice doesn't usually get to firewood proportions unless it is significantly overstood, in which case there must be an argument in some situations to fell some to open up the structure. The lack of structure of the layers of scrub, ground flora, mid-layer trees and canoipy in our woods in south and central england is a cause for concern, causes by not doing anything, and by too many deer.

    Its all a very complex balance of needs and problems.

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    1. Thanks Louise, I was worried that I sounded like a pedantic, patronising old fart (which I probably am although I try not to be) so was very relieved at your considered, gracious reply. TBF I have not had good experience with coppicing or the 'let's make wooden spoons' brigade - really taking woodland conservation and ecology into account is a rarity. There is one group that did make habitat piles from brash after cutting logs for stoves, but made them away from public view as they assumed they'd offend people's aesthetic sensibilities. This was hardly pushing the envelope in terms of educating the public! Yes you can get a glut of some types of dead wood in the short term, but in the longer one the total quantity is reduced and the variety of dead wood will be restricted as certain types of wood are removed. I can't see much substantial standing dead wood develop in a coppice and it's really important. What you're doing is brilliant and certainly a big step up from 'traditional' coppicing, but I'd still prefer as much wood as possible to be left in situ. I still feel many species are struggling because even if they are not dead wood specialists it's still an element of the habitat they evolved in, which is now largely gone - I bet the butterflies that use it could still do with more. My friend Andrea Goddard did an excellent study on the possibility tree creepers have developed a new behaviour in creating roosting depressions in the soft bark of non native redwoods because the old and dead trees with plenty of holes they used to use are now very rare.

      I agree you can swamp a woodland floor with brash and cut wood - this happened in a rhoddie bashing week in the Forest of Bowland I went on. Ludicrously we were not allowed to burn the rhoddie because that might create an ash patch which would encourage a flora not natural for the woodland (!?!). So instead we ended up with a wood choked up with piles of cut rather than growing rhoddie, incredibly frustrating. A similar thing happened in a local wood in my home town and years later there are still mountains of dead rhoddie smothering ground flora and no better for our wildlife dead than it was alive.

      You've made me think though that where there really is a 'surplus' of brash provision could be made to take it to other local woods to make habitat piles etc. I would love to see big conservation events that involved the public taking wood in to create dead wood habitat, I'm sure it can be done. In the vast majority of woods there's certainly a huge dead wood deficit. It could also be added to watercourses to slow the flow in flood conditions and create habitat for aquatic wildlife especially cover for fish. There's another possibility and you've made me think coppicing could be a useful source for it. To really start making progress ASAP with ecological restoration and flood prevention in the uplands while tree cover is recovering take in wood, unsold root vegetables etc to provide supplementary feed for beavers (this is what they do with captive beavers after all). I think this could still be considerably cheaper and easier even than getting volunteers to create leaky dams as at Hardcastle Crags and infinitely cheaper than extortionately expensive schemes to remeander rivers with heavy equipment. I'm sure they've brought in supplementary feed for wild beavers in the USA. We could dispense with the time-lag between initial tree planting and return of the beaver so creation of firebreaks and reduction of floods also happens from the very beginning. That would be a very useful and exciting use of coppicing! Looking forward to your future woodland blogs Louise.

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      1. In Cambs and Beds much surplus brash does indeed go into making faggots - the tight bundles which go in rivers and other wetlands to adjust flow, cause bank reinforcement, etc... and its a valuable modern product - they are a bit of a hassle to make without the practice, but are well worth it, as long as they are bundled with biodegradable twine and not the orange baler twine which persists for a long time........and river projects pay well for them!

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        1. That's excellent, I recall that they use these bundles - fascines I think - pegged along steep bare slopes to catch soil, facilitate vegetation coming back and reducing run off in Calderdale. We need a hell of a lot of brash and dead wood going into the natural environment that's for certain.

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  4. Thanks Louise for this and all your hard work. And it’s good that coppicing by beavers gets mentioned by Les again (the more the creativity of beavers is promoted the better.)
    Have you thought about breaking with tradition, Louise? Why not experiment with growing hazel rods on pollards to get round the deer problem? It works with our basket weaving willows on a wet allotment constantly raided by Roe and Muntjac. True we had to protect the main stems for the first couple of years but now they grow unguarded and produce an annual crop fine whips well above browsing height. Plenty of light and ground flora and buzz factor here.
    By the way, I think some of the oldest evidence for sustained and oraganised coppicing (or pollarding) comes from the buried alder, willow and birch bog trackways of the Somerset Levels – where numerous same year cut polls survive in the peat laid down in the Neolithic.

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    1. Main problem - hazel inherently gtrows from the base and not from where its cut.. it sort of does grow a bit form higher.. this was also tried with Ash to avoid Fallow browsing in Hayley wood, the next wood over to the one I manage, and now those pollards are being taken down. Add to that a decision a few years ago when we were working to a Forestry Commission woodland grant scheme dictat which did not alow pollards in the copice. We still cut at this height for elm and hawthorn, for which it works brilliantly. Hazel just doesnt grow that way!

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      1. Point taken but i've seen semi-natural hazel pollards with straight poles growing at height. Maybe there needs to be more thought and persistence with this species. In general pollards have gone out of fashion; it's a shame there are dictats against them.

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        1. Just realised that the hazel nut growing in my small terraced house garden has 6 two year old bean poles growing from stems cut at 5ft high. I'm really not convinced that you cannot pollard hazel successfully.

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  5. The two deer species we have are red and roe. Red deer in the Exmoor area have a range of around a thousand acres. So to effectively use lethal control to manage the numbers on an acre of freshly coppiced woodland one would have to cull deer across at thousand acres - in reality probably four thousand as ranges overlap. There are obvious problems with this. Firstly one probably doesn't have access to such a large area of surrounding land. Secondly although such deer culling may be justified it's justification and the appropriate level is unlikely to be dictated by the needs of one small patch of coppice but rather the surrounding landscape as a whole.

    For example reducing overall numbers by a half may not reduce the damage they do to the coppice by half. This is because the deer are not distributed evenly but in clumps (herds) which move around the landscape. If one of those clumps ends up on your coppice the damage will be considerable.

    When I started coppicing our woodland we had trouble with deer but fortunately I encountered a herd of about twenty when with my five dogs. The dogs emptied the woodland of deer in very short order and we then chased them for some distance away from the coppice.

    Thereafter I regularly visited the coppice with the dogs and encouraged a few locals to do the same and I've continued doing this whenever we coppice a new area. The great thing about such management is that it is coupled with regular inspection of the area. This is very enjoyable and can be done with friends and family helping to spear an appreciation of the process.

    Such management is of course temporary as the deer will eventually come back. However this also applies to lethal control. However it is my experience that deer are less likely to visit areas where there are dogs regularly present. This is backed up by some studies - there is one using free ranging dogs to protect orchards and also a book called "free ranging dogs in wildlife conservation" this makes it clear that dogs reduce the density of many species - including deer to below the carrying capacity of the land - precisely the aim of control.

    In actual fact some deer grazing can be beneficial if it slows down the regrowth of the coppice. This has been shown to be the case with woodland butterflies whose lifecycle benefits from slower regrowth. This is one reason why complete exclusion of deer, for example by fencing is not necessarily a good idea.

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    1. A serious and landscape-scale cull of deer is, frankly, the only real solution, but we need a real attitude change in lowland England as well as in the uplands (where deer are money already - lets not go there in this discussion....) to see this happen..... Only the Roe deer are probably native, of the species we have, and their impact is significant and growing. We need culling, large carnivores, and a mindset which makes wild venison an acceptable part of our diet. Only then will people notice just how our woods USED to be, before the memory of their grandparents.....

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      1. "lets not go there in this discussion." Actually let's go there in this discussion! Let's talk about how 'money' impacts on the environment both for good and bad. Surely this is a key lesson from writers such as Rackman - that we cannot understand our environment without understanding it's deep social and economic links to humanity.

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        1. scope for future guest blogs from a suitable contributor then, probably...........has been increasing stuff written about the economics and monetary values and impacts of various land management stategies, ... I guess I meant I didnt feel I had the expertise or time to turn the discussion from that blog into an economics thread.........

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          1. There's really interesting stuff in Rackman's "woodlands" about the vast areas of coppiced woodland that existed in lowland britain. Much of this was used to produce charcoal to smelt iron and it disappeared due to the technological change from charcoal to coal. I think this rather chimes with your blog - it was precisely when we stopped chopping down trees that we lost huge areas of woodlands.

            Although obviously volunteering is great - I would suggest that finding economic drivers that also produce conservation benefits is key.

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  6. "Only then will people notice just how our woods USED to be, before the memory of their grandparents....."
    I have read books about farming by Adrian Bell between the two world wars when there were many farm workers needed on each farm. They vied for the job of cutting hedges in the winter because of the the valuable wood and twigs they harvested to cook with never mind to heat themselves.
    Regarding earlier comments about deadwood being in short supply. I wonder how much there was left lying around in these previous times when there were so many people in the countryside who needed to cook and keep warm in much more severe winters than we have now.
    With regard to woodland I have vague memories of reading about people being prohibited from collecting wood in forests but I wonder if this was because the owners knew the monetary value of dead wood for fuel.
    What does Oliver Rackham have to say about this?

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    1. @andrew I think you are correct that a lot of woodland management in historical times would have been far more intense than it is now and there would have been a lot less dead wood. This also would have led to gradual nutrient depletion which would have had a knock on effect on the understory.

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