Although the practice of coppicing has been around for thousands of years, it’s likely that you may not have even heard about coppicing until recently. Coppicing is a way of managing a woodland that benefits wildlife whilst creating a sustainable source of timber with numerous applications.
When a broadleaved tree has its stem and crown removed certain hormone levels within the stump of the tree (the stool) undergo a rapid change. This causes new shoots to sprout from the side of the stool; which is known as the re-growth. Re-growth can be rapid, often as much as 2 meters a year, this is because the tree has a fully developed root system. The practice of coppicing can be carried out on the same tree for at least several hundred years and has been shown to actually prolong the life of a tree. In fact, often the oldest trees in our woods are grown from coppice stools (1).
Over time the stool of the tree continues to grow in diameter, however, the diameter of the timber being harvested can be controlled by the frequency of coppicing; the longer the period of time in between each time the stool is coppiced, the larger the timber. It is thought that coppicing was popular in the past because timber of a manageable size could be produced (2).
Culturally, coppicing played a huge role in the development of our society and its technology. Coppicing has been traced back to as far as Neolithic times (c4000 BC) (4). Historians believe that during the medieval period over half of the woodlands in the UK were managed through coppicing (3)
Written records referring to the practice of coppicing date back to 1251; these records describe the type of material collected from coppiced woodlands and its value in East Anglia! (2)
The word ‘coppice’ comes from the French word ‘couper’ which means ‘to cut’. This may also explain why in some parts of the country a coppice is split up into compartments called ‘coupes’. Each of these coupes is cut on a rotation, creating areas that have been freshly coppiced, areas of the wood with young, scrubby re-growth and areas with relatively developed trees. This diversity creates a mosaic of habitats within a single woodland; providing opportunities for a wide range of species to thrive.
More recently, many wildlife centred organisations have begun to use coppicing as a type of woodland management to benefit wildlife. The benefit of coppicing to our native wildlife is, however, a by-product. Originally woodlands would have been coppiced solely for the timber that was produced, and the associated coppice crafts that required this material.
Items being produced from a coppice would have included gate hurdles, tool handles, besom brooms, bark for weaving, barrels and timber for traditional shelters and structures. Since the early 1900’s coppicing within the UK has been on the decline, it is estimated that about 1% of the remaining woodlands are coppiced today (3). However, interest in the benefits of coppicing for wildlife is increasing, as is the interest in crafts associated with coppicing. The long history of coppicing in the UK has profoundly influenced the flora and fauna found in our semi-natural woods, the decline in coppicing has caused many open-woodland species to decline in numbers. Therefore the resurgence of coppicing in the UK can only be a good thing.
On a related note, we’ve recently set up a new landscape conservation volunteer team to assist with the management of the woodland. We’re now able to steam through the work and are hoping to improve the value of our woodland for biodiversity, whilst also creating a great learning environment for visiting school groups.
If you’d like to come and volunteer for us we’d love to hear from you! We meet every Monday at 10am.
Lee Bassett, Heritage Landscape Management Trainee.
Refereces / Further reading:
3. Badgers, Beeches and Blisters by Julian Evans. Available online: http://www.woodlands.co.uk/owning-a-wood/badgers-beeches-and-blisters/badgers-beeches-and-blisters.pdf