The Art of Coppicing

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).

A freshly coppiced hazel stool. No re-growth has begun to grow on this stool yet, but you can clearly see the multiple stems from previous years coppicing.

A freshly coppiced hazel stool. No re-growth has begun to grow on this stool yet, but you can clearly see the multiple stems from previous years coppicing.

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).

A freshly cut mixed coppice. You'll notice that these stools are still quite high, this is because they were cut by volunteers with hand tools. They will likely be cut lower to the ground with a chainsaw within the next few weeks. (Picture courtesy of Oxburgh wood, National Trust, Norfolk)

A freshly cut mixed coppice. You’ll notice that these stools are still quite high, this is because they were cut by volunteers with hand tools. They will likely be cut lower to the ground with a chainsaw within the next few weeks. (Picture courtesy of Oxburgh wood, National Trust, Norfolk)

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)

This illustration is actually showing someone pollarding, which is similar to coppicing except the stool is left about 5 - 6 foot high.

This illustration is actually showing someone pollarding, which is similar to coppicing except the stool is left about 5 – 6 foot high.

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.

This diagram helps to illustrate the various stages of growth that hazel goes through during the coppice cycle. This illustrates a 'coppice with standards', this type of coppice includes both coppice stools and large standard timber trees. Other types of coppice include 'pure coppice' and 'mixed coppice'.

This diagram helps to illustrate the various stages of growth that hazel goes through during the coppice cycle. This illustrates a ‘coppice with standards’, this type of coppice includes both coppice stools and large standard timber trees. Other types of coppice include ‘pure coppice’ and ‘mixed coppice’.

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.

Our dedicated volunteers hard at work

Our dedicated volunteers hard at work

Lee Bassett, Heritage Landscape Management Trainee.

Lee.bassett@norfolk.gov.uk

Refereces / Further reading:

1. http://www.coppice.co.uk/

2. http://smallwoods.org.uk/our-work/woodland-products/a-brief-history-of-coppicing/

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

4. http://www.norseywood.org.uk/wood/coppicing.htm

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4 thoughts on “The Art of Coppicing

  1. Nigel, I enjoyed your article very much. I recently wrote a similar one for a local magazine, Lower Macungie Life (Macungie, PA USA). We coppice our butterfly bushes about now and use the sturdy tall rods for tomato/vegetable teepees in our organic veggie garden. As the rods dry, they become quite hard–we have some teepees which have survived 2 hurricanes. Also use them as vine trellises, either in pots or free-standing out in the garden.

  2. Hi,
    It does sound as though you DO have one of the best jobs in the world. Within this subject blog “The Art of Coppicing” I thought Phil & Grace may be interested in my comment to the below blog which is relevant:

    http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/practical-guides/how-do-you-remove-stumps-from-a-woodland-path-or-track/

    Here it is:

    I recently cleared stumps from a woodland for a partially blind man who was organising a woodland caravan site for himself and his wife just outside Fakenham,Norfolk. I cleared a few dozen stumps in one morning. I don’t think that can be achieved with a small two wheeled stump grinder. I have been a stump grinding specialist, performing this activity professionally for the last 15 years. So often, I have been called upon to finish off a stump grinding job taken on by a person with a small stump grinder who “had bitten off far more than he could chew”. Hire a grinder for the odd small stump (certainly no bigger than 12″ {30cm} diameter.)If you have a number of larger stumps, you need to be a very fit person indeed. Further, a hired stump grinder usually does not have sharp carbide cutter teeth which is essential to reduce what will otherwise be a “back breaking job” with blunt cutter teeth. Still further, stump grinders are hazardous machines. I am not aware of free lessons being offered by tool hire centres for their safe operation. I heard of a story of a small hired stump grinder flipping back on its operator and severing his arm. These machines should not — in my opinion — be generally available to the public. H&S requires certification to operate a chain saw, and so it should be required for stump grinders. I hold NPTC certification for stump grinder operation. It contains three units:

    1. Prepare the stump grinder for operation
    2. operating the stump grinder
    3. maintaining the stump grinder

    Any fool can hire and attempt to grind out a tree stump. To first achieve the above three steps and perform stump grinding in a safe efficient manner, is something entirely different. It doesn’t end with just gaining certification either. I carry C.A.T. scanning, and metal detection scanners because of the very real hazard of buried or indeed ingrown metal obstructions e.g. fence post,horse shoe,bottles,etc.etc. which may have caused the stump grinder to flip backwards onto that poor chap identified earlier. Risk assessment plays a major role and is a genuine necessary prerequisite before attempting to grind away a tree stump. If you are unsure of your own abilities in this regard, hire a professional stump grinder. I cover all of East Anglia and will be pleased to explain any further questions you may have, or you can visit http://www.blitz-a-stump.co.uk to learn more about stump grinding.

    Regards
    Mike Lish

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