As trees put on their autumn display of colour and fungi sprout up all over, it’s around time to start clearing dead vegetation, felling, coppicing and dead hedging. This time of year is one of the busiest in countryside management, and it’s also a fantastic time to witness the incredible regenerative capabilities of trees; cutting down trees can be good for the trees themselves, and great for nature.
Oliver Rackham, the eminent woodland historian who died in February this year, noted that what caused loss of woodland in this country was not cutting down trees, it was not allowing them to grow back. Many trees (most conifers) don’t survive being cut down, but most native trees in Britain either coppice, where they sprout back up from cut stumps, or sucker from the roots. Coppicing or suckering are a tree’s natural responses to damage, allowing them to survive being trampled by large animals or blown over by the wind.
In Britain, our most familiar trees including oak, hazel, ash, sycamore and sweet chestnut all coppice. Cut down one of these trees in October or November and it will send up new shoots the following year as long as it is healthy and protected from grazing of the new shoots by rabbits or deer. If allowed to grow not only will the tree recover but it may well live longer. Bradfield Woods in Suffolk has been coppiced for over 750 years, and in Hatfield Forest in Essex there are old hornbeam coppice stools that have survived for as long as 1,000 years. A coppiced lime tree at Westonbirt Arboretum is estimated to be 2,000 years old – without coppicing, which effectively returns the tree to a young state, the lime would have died hundreds of years ago.
People have been coppicing trees since the Neolithic period. Coppiced materials were used for firewood and charcoal as well as buildings, tracks, hurdles, tools and thatching. The Romans introduced sweet chestnut to Britain, planting it across Europe as they harvested the nuts for porridge for their armies and used the wood to fuel their iron works. Coppicing in Britain declined in popularity from the 19th century when coal became more widely available as an alternative fuel source and plantation forestry satisfied increasing demand for timber. Many woodlands that had been coppiced were grubbed up and replaced with plantations or agricultural land, or left neglected. Coppicing is now mainly done as a conservation activity in Britain; coppicing and other sustainable styles of woodland management still provide huge benefits to nature and people.
Last week I was out on Ranmore Common in Surrey where the rangers had just cut a clearing of trees to encourage natural regeneration and improve biodiversity by the edge of a ride (a track through the woodland). This was a larger glade, however smaller ‘scallops’ can be created at the edges of rides. Well-established woodland with thick canopy cover can be dark and cold, and little grows on the ground. By opening up the canopy, more light and warmth gets to the ground, cut trees coppice back up, young trees grow unimpeded, and various other flowers, fruits and shrubs grow around them. Insects, birds and mammals all benefit from a richer variety of food, shelter and habitats.
By ‘scalloping’ or creating larger glades like this on a rotating basis, different parts of the woodland are opened up over time and there is more structural diversity with areas of canopy cover, shrubs, flowers and trees of different ages. Woodlands managed in this way tend to look more attractive – they’re more interesting.
Apart from the great benefits to nature, coppicing and clearing glades also produces usable wood products. This is, after all, the main reason that coppicing was done for thousands of years.
When coppicing or clearing glades, cut materials can be graded and processed on site. Thicker logs can be used for timber, fencing or firewood; medium-sized branches can be used for stakes; thinner poles can be used for beanpoles or bindings for hedgelaying; brash (the outer branches, twigs and foliage of the trees) can be used for dead hedging or chipped for mulch. Little or nothing need go to waste. Charcoal produced in our own woodlands is more sustainable than imported charcoal produced from tropical forests or cleared mangrove swamp.
Our Neolithic ancestors coppiced out of necessity, for the fuel and building materials they needed. We have no fewer reasons now, even if they’re different. We can still coppice, or seek out coppiced products, for more sustainable locally produced fuel and wood products. We can also do it for wildlife, biodiversity, more beautiful and healthy woodlands – and our own health.