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Friday, 13 March 2015

Applied Bushcraft (3): Woodland Management

Those of you who keep up to date with the Bushcraft Education Facebook page will be aware that we have just embarked on a new project: managing a woodland, actually a suite of small woodlands. The focus of the project, to begin with, is restoring an area of ‘ancient semi-natural woodland’ (yes, that is a technical term) by putting it back into a ‘coppice rotation’ management regime. This post will both provide a bit of an introduction to this project and information on the elements of bushcraft which we will be applying over the course of this project.

Those who think of Bushcraft as another term for survival skills may think this topic is out of context. But when Bushcraft is considered as the skills necessary to ‘live comfortably outdoors for extended periods’ then a knowledge of woodland management becomes very useful. Managed woodland provides more than just firewood, such as craft materials, building materials, charcoal - the list goes on. But what is more significant is that these resources are provided consistently over time. Woodland management is a long term venture, it is not exploitation or deforestation, but a planned and sustainable harvest of renewable resources.

A freshly cut hazel stool.
This post is not intended to describe woodland management methods in detail, there are far too many to describe in detail in this context. In the UK, particularly the lowland areas where deciduous trees are dominant, a version of coppicing is the most likely management method to be used. This involves rotational cutting of trees to encourage regeneration. Depending on the intended use of the crop, and the species of tree, this rotation period could be anywhere between 4 and 30 years. An area of managed woodland will be divided into areas called ‘coups’ in which all the ‘stools’ will be cut at the same time providing you with a crop of similar sized wood. This method of woodland management would once have been prevalent all across the country, but as mass production and synthetic materials replaced craftsmanship and wood the need for the materials dried up and with it the wide spread management of woodlands.

Resources from Coppicing
Hundreds of years ago coppice managed woodlands would have provided building materials for pretty much all dwellings - larger trees (longer rotation coppice wood or ‘standards’; a small number of mature trees allowed to grow within each coup) would have provided main supports or roof beams; smaller poles would have provided the wattle (as in wattle & daub walls), thatching spars (to hold the thatch on) etc etc. It would also have provided wood to burn; charcoal to forge metal tools, the handles for those tools, material to build furniture, post and rail fencing, the list goes on and on.

These days many of these uses remain only in historic demonstrations, which is a shame. In Bushcraft these materials can still be useful for all sorts of uses - shelter building, tool making, basket making (willow) all sorts of green wood working projects and many other uses.  

Bushcraft in Woodland Management
So here’s a piece meal account of the first few days of our project as an illustration of which skills used in bushcraft overlap with managing a woodland.

Above: Dogs Mercury
Below: Bluebell (Nibbled by deer)
Plant ID - One of the keys skills for any bushcrafter is the ability to recognise useful plant species. This was where we started with our project - identifying trees which could be coppiced successfully. We found hazel, elm, ash and oak, all good coppicing species. We also found blackthorn and hawthorn in abundance, not very nice to work with (spiked hands aplenty!) but brash from these trees can be used very effectively to make dead hedges to mark out the coups, or if located appropriately ‘layed’ in place to create a similar barrier; in addition both burn very well!

Plant ID skills are also useful for the conservation aims of the project - identifying ground flora species allows us to record the species richness of the woodland, including ancient woodland indicator species (including Bluebell and Dogs Mercury both found in ‘our’ wood). This will in turn allow us to monitor for specific species which rely on some of these plants - both trees and ground flora.

Woodland management these days is most often practised because of the conservation benefits it has - it opens up the woodland canopy allowing more light to reach the ground encouraging additional growth, which in turn provides food for invertebrates which in turn are food for birds and mammals and up and up. In addition the increased diversity of structure and age benefits biodiversity by maintaining a wider range of ecological niches than a single age woodland structure.

Shelter Building - The first thing we did when we arrived in the woods on the first day was fell a couple of dangerous trees which we didn’t really want to be working under. The next was to build our shelter - Camp Coppice - which would be home for the next week, and indeed every week that we return. Although living in the woods being managed is no longer the standard practice when woods are being worked it would have been a few centuries ago.

Camp Coppice - home from home, or
at least it will be when it's finished!
Being February we needed a shelter which would keep off the rain (which was plentiful) and hold in the heat (which was limited). What we built was very simple, a large tarpaulin over a ridge pole, supported by a pair of A-frames. We then built, or started building as materials became available, walls simply by stacking straight wood between stakes to keep out the cool night breezes, and to keep in the heat from the central heating… stove. Everything in the shelter (with the exception of the tarpaulin & the stove) came from the wood, and it was pretty good. A bit more time to finish building up the walls and putting a chimney on the stove, and it really will be a home from home, which is nice because we will be spending a fair bit of time there in coming years.

A billhook resting by a recently
cleared stool. 
Tool use & maintenance - Just above plant ID, the ability to use edged tools (and keeping those edges sharp, so that they are useful) is right up there on the list of important bushcraft skills. The most common tools we use in bushcraft are probably the knife and the axe, however in this instance the most useful, and most commonly used, tool was actually a billhook. It wasn’t the only edged tool we used of course, we also used axes, machetes, folding saws and chainsaws, and it goes without saying that for smaller tasks round camp a good old knife was never far away. Because of the heavy use these tools needed to be kept sharp: using a blunt tool is less efficient, more tiring, more likely to result in injury (because the cuts are less predictable) and of course everything takes longer. There are no upsides to not maintaining tools correctly.

When you are involved in a project like this it is easy to forget or get sloppy with appropriate safety precautions for using edged tools: when you are tidying up a felled tree it is quite common to have poor footing, because you’re often stood on branches and twigs; when you’re freezing cold, it’s pouring with rain and you just want to finish that block you were working on so you can get the kettle on who cares if the cutting angle is all wrong - well your fingers will, as one of my knuckles will attest after exactly this circumstance 10 years ago. It was my first experience of proper coppicing, It was a freezing cold February half term while I was still at college, I’d been working for several days straight, my hands were sore and I wanted something to eat so I took a shortcut by not keeping my non-cutting hand out of my cutting line (using a billhook) - a poor cutting swing, an unexpected bounce, and a chunk of my knuckle later I am far more cautious. Young readers learn from my mistakes so you don't have to make your own!! This in turn reminds us of one more essential - a first aid kit, any time you use cutting tools you should have one close by.

These are not the only bushcraft skills you may use of course, simply based on our first week of working in the woods the most common. It was a great week and I am sure there are many great weeks and indeed years to come where we can watch this woodland come back to life in many ways, and it's already a lovely place to be! Bushcraft (and woodland management) really is enjoyable - even if it was pouring with rain for a couple of days!   


NB: For anyone interested in coppicing or woodland management check out the link below.

Woodland House (Grand Designs - Channel 4) - Ben Law, a woodland manager from Sussex builds a house in the woods with only what he can harvest.  Great programme.

Bushcraft Education Videos