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Monday, 14 December 2015

Coppicing

Coppicing is a very ancient traditional method of woodland management, all hard wood trees will re-generate to a certain extent if cut and we can take advantage of this to provide us with a sustainable source of timber for a whole range of tasks. We can probably thank the longevity of our native ancient woodland to hundreds of years worth of management but now it is easy to find woodland that I would class as derelict, which has not been sympathetically managed for many years and which certainly wouldn't be productive as a commercial coppice woodland but also does not support the same level of wildlife as it might if managed properly. 

A sign of unmanaged woodland, scars where trees have rotted all the way down the ground, including their roots. 

Another sign of unmanaged woodland, hazel is normally coppiced on a 7-10 year rotation, this is more like 25 years of growth and certainly won't yield useful poles for walking sticks or hurdles. The problem is hazel is a relatively short lived tree and if it isn't coppiced may only live to  seventy or eighty years, there are coppiced hazel 'stools' still alive that are several hundred years old.
An old hazel 'stool' that has recently been coppiced. The caut faces should be angled to allow water to run off so it doesn't pool on the stool and encourage rot. 
Plenty of useful material can be harvested from each coppice stool. 

Managing a woodland can be a battle and if you'r not careful your nicely coppiced stools will end up like this, this stool has been browsed by a muntjac which has left no leaves on the newly emerging shoots. 

This stool was 'brashed over' protected by hawthorn branches stuck into the ground all around it to stop the deer browsing the new growth. It was coppiced at the same time as the stool in the last picture but has clearly been much more successful.

Throughout history just about every hard wood species has been coppiced at some point and each different species would have had it's unique uses, some are explained here;

Species
Normal Habitat and Distribution
Uses
Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Damp ground, wet woodland, marsh and water courses.
Durable when wet, traditionally coppiced for charcoal and gun powder production. The wood has also been used for sluice gates and pipes.
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
One of the most common trees in Britain and common throughout Europe as well. One of the dominant canopy species in a lot of lowland UK woodlands.
Coppiced for firewood and charcoal, makes excellent tool handles as it is shock resistant and very strong. It burns green due to the oil content in the wood.
Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
A species of free draining chalky soils, where there is a lot of beech there is often very little growing beneath the canopy as the dense carpet of leaves and nut husks and the shade of the dense canopy suppresses most other growth.
Fuel, furniture making, tool handles, the nuts are edible and beech trees were often planted to mark boundaries. They are now also often used as hedge plants.
Birch; Downy (Betula pubesence), Silver (Betula pendula)
The two British Birch species are very similar and often hybridize. The Downy Birch is more common in Scotland but both are common in down and heath land and are among the first tree species to colonize grassland and scrub-land which will eventually revert to woodland.
Birch is one of the bushcrafters friends, the bark from these trees makes excellent tinder but was also once used to tan leather.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Common Hawthorn (Cretaegus monogyna) and Midland Hawthorn (Cretaegus laevigata)
All thorny species yielding edible flowers and fruit. And commonly planted in hedgerows.
Walking sticks and tools, charcoal and woodwork. The wood of all these species is incredibly hard and tough.
Elm (Ulmus sp.)
We have a number of elm species in the UK the English Elm, Smooth Leaved Elm, and Wyche Elm. All have suffered to one degree or another from Dutch Elms Disease but are now most commonly found in hedgerows and some woodlands, there are very few large mature elms left anywhere in the UK.
From a bushcraft perspective the bark can be put to use as cordage and containers. The wood is particularly touch and useful in applications which bring it in contact with water. It has been used to make pipes and also in turnery and woodwork.
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
One of the most commonly coppices species it is found throughout the UK in lowland areas often forming dense stools.
Thatching spars, hurdles,
Lime (Tilia sp.)
Common to lowland Britain and present throughout most of the Northern hemisphere , it is very rare to find woodland dominated by lime today. Limes prefer moist but well drained soils.
Exceptionally good for carving and the bark makes excellent string. Lime sprouts strongly at the base with or without coppicing producing long strait stems which can easily be harvested.
Oak; Sessile (Quercus patrea) and Pendunculate or English (Quercus robur)
These species are superficially similar and do hybridize, they can be distinguished by the shorter leaf stalks and long acorn stalk of the English Oak.
Oak was traditionally a building timber, boats, gates and beams for building. It is also used in expensive furniture and flooring.
The bark is used in leather tanning and the wood burns long and hot for excellent cooking fires.
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)
An introduction to the UK (probably during the Roman occupation) but planted extensively since the 18th Century.
The species coppices easily and is useful for building, fencing and green wood crafts.
Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)
Another introduction to the UK but common enough to be very important to people who spend time in the UK woods.
Sycamore can be coppiced easily and for those concerned with the spread of a non-native species coppicing it does prevent it from setting seed. It does produce useful wood for craft projects.
Willow (Salix sp.)
There are many species of willow in the UK and all favor wet habitats.
Willow produces soft wood some of which is durable and the larger species can be used for traditional crafts, cricket bats are traditionally made from Willow. Willow coppice can be used to produce withies. And for weaving and basketry.


I hope you've enjoyed this introduction to coppicing, there will be more to come on the topic of woodland management over the next few days.

Geoff




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