Coppicing at Hayley Wood

Hayley Wood October 2019 - Robert Enderby

Communications Officer Rob Enderby joins a weekend coppicing workshop in Hayley Wood to find out more about this ancient tradition and its benefits for wildlife.

The 12th to 20th October was National Coppice Week, which the Wildlife Trust BCN celebrated with a special two day coppicing workshop at Hayley Wood led by Reserves Officer and Coppice Worker Glenn Hadley. Having never done any coppicing before it seemed a great opportunity for me to learn more about this ancient tradition and why it’s so important in modern conservation. We were lucky with the weather and the woodland looked beautiful in the first hues of autumn colour.

As Glenn explained, the word ‘coppice’ comes from Old French and means 'a cut over forest’. It is a traditional method of woodland management that involves repeatedly felling trees at the base (or stool), and allowing them to regrow to provide a sustainable source of timber. Coppiced trees are generally allowed to grow between 5 and 20 years before they are felled (or coppiced). As a result the stems are relatively thin and round so they can be cut with hand tools, although chainsaws are also used. While the new stems are young the original stools can be hundreds of years old, having been carefully coppiced over many generations. The tradition itself is even more ancient. Archaeologists have found evidence of coppicing going back to the Neolithic period. Many species of tree can be coppiced including hazel, ash, lime, hawthorn, oak and aspen. In Hayley Wood we mainly worked with hazel. 

The first thing Glenn showed us was the process of cutting down the tree stems and arranging them in a 'drift', a pile where each newly cut stem or branch is placed on top and slightly forward of the previous one. Properly arranged this allows for easier access when you come to use a billhook to fashion the tree stems into stakes, canes, bean poles, pea sticks, faggots and many other products for gardeners, hedge-layers, thatchers and anyone else who would like a coppiced product. I've personally found that a nice hazel rod makes a perfect hiking stick!

Glenn Hadley coppicing hazel in Hayley Wood Oct 2019

Glenn Hadley coppicing hazel in Hayley Wood 

The creation of products like this was the reason people started coppicing. In the past coppice products included firewood, charcoal, furniture, sheep hurdles, baskets, fencing, hedging sticks, tool handles and brooms. As a result coppicing was a booming industry until the twentieth century, when the advent of modern materials like plastic and the increased use of coal for heating homes saw the demand for wood from coppicing diminish significantly.

My attempt at coppicing hazel trees in Hayley Wood during our Coppicing Workshop, including the moment I dropped a tree on the camera! The coppice stumps will be finished off by chainsaw.

The recent revival of interest in coppicing is partly due to its value for wildlife conservation. Coppicing was re-introduced into Hayley Wood by ecologist Oliver Rackham and conservation volunteers in the 1970s as a means to reduce shade and let more light into the woodland. More light encourages woodland flora like oxlips, wood anemones and violets, which in turn support larger populations of invertebrates that are then fed on by birds and mammals. Coppicing can give the whole woodland ecosystem a boost and is a practice the Wildlife Trust has continued at Hayley Wood and many other ancient woodlands. Since coppicing has been ongoing in British woodlands for thousands of years many species have actually adapted to this environment, which is why you'll often see more wildlife in coppice plots than in areas of unmanaged high forest. 

It's hard physical work but also rewarding and it provides a special insight into the lives of ancient people. You start to wonder what they would have used the wood for. Did they use the straight rods for spears and arrow shafts? What kind of tools did they use to fell trees during the stone age? What were the most useful tree species? It's also just wonderful to be out working in nature like most people did most of the time for most of human history. 

My favourite task was fashioning products with the billhook and axe. It turns out that there are many regionally distinctive billhooks as local blacksmiths came up with different billhook designs/shapes in different parts of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Yorkshire billhook is the largest and most impressive looking, more akin to a two handed battle axe! Down here we seem to have favoured a smaller one handed billhook with a straighter edge, which is easier to wield as a wood crafting tool.

Coppicing billhooks

Coppicing billhooks with the Yorkshire billhook furthest left

One thing that became quite apparent while we were working was the impact of deer on the woodland flora. Many of the edges of the coppice plots showed clear evidence of deer with tree stems eaten right down to the ground level. Hayley Wood has long had a problem with the impact of deer. In the 1970s it became apparent that the oxlips the wood was famous for were being decimated by deer eating them. This led to a deer fence being installed but some deer have still managed to penetrate this barrier and are affecting the woodland ecology. A similar issue affects woodlands across lowland England and deer management is a big concern for conservationists.

Hopefully the golden oxlips flowering next spring won't be to badly affected by the deer and the additional light of the coppice plots will help boost their numbers. Hayley Wood and its sister woodlands of the West Cambridgeshire Hundreds Living Landscape are wonderful places to visit at any time of the year but autumn and spring are probably the best times.

National Coppice Week is organised by the National Coppice Federation and celebrates the many benefits of the management of British woodlands by coppicing. 

Coppicing workshop at Hayley Wood in October 2019

The woodland folk, coppicing workshop at Hayley Wood.

Hayley Wood - October 2019

Coppicing products: stakes, bean poles, canes and spears

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