Why coppice?

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Were it not for the question mark this could be mistaken for the name of a woodland but while it is not about woodlands and their management it is.

Managing our woods by coppicing is almost – I did say almost – as old as the hills. It has probably come about when humans discovered that some – in fact many – species of trees regrow when cut and that rather vigorously and almost in perpetuity.

In the British Isles, and probably also in other parts of Europe, our woods have been managed in this way since more or less neolithic times, and we have managed them well and they thrived under this care.

Coppicing continued from the early times in its growth, and by the mid 13th century, most of our woodlands in the British Isles, and probably elsewhere, were managed as coppice.

Coppicing remained an important rural industry in Britain until its decline started in the 1850s, when a decrease in the demand for traditional products came about.

This decline increased dramatically after the First World War when major industry started to manufacture products that were once supplied from the woods by coppice workers and went further and deeper into decline after about the Second World War and especially with the advent of (cheap) plastic goods for the kitchen, etc. Products made from coppiced wood just could not compete any longer on price.

Then emerged the false idea (among environmentalists especially) that cutting any tree was bad and the demand misguided quarters to let the wild woods be wild woods.

This has allowed our woods to fall into a serious state of disrepair to the point of total destruction almost. The problem is that if a coppice stool, a tree that once has been coppiced, is not continued to be managed in this way, will eventually, as the trunks emanating from a single rootstock, the stool, break this root, this stool, apart because their weight, as they become “top heavy”. This will destroy such a coppice stool permanently and others, over a short time, in the same plot, are going to follow, which means the end of that particular woodland.

Woods (and forests) do not manage themselves, especially not those that have been coppiced before, despite what some have been led to believe, and if all, the woods, wildlife and we are to have a benefit and use of and from those woods and its products then we have to manage them and manage them well.

Coppicing is the finest management system for our woods and one – probably the only one – under which they thrive and here not just the trees but the entire ecosystem.

The cutting of the trees in rotation of so many years – between about seven to fourteen, depending on what the wood is to be used for – opens up the canopy, in some areas at least as never the whole area is cut, allowing light to reach the woodland floor. This in turn allows seeds that have lay dormant to germinate and emerge and the area will soon we covered in wild flowers of all kinds and the air be resounding to the sound of bees and butterflies will be everywhere. Birds or prey will be able to hunt and soon also tree seeds that have been covering the floor will germinate an new life will start, and not only from the coppice stools who also will begin shooting again. Don't worry, no flak jacket required.

The wood that has been harvested during the cutting will be put to use to benefit humans in many ways, from charcoal and beanpoles to other coppice crafts, including treen ware, such as spoons, spatulas, baskets, and much more.

Most of the wood that our ancestors used, bar the huge beams for building houses and ships, came from woods that were coppiced and very little wood was ever wasted. It heated their homes, provided their furniture, their eating utensils, including bowls and trenchers, tool handles and in some cases the tools themselves, such as pitchforks. The latter were often made all from wood and in a variety of ways, but some were just simply wooden poles that had a natural fork of two or three (sometimes more) tines.

Even in Britain wooden bowls and spoons, even for eating, were still in daily use in the countryside well into the 20th century but after World War One things began to change and wood was less and less used in that kind of daily life and after the Second World War it ceased virtually all together. In some parts of Europe the use of wood for everyday objects continued much longer and in some cases continues to this day and the coppice worker's products are still in demand, such as in some areas of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Russian soldiers and partisans carried personal eating spoons from wood still during the Great Patriotic War but then again, someone might say, it was a country that was still rather backwards. Yes, maybe, but it still beat the Nazi war-machine.

The British and European coppice woodlands did and still could produce most of the wood needs of our countries, with the exception of really wide boards, which are not possible to achieve from standard rotation coppice, even if a tree is left for twelve to fourteen years to grow before being cut. Almost anything else, however, can be made from this wood; after all it used to be done before.

For more on coppicing and why, etc. see “Managing our Woods”, a small book that explains the whys and wherefores of managing our woods in this way and calls for us to return to that way.

© 2015