Coppicing is vital to our woods and our economy

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Coppicing, the ancient woodland management practice, is vital to the woods and to the economy, especially the local economy.

In many parts of our country, if you happen to go down to the woods, you may well encounter an enthusiastic group of people from all walks of life reviving a tradition that is as ancient as the managed woodland itself, and it is a revival that is not before its time.

Coppicing, which is the cutting of hazel, and other deciduous trees, to produce usable timber products and encourage animal and plant life to thrive, is making a comeback. This is reckoned to be due to a throwaway remark from a master thatcher about the difficulty of sourcing British made thatching spars. However, there is more to that for not only thatchers are asking for local thatching spars, tool manufacturers also have commented on the lack of British ash for the making of handles for such tools, whether for garden tools or for hatchets, billhooks and axes.

For far too long have we allowed our woodlands to fall into disrepair because we have not managed them in the age-old fashion, by coppicing. Much of this is due to two reasons. One of them being that we have seen imports to be easier to obtain than actually dealing with our own woodlands but the second one, and one that has done the greatest of damage here, is the attitude that has come about by the opposition from the side of many “eco-warriors” who have read the wrong books that the cutting of trees is bad and thus must not be done.

When it comes to sustainability wood for building and for products is hard to beat and many people are well into buying wooden products (again) nowadays, including woven baskets, for the reason that wood is sustainable and carbon neutral and that, at the end of its life, it whether it is but into the ground or is burned, it only releases the amount of carbon that it absorbed during its life. However, most of the wooden products, whether it is kitchenware, baskets, tool handles, etc., do not come from indigenous woods but from woods far afield and often are made for cheap in countries such as China, Vietnam, etc., and then need to be shipped to our shores. The sustainability scale their drops off drastically.

Homegrown wood, from sustainably managed coppice woods could tick a lot of boxes here, although the products might have to cost a little more than the machined ones though wooden that come from abroad in order to be able to give the coppice worker and the producer an income from which they can live.

Thatching alone in Britain is a significant business consuming an incredible 25 to 30 million hazel spars a year which are used to hold the thatching straw, or reed, in place on the roof and at around 10p each that could generate a business worth a potential of £3 million nationally.

As with so many coppice products, though, the price for such spars, as much as for other products, be those beanpoles, walking sticks, etc., are often far too low priced to give the coppice worker an income. Those products take time to make, and the more elaborate the more time is involved, and we need to reconnect the time it takes to make a product with the price if we want local woodland industries to exist and thrive.

While coppicing is not only or even primarily about making money it does have to come into it if we want our woodlands and our woodland industries to exist, to thrive, and new ones to be established, both coppice woodlands and woodland industries.

Coppiced woodlands are part Britain's cultural heritage and thousands of years their management has provided a wide range of habitat for wildlife as a useful by-product to the original primary task which was that of providing essential raw materials for agriculture, housing, industry, and much more.

The surviving copses across many parts of the country are reminders of the local history that has moulded landscape and communities and provide yet more evidence that even what appear to be our wildest places have been managed by man for centuries. And, lest we forget, if we do not take up this management again we will lose those woods for once managed management will have to continue.

And far from compromising wildlife and the natural world, coppicing allows light and warmth into a wood, helping woodland flowers to thrive and, as time goes on, encourages sometimes endangered species to keep a foothold in the countryside, from the dormouse to the rarer kinds of butterfly, like the silver wash fritillary and several species of woodland birds.

Coppicing ticks more or less all the boxes for anyone looking for an outdoor activity that is 100% sustainable, especially if the majority of the activities are carried out in the ancient way by using human- and animal-powered tools and equipment only.

Correctly managed an area of coppice is ready to supply its next crop of rods, poles and other timber within five to 30 years of the first 'harvest', though there is also a great deal to be said for simply getting out in the woods, and creating something useful and beautiful from the natural materials.

Aside from revitalizing and reestablishing coppice woodlands and managing them properly we also must set up the appropriate “industries” and markets for those forest products. And those products must be more than just thatching spars, beanpoles, pea sticks, tent pegs, walking sticks, firewood and charcoal. And we also must take care that little to none of the wood “produced” is wasted.

© 2015

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.