Protecting coppice regrowth

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Protecting the regrowth of any coppice trees, be they Hazel, Ash, Sycamore (yes, that tree often so maligned for being non-native but ever so useful), or whatever else, is important if we want to see a a return for our labors.

In the British countryside there are a number of deer species roaming about; some of which are native, such as Roe and Red deer, while others, such as Sitka and Muntjac deer, have been introduced (unfortunately, one might say).

Deer pose quite a threat to a coppice system as they have a tendency to munch off the for them rather tasty new seasons regrowth, and if this is left unchecked those stools of whatever tree species will eventually die out, which would completely destroy a coppice woodland. However, deer are not the only “grazers” that pose a threat to coppice regrowth; rabbit (coney) and hare do too.

Deer may be beautiful to watch – and I do love to see them in the wild – but one of the reasons why deer are not popular amongst foresters is the amount of damage they can do to woodland. In late winter/early spring the males use trees to rub the velvet off their antlers, causing great damage to whole stands of trees. For this reason it is often necessary to control numbers of males. Though controlling of numbers – and not just of males – is also necessary, in the absence of predators, in order to preserve health and viability of the herd. Deer can also decimate, as already indicated, an unprotected area of coppice by stripping off all the new buds from the regrowth.

In a stable, fully functioning eco-system the population densities of grazing species are maintained at a sustainable level by top predators and in the past this would have been the case in the British Isles with species such as wolves, bears and lynx that would also have been roaming our countryside.

Now that we have lost those species it is important that we take measures to protect any coppice regrowth to ensure the survival of coppiced woodlands, which in some cases are also classified as ancient woodland.

There are several methods which can be used to protect coppice growth. One of them is to cover up the coppice stools with brash wood from the trees that have been coppiced (brash wood is the twiggy branches from the crown of a tree).The theory is that the brash wood would allow the re-growth the opportunity to grow woody enough so that it is unpalatable to deer. That, at least, is the theory. I have not tried it in practice (as yet). In places where it has been tried the success was not a very good one which could have been due to the brash not being high enough above the stools or the brash piles do not provide a high enough barrier.

Another method is to weave brash wood into a basket-like structure around the coppiced stool. The principle is similar to the previous method; the baskets should provide the new growth protection until they grow over the baskets. By which time they should be woody enough to be left alone.

Large scale coppicing projects often use of temporary electric fences. This is perhaps the quickest and most efficient method if a large coupe has been coppiced. The idea is that deer are completely excluded from the freshly coppiced coupe, hopefully providing complete protection to the new re-growth. Obviously this method will only be suited to certain circumstances where the presence of an electric fence is not a problem, and where there is no problem with interference by vandals.

Other kinds of temporary fences could, I am sure, also be employed, such as those plastic fences that are used often around building sides, road works, and such like and there is also a version available in black if one does not wish to use the more common orange colored fencing.

Perhaps the oldest and most traditional method of deterring deer from browsing a freshly cut coppice coupe is simply the presence of humans and this may have been one of the reasons why woodsmen would traditionally live in the wood for extended periods of time, sometimes full time even, near the woods they were working.

A method that is said to have been used on the European mainland, especially in Germany, to protect coppice regrowth or newly planted trees was a “fence” of rope into which were tied rags every foot or so that had been soaked in some evil smelling liquid. But, much like electric fencing, this will only work where there is no danger of interference by vandals or such. The idea here is that the smell will deter the deer entering the “fenced off” area.

In general forestry operation new plantations of trees are protected by so-called deer fencing, which is just a stronger and taller kind of stock fencing really, though there are also some that have added protection against hares and rabbits entering. But if Mr Bunny wants to get in he might decide to burrow under the fence. Not much that will stop him except for a fence that is dug quite a way into the ground.

As coppice regrowth, in general, does not require a long exclusion period temporary fencing of one kind or the other, and aside from the previously mentioned plastic fencing there is also the split chestnut type that is often used on woodland operations and also in agriculture for penning in or out small livestock.

While it may not look as pretty as a woven basket structure around a coppice stool both the orange or black plastic fencing and the split chestnut type are reusable and quick to erect and remove and thus might be the best option in the book. Split chestnut fencing may not require any stakes, though they do help, while the plastic fencing can be put up with road pins, for instance.

© 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.