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Coppicing

Traditional woodland management was aimed at maximizing the volume of useful timber that could be taken away from the wood. Much of this was used for home fires, but it also had many other uses - for hurdle making, basket making, broom making and hedge-laying, as bean poles, in furniture building, and so on. To achieve a continual supply of this small timber, a rotation method was used - each year, the under-storey of a section of the woodland was cleared (the upper storey was left to provide large-scale timber) and after a period of 8 to 20 years, the regrowth in this section was again of the required size, so it was harvested again. In the intervening years, other sections (or "panels") were cut down.

This rotational clearance of the smaller trees is known as coppicing and an area managed by coppicing becomes a copse. The shrubs are cut very close to the ground, as this encourages the development of several new stems, which start to grow the following Spring. Hazel coppices particularly well, producing long, regular, straight stems that are very flexible - ideal for hedge-laying, hurdle-making etc. When a tree is cut repeatedly like this, a "coppice stool" develops - where there was originally a standard tree, a many-stemmed version grows instead, thus producing even more material of the required size, and perhaps surprisingly, extending the life of the tree.


John takes a break from cutting one of the coppice "stools".

Robert knocks in a double row of stakes to retain the dead hedge

The result of coppicing is a mosaic woodland, with many panels at different stages of the succession from freshly cleared (with maximum light reaching the woodland floor) through to ready-to-be-coppiced. This mosaic is essential for the survival of much of the woodland flora, along with the fauna that depends on this flora - if the panels are never cut back, then no light reaches the woodland floor and the ground plants die out. If a panel is kept permanently open, then more vigorous species take over and the woodland specialists are unable to compete. Different creatures and plants favour different parts of the coppice cycle. For instance, many plants flower profusely in the first two springs after coppicing, while Nightingales like the dense shrubby growth that occurs after several years regrowth.

As late as the first half of the 20th Century coppicing was still a widespread activity, but it declined very rapidly after WWII and commercial coppicing is now very rare. The result is that of the woodland that still remains, much has become a dense, tangled mass where the woodland flora has been unable to survive.

This is where conservation volunteers come in! We can never fully restore our woodlands to their condition of 100 years ago, but we have been able to reinstate coppicing on a small scale, particularly at Pamber Forest, and the rewards are tremendous - carpets of violet, wood anemone, wood sorrel, wild daffodil and celandine bathe the forest floor during the Spring, bringing with them the many invertebrates that need these plants as food sources.

In September 2002, we reached a milestone in Pamber Forest as we returned to coppice, for the second time, a panel we originally cut back in 1990. The photos above and below show stages of the coppicing process. As well as cutting the coppice, we used the cut material to build a dead hedge round the plot. This is necessary to stop deer coming in and grazing off all the new shoots, which can lead to the death of the stool.


Robert and Paul pile up some more stems between the stakes.

Scrub Bashing on Chalk Downland

Chalk downland grassland is one of the richest habitats in the South of England. Once widespread, it is now very scarce, with only a few percent of the areas surviving the massive agricultural changes of the last 100 years. That wonderful springy turf loved by all walkers, is produced by ages long grazing of the downs, producing a wonderful variety of lime-loving flowers that live within the turf. Unfortunately, modern agricultural practices demand a greater return from the land than is possible using the traditional extensive grazing systems. As a result nearly all the traditionally managed grassland has now been lost - either to the plough for arable cultivation or to "soil improvement" by the additional of artificial fertilizers and reseeding with rye-grass mixtures that out-compete the less vigorous grasses and wild flowers.

Most of the surviving areas are in the more inaccessible places, making cost-effective use of the land very difficult (fortunately), and some of these have been rescued from continuing neglect by conservation agencies such as the Hampshire Wildlife Trust. One example is Old Burghclere Lime Pits . Many such sites have been left unmanaged (i.e. ungrazed) for many years, with the result that the grassland habitat is gradually swallowed up by encroaching scrub. On Chalk downland this scrub is generally very thorny - blackthorn, hawthorn, bramble and rose all compete to swamp the grass.

So, the job of conservation volunteers is to cut back the scrub. Hopefully this is done as a short term measure to be replaced by beneficial grazing regimes once the scrub has been cleared sufficiently. Sometimes though, scrub bashing is the only management carried out on sites (usually for financial reasons), and in this case we are really just trying to preseve the good habitat that survives by preventing further invasion by the surrounding scrub.

Hedges and Hedge-laying

Hedges are probably one of the oldest man-made features of the landscape and a very important habitat for wildlife. The first examples were most likely the solutions of nomadic tribesmen to the problems of keeping flocks safe from predators at night. They would probably have cut thorn bushes to make a "dead hedge" around their animals when necessary. Later, when people started living in settled communities, it would have been realised that living barriers could also be created by encouraging or even planting appropriately thorny shrub around grazing meadows.

Some hedges of early origin are believed still to exist. They are characterised by the diversity of shrub and tree species they contain and by their large size. This concept is formalised in Hooper`s Rule, which stipulates one century of age for each species to be found in a 30 yards length of hedge. This is found to work quite well, though like any rule, there can be exceptions.

As well as old hedges, many of our current ones are products of the enclosure of open fields and common land carried out during the 17th to 19th centuries. A lot of these were planted with only one or two species (mainly hawthorn) and so, being roughly 200 years old, provide substantial backing to the age calculation.

Hedges provide a varied woodland-edge type of habitat that is exploited by many plant and animal species. They also provide wildlife corridors across open farmland between isolated woodlands.

The traditional management technique for a hedge is to "lay" it. This involves nearly cutting right through each of the upright trunks and bending them over at an angle of approximately 60 degrees. These are then woven in and out of wooden stakes, the tops of which are bound with flexible hazel wands. The result, given decent starting material, is a sturdy thorny barrier some three feet or so high, which is still living and will sprout back into life very quickly.

Hedge-laying provides excellent structure for nesting birds and ensures that living timber is maintained all along the hedgeline by overlapping adjacent bushes.

The major problem with traditional hedge-laying is that it is very labour intensive, and in today's climate of high labour costs, managing hedges in this way is expensive. The usual alternative approach is to use mechanical flails, which although they are very quick and cost effective, do severe damage to the timber, and also to wildlife if used at the wrong time of year. Hedges can take some flailing, but if it is the only mangement technique used, the result is soon a poor straggly hedge with gaps, especially near the base of the hedge. These gaps make the hedge ineffective as a stock barrier, and when this happens the whole structure is usually swiftly replaced by wire fencing, which has no wildlife value.

Many thousands of miles of hedges have also been removed in recent years in the name of agricultural development, a particularly devastating situtation in view of the simultaneous reduction in the capacity of the rest of the farmland environment to support wildlife.