Coppicing

Coppicing

Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management in which young tree stems are cut down to near ground level. In subsequent growth years, many new shoots will emerge, and, after a number of years, the cycle begins again and the coppiced tree, or stool, is ready to be harvested again.

Typically a coppice woodland is harvested in sections or coups on a rotation (coup is , "coop"). In this way, a crop is available each year somewhere in the woodland. It has the effect of providing a rich variety of habitats, as the woodland always has a range of different-aged coppice growing in it, which is beneficial for biodiversity. The cycle length depends upon the species cut, the local custom, and the use to which the product is put. Birch can be coppiced for faggots on a three- or four-year cycle, whereas oak can be coppiced over a fifty-year cycle for poles or firewood.

Coppicing has the effect of maintaining trees at a juvenile stage, and a regularly coppiced tree will never die of old age – some coppice stools may therefore reach immense ages. The age of a stool may be estimated from its diameter, and some are so large (perhaps as much as 9 m or 30 ft across) that they are thought to have been continuously coppiced for many centuries.

Coppiced stems are characteristically curved at the base. This curve occurs as the competing stems grow out from the stool in the early stages of the cycle, then up towards the sky as the canopy closes. The curve may allow the identification of coppice timber in archaeology – timber in the Sweet Track in Somerset (built in the winter of 3807 and 3806 BC) has been identified as coppiced lime.

History

In the days of charcoal iron production, most woods in ironmaking regions were managed as coppices, usually being cut on a cycle of about 16 years. In this way, fuel could be provided for that industry, in principle, for ever. This was regulated by a statute of Henry VIII, which required woods to be enclosed after cutting (to prevent browsing by animals) and 12 standels (standards, mature uncut trees) to be left in each acre to be grown into timber. The variation of coppicing known as coppice with standards (scattered individual stems allowed to grow on through several coppice cycles) has been commonly used throughout the British Isles as a means of giving greater flexibility in the resulting product from any one area. Not only does the woodland provide the small material from the coppice but also a range of larger timber from the standards for jobs like house building, bridge repair, cart making and so on.

The shoots (or suckers) may be used either in their young state for interweaving in wattle fencing (as is the practice with willows and hazel) or the new shoots may be allowed to grow into large poles, as was often the custom with hardwood such as oaks or ashes. This creates long, straight poles which do not have the bends and forks of naturally grown trees. Coppicing may also be practiced to encourage specific growth patterns, as with cinnamon trees which are grown for their bark.

Coppiced hardwoods were extensively used in carriage and shipbuilding, and they are still sometimes grown for making wooden buildings and furniture.

Current practice

In Southern Britain, coppice was traditionally hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash or oak, grown amongst oak or sometimes ash or beech standards. In wet areas alder and willows were used. These coppices provided wood for many purposes, especially charcoal which before the availability of coal was economically significant in allowing smelting of metals. A minority of these woods are still operated for coppice today, often by conservation organisations, producing material for hurdle-making, thatching spars, local charcoal-burning or other crafts. The only remaining large-scale commercial coppice crop in the area is sweet chestnut which is grown in parts of East Sussex and Kent. Much of this was established as plantations in the 19th century for hop-pole production (hop-poles are used to support the hop plant while growing hops) and is nowadays cut on a 12 to 18 year cycle for splitting and binding into cleft chestnut paling fence, or on a 20 to 35 year cycle for cleft post-and-rail fencing, or for sawing into small lengths to be finger-jointed for architectural use. Other material goes to make farm fencing and to be chipped for modern wood-fired heating systems.

In north-west England, coppice-with-standards has been the norm, the standards often of oak with relatively little simple coppice. After World War II, a great deal was planted up with conifers or became neglected. Coppice working almost died out, though a few men continued in the woods. A small, and growing, number of people make a living wholly or partly by working coppices in the area today.

Withies for wicker-work are grown in coppices of various willow species, principally osier.

Some Eucalyptus species are coppiced in a number of countries.

Sometimes former coppice is converted to high-forest woodland by the practice of singling. All but one of the regrowing stems are cut, leaving the remaining one to grow as if it were a maiden (uncut) tree.

The boundaries of coppice coups were sometimes marked by cutting certain trees as pollards or stubs.

Wildlife

Coppice management favours a wide range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. The open area is then colonised by many different animals such as nightingale, nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows up, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again – but in an actively managed coppice there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.

However, most British coppices have not been managed in this way for many decades. The coppice stems have grown tall (the coppice is said to be overstood), forming a heavily shaded woodland of many closely-spaced stems with little ground vegetation. The open-woodland animals survive in small numbers along woodland rides or not at all, and many of these once-common species have become rare. Overstood coppice is a habitat of relatively low biodiversity – it does not support the open-woodland species, but neither does it support many of the characteristic species of high forest, because it lacks many high-forest features such as substantial dead-wood, clearings and stems of varied ages. The ideal conservation management of these abandoned coppices may be to re-start coppice management, or in some cases it may be more appropriate to use singling and selective clearance to establish a high-forest structure.

Bringing neglected coppices back into production would enable more charcoal to be produced in Britain rather than being sourced from the tropics, where charcoal making can damage biodiversity.

Natural coppicing

Coppice (and pollard) growth is a response of the tree to damage, and such damage can occur naturally as well as from deliberate woodland management. Trees may be browsed or broken by large herbivorous animals (such as cattle or elephants), felled by beavers or blown over by the wind. Some trees (for example lime) may produce a line of coppice shoots from a fallen trunk, and sometimes these develop into a line of mature trees.

Artificial coppice may therefore be seen as a somewhat distorted equivalent to natural habitats which no longer occur, in the absence of now extinct or rare animals.

See also

References

*

  • Hammersley, G, 'The charcoal iron industry and its fuel 1540-1750' Econ Hist. Rev. Ser. II, 26 (1973), 593-613.

External links

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