The sound of a chainsaw in the woods rings alarm bells in many people's minds. Few of us like a favourite woodland scene being altered, but felling trees is part of the story and perpetuation of woodlands. In our crowded island, woodlands have survived the farmer's axe precisely because they were (and are) a source of vital material. Wood and timber are the perfect example of a renewable resource, so we have been able to harvest them for thousands of years without destroying the woodlands in the process.

In the past, far more woodlands were managed intensively through the ancient method of producing wood called coppicing. They were managed like that until well into this century - and in some areas still are. Various schemes are promoting coppicing again as a means of producing useful materials and of enhancing the wildlife value there.

Sweet chestnut coppice
© Forestry Commission

Depending on the tree crop, areas of woodland were cut down to stump level. The coppiced poles were easy to cut and could be moved by hand and yielded materials for small buildings, fencing, tools and above all for firewood and charcoal. In other regions, hazel rods were woven into sheep hurdles.

Coppice poles were cut mainly in winter. By the following summer, new green shoots sprouted from the bases or stools and grew into poles ready for cutting again in about 15 years.

Most broadleaved trees were and can be coppiced - including oak, hazel, sweet chestnut and lime - but few conifers will re-sprout in this way. The charcoal burners coppiced the woods on a cycle of about 15 years. Above the coppice grew an overstorey of oak "standards" and these were the raw material for shipbuilding.

Many neglected woods were old coppices - the giveaway is that they are full of multi-stemmed trees all growing from the same base.

A survey in the mid-1960s revealed only 15 to 16,000 ha of simple coppice was still worked. Most of that was sweet chestnut (12,900 ha) with a bit of hazel (1,700 ha). There was also about 11,000 ha of coppice-with-standards. Most working coppice was in South-East England. The area of active coppice has risen sharply, mainly for conservation - but there are now signs of an economically viable revival too. New markets are being developed and old ones revived. The long decline in coppice seems to be over and even reversing.

The ancient skills of coppicing are being relearned.

Coppices - and their associated flora and fauna highly prized in conservation circles - are really semi-natural ecosystems - the legacy of centuries of woodland management.

Deer stocks are at an all-time historical high - and increasing. Succulent new growth on coppice stools is a tempting morsel - and deer browsing can completely suppress any successful re-growth after the coppice is cut. Protecting the newly coppiced area or reducing deer numbers may be essential to get the new growth off to a good start.

More: A leader in this topic is the Wessex Coppice Group.
FC Info Note 56. Restoration of neglected hazel coppice. Ralph Harmer (2004).