During the first two months of the year I spent some time away from the garden indulging my long held interest in woodland management. Although most of the work I’m currently engaged with tends to align more closely with flowers, my first love has always been trees.
When studying at the botanical gardens of Wales some years ago I used to spend the hours before and after class shivering in the hillside Towy valley woods, doing my best to read branches for buds; learning my ash from sycamore in their exposed winter simplicity.
Trees of our more or less native, deciduous woodlands were, and still are, to me the most interesting and intriguing of all the multi-floral habitats; so much so for their repetition in coalition. For any inexperienced horticulturist the wood is a good place to begin learning as reoccurring identification material is so helpfully repeated; you quickly build up a reliable basis of character recognition in order to accurately differentiate between the species.
I have, therefore, a great envy of those who are fortunate enough to be able to give much of their attention to working in woodlands. During those months I spent time both reading up (Edward Thomas, John Collis, Richard Jefferies as well as a re-read of the hailed practical handbook by Cris Starr) and in the woods themselves with a handful of people to whom they are a livelihood or devoted hobby. Within woodland work in general, a particular dimension I was keen to experience more of was coppice management.
Iain Loasby is a coppice worker based in London. For some years now he has been spending his winters relieving borough councils of their public woodland ‘clearance’ responsibilities through managing hazel copses. Where good material, once cut, would usually have been chipped or burned, Iain is putting it to use, converting it into anything from fence poles and pea sticks to charcoal and firewood. Not only does this mean product in place of waste, but also a restoration of the ecologically supportive cycle that used to be carried out in woodlands for centuries.
I met Iain in Furzefield wood up near Potters Bar for a day’s coppicing in January. He showed me the process (in the most basic terms) from cutting to product sorting and cleaning. We were working in a sectioned-off corner of the wood; 1 part of a 7-section rotation Iain had mapped out. Hazel stools are coppiced once every 7 years and therefore once established and carefully managed, a rotation like this will supply a decent haul each year.
Now in spring and with vigorously shooting sweet peas and runner beans in the garden needing supporting, I went back to Furzefield to see how Iain had got on with the rest of the area. The timing couldn’t have been better; the bluebells were approaching their peak and everywhere above new leaves were emerging in light yellows and greens. You couldn’t doubt the positive ecological effect that the coppicing process brings to this particular environment. Removing the dense understory of hazel poles lets much needed light down onto the wood floor, allowing the exposed flora to once again proliferate. Rotating this action through the woodland therefore creates a diversity in habitat; moving from one area to the next over a slow succession of winters, new shoots re-growing from old stools. It’s an exciting and invigorating experience to have witnessed both ends of the spectrum on the same site, and to see first-hand how productive, above all else, this old practice still remains. Driving back down to the garden with my bean poles and pea sticks in the back of the truck I felt a great admiration for past generations of coppice workers. Much like farmers of the old wheat field meadows; their back-breaking practices often so entwined within nature as to forget the conservational qualities that result.
Iain’s coppice products are available from his website at: www.rivenwoodcoppice.com