It is easy to think of woodlands as wild places, but in the UK and Europe, most have been carefully managed for centuries. If you visit an ancient woodland in Europe at this time of year, you may well see small areas where the trees are being cut down to the base, but the stumps left behind. This is likely to be part of a traditional woodland practice called coppicing. Until about 150 years ago, most deciduous woodlands in the UK were coppiced to produce wood for use in a variety of industries, but today coppicing is largely only practised for woodland conservation.
The word ‘coppice’ originates from the French ‘couper’, to cut. Trees in a coppice or ‘copse’ are cut down to the base and this stimulates the base (called the stool) to produce new shoots. Generally, a different area of the woodland is cut every year with a 5-30 year rotation cycle to allow sufficient regrowth between cuttings (see figure below). Coppicing extends the lifespan of trees dramatically. For example, ash (Fraxinus excelsior) trees typically live for 200 years, but coppiced ash stools can live for over a 1000 (1). In Europe, most deciduous tree species (e.g. hazel, alder, chestnut) are suitable for coppicing, but coniferous tree species such as pine are not because they die when cut instead of producing new shoots.
Coppicing been widely practised in the UK and Europe for a long time. The earliest evidence of coppicing in the UK comes from the remains of wattle trackways found in the Somerset Levels that date back to 4,500 BC. The stems produced by coppiced stools are small in diameter and tend to be straight making them suitable for many uses including; furniture, fencing and charcoal manufacture.
The need for wood meant that woodlands were carefully managed, and therefore conserved throughout much of history. Even during the Industrial Revolution, which you might think of as being bad for nature, woodlands were carefully maintained to supply the demand for charcoal to fuel the industries. Unfortunately, once coal replaced charcoal as the main fuel supply for many industries in the mid-19th Century, and conifer plantations became the favoured way to produce wood, coppiced woodlands that had been carefully managed for centuries fell into neglect.
Like all man-made practices, coppicing do have an impact on the environment. However, compared to many other practices, the impact is actually fairly low and is often beneficial. Over the centuries, coppicing is likely to have subtly altered the mix of tree species found in a woodland by encouraging species that coppice well such as hazel and alder over other species such as beech (Fagus spp.) and pine (Pinus spp.) (1,2). Also, the opening of the canopy will have provided more opportunities for pioneer species such as birch (Betula spp.) to invade (1,2). However, because active planting of tree species was fairly unusual — with people making use of whatever wood was available — coppiced woodlands are likely to contain a similar mix of species to what would naturally be there (3).
One of the environmental benefits of coppicing is that the majority of the woodland canopy is retained because only a small area of woodland is cut every year. This minimises the negative effects on wildlife because they can move into a neighbouring area that has not been cut that year. Coppicing is very beneficial to many wildflowers such as primrose (Primula vulgaris) and foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) because, after a cutting, light is able to reach ground level, which often leads to a peak in wildflower growth a year or so later (2). This is also good for the insects and other wildlife that depend on the flowers, and coppiced woodlands tend to have higher biodiversity. In contrast, the conifer plantations popular in Europe from the 19th Century onwards tend to have low biodiversity because they often use non-native species in monocultures, and the denser evergreen canopy shades the ground all year round (4).
After coppicing stops in a woodland, the canopy tends to become very dense and the biodiversity suffers as a result. To conserve these woodlands, the best solution is to return it to a regular coppice cycle. In the UK, this has been achieved in many ancient woodlands that are owned and managed by conservation charities including local Wildlife Trusts and The National Trust. Much of the coppicing is done by volunteers, and in the last few years I have joined them, helping to coppice Lower Wood in Ashwellthorpe, Norfolk for a couple of hours a week over the winter months. If you would like to get involved in some practical (and fun) conservation work, then I would certainly recommend you try it.
This article is one of a series about woodland management. Future posts will feature the history of British woodlands, a case study about my favourite local ancient woodland (Lower Wood), and the future of coppicing.
- Rackham, O. (2003) Ancient Woodland. Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England, Arnold
- Rackham, O., (2010) Woodlands, Collins
- Peterken, GF (1981) Woodland Conservation and Management, Chapman and Hall
- Hantsweb: Plantation Woodlands (updated 2005)