Coppicing: conserving ancient woodland with active management

A hazel coppice stool in Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe

A hazel coppice stool in Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe

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.

Coppice diagram

Image via Wikimedia Commons licenced under CC BY 2.5

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.


  1. Rackham, O. (2003) Ancient Woodland. Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England, Arnold
  2. Rackham, O., (2010) Woodlands, Collins
  3. Peterken, GF (1981) Woodland Conservation and Management, Chapman and Hall
  4. Hantsweb: Plantation Woodlands (updated 2005) 
Posted in Plants | 1 Comment

Guest Post. 5 steps to successful foraging

Ceps in a basket. Image by George Chernilevsky  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ceps in a basket. Image by George Chernilevsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s foraging season once again and I feel that more than ever we’re being encouraged to get out and pick our own. Sometimes it is hard to know where to start. What I am not going to do in this blog is tell you how to ID something. There are a number of better sources out there that will help you do this. What I will be doing is giving you my 5 key steps to becoming a successful forager.

Firstly I will tell you the best piece of advice I was even given when it comes to foraging, I will say it a few times during the blog but it doesn’t hurt to say it multiple times: IF IN DOUBT, DON’T EAT IT! For your safety I cannot emphasise this enough. I’d much rather go down to the shops or market and get something safe to eat than risk eating anything dangerous.

Step 1: Figure out what you want to forage for.

This may sound like an obvious or even a silly first step. However, there is world of wild food out there – mushrooms, berries, flowers, roots and more. It takes a life time of dedication to become an expert in even one of these areas. To start with, pick what type of food you want forage for and concentrate on that. It’s much easier to start with just a few species and get to know them really well than it is to try and learn everything at once.

Step 2: Go on a good course.

I find it much easier to learn when someone shows me how to do it rather than reading or looking at pictures in a book. There are many experts out there willing to share their knowledge with you and make you top notch foragers. They will be able to share the information with you in a far more personal manner and might have insights or anecdotes that will help you remember what’s good and what’s not. They will also be able to give you so much more information than is in the books. You might want to take your chosen book with you on the course so you can make notes in the margins. Going through professional bodies such as the British Mycological Society and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) will ensure you are being educated by the best.

Step 3: Buy the right equipment

10x Feild loupe. Image by Eurico Zimbres [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

10x Field loupe. Image by Eurico Zimbres (CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Invest in the right equipment to help you identify and harvest your wild treats. You won’t always have your teacher with you, so a good book and/or notebook is the next best thing. Read a few books and see what works for you. Personally, I like books with plenty of good quality pictures that I can use to compare to the specimens, good descriptions, clear warning of any poisonous similar plants/fungi and I like families of plants/fungi to be grouped into sections – this helps as you get more familiar with different groups and leads to speedier identification, for example you can say “This mushroom looks a lot like a Cep” and go straight to the group that look like Ceps rather than have to search through the entire book. A foraging basket, a good foraging knife and a hand loupe/field loupe magnifying lens are also essential.

Step 4: Be patient, take your time.

The second most valuable piece of advice I can give you is to take your time. As I said before, people dedicate their lives to becoming expert foragers. I know that when you get the foraging bug you really, really, really want to get out there and come home with dinner on your first trip out. Before you put anything into your mouth (or your dinner), get comfortable identifying your chosen group and any of their poisonous counterparts. Some of these wild foods are edible with a caveat, such as they cannot be eaten with alcohol or a certain percentage of the population are allergic to them. It is little things like this that you need to be aware of. It may take multiple courses and months of learning before you truly are comfortable telling your mushrooms or berries apart. It is far better to take your time to learn all the subtle differences than to make one mistake that may end up costing your life and the lives of anyone you feed it to. You can always take samples in to horticulture centres and have your identification verified.

Step 5: If in doubt, don’t eat it!

Finally I will say it again and I will say it until I am blue in the face. If you even have a niggling doubt about something you have picked DO NOT EAT IT. Your safety and the safety of others should be your main priority.


Useful links

Royal Horticultural Society

British Mycological Society


People to follow on twitter






About the author: Kirsty Jackson is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. She studies bacterial and fungal symbioses with legumes and loves all things fungi! She also runs science outreach events. Follow her on twitter (@kjjscience)

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A year in the life of a grapevine

Grapes ready for harvest.

Grapes on my vine ready for harvest.

Outside my home is a grapevine. It was there when I moved in and I’m afraid that over the years it has not received huge amounts of attention from me, except to trim it back so I can access my front door. I didn’t know much about grapevines, so living alongside one has been an interesting experience.

Grape an economically important crop in many countries. The vast majority (71 %) are grown for wine-making, with the rest grown for fresh and dried fruit (1). Cultivation of grapes started around 8,000 years ago in the Middle East (1). There is archaeological evidence of wine production in Georgia dating back to a similar time, so wine-making has long accompanied and shaped the domestication of the grape. Indeed, to make wine from grapes, all you really need to do is crush them and leave them for a while in a container with as little air as possible. In these conditions, the sugar in the grapes is fermented into alcohol by yeast that grow naturally on the skins of the fruit. The skill in wine-making is to use the right grapes and know when to stop the fermentation process.

Grapes are now grown in many regions across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Most of the grapes belong to the species Vitis vinifera, which originates from the Middle East, but some other closely related species from the Americas or Asia are also cultivated, for example Vitis labrusca and Vitis amurensis.

June 2014: a bunch of grape flowers. The yellow anthers stick out from the rest of the flower (in green).

June 2014: a bunch of grape flowers. The yellow anthers stick out from the rest of the flower (in green).

Grapevines die back for the winter and so each spring they produce fresh shoots and leaves. This year, my vine produced its tiny flowers in June. They might not be very impressive-looking, but they don’t need to be, because grape flowers are pollinated by the wind, not insects. The anthers holding the pollen emerge from the flower and the pollen is blown off and to hopefully reach other flowers.

Over the summer months, the fruits develop from fertilized flowers in clusters of 15-300. When they ripen they can be a variety of colours from green right through to dark purple, and even black. My vine produces grapes that become a light-purple/pinky colour when they ripen. White grapes — which are actually green — originate from purple grapes but they have mutations that switch off production of the purple pigments called anthrocyanins.

While the flesh of the fruit is tasty to eat, the seed at the centre of a grape is not. The first seedless grapes were developed from plants that had mutations in seed production, and seedless varieties are now widely grown. Since these varieties do not produce seeds they must be propagated vegetatively, where cuttings from a mature plant are taken and used to make whole new plants.

Every plant has enemies and the grape is no exception. One such enemy is a tiny insect called phylloxera, a relative of the aphid. Phylloxera comes from the US where it lives on native grape species. When Vitis vinifera was introduced to the US in the 19th Century, it was very vulnerable to infection by phylloxera as it had little natural resistance. Unfortunately, phylloxera managed to cross the Atlantic and in the 1860’s it — together with outbreaks of other diseases caused by fungi – devastated the vineyards of Europe. Even today, there is no cure for phylloxera and no chemical control methods available. Instead, cuttings of Vitis vinifera varieties are grafted onto the roots of phylloxera-resistant Vitis riparia (an American species). Phylloxera had a huge impact on the European wine industry for many years, and wine-production in other countries including America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand rose to fill the gap in supply.

In August 2014, the grapes stopped growing and started to shrivel. No wine for me this year!

In August 2014, the grapes stopped growing and started to shrivel. No wine for me this year!

In early Autumn, the grapes ripen and are ready for harvesting. In 2013, my vine produced vast quantities of grapes (see first photo) that a couple of friends harvested and used to make wine. Unfortunately, 2014 has not been a good year, and most of the fruit shrivelled and died over the summer. I’m not sure why this happened, but we had a lot of wet weather and storms in August, which may have encouraged fungi to grow on the fruit.

In 2007, the genome sequence of V. vinifera was published. It was the 4th plant genome to be sequenced and the first of a fruit crop. Armed with the genome sequence, it should be easier to produce new varieties in future, and thus continue the development of grapes that started 8,000 years ago.

All images by the author. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.


1) Wikipedia: Grape (retrieved 28/09/14)

2) Wikipedia: Phylloxera (retrieved 28/09/14)

3) Jaillon et al (2007) The grapevine genome sequence suggests ancestral hexaploidization in major angiosperm phyla. Nature 

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Peanuts are not nuts

On Saturday I will be travelling to The Gambia, West Africa to spend three weeks working on a Girlguiding community project. I’m one of a team of 6 UK Girlguiding adult volunteers who will be training sessions with The Gambia Girl Guides to promote leadership, teamwork and advocacy. I’m very excited about the project, and since I haven’t been to Africa before I think it will be a really eye-opening experience. In honour of the project, the Organism of October is one of The Gambia’s main exports: the peanut.

Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (image in the public domain)

Peanut (Arachis hypogaea) from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (image in the public domain)

The peanut or groundnut (Arachis hypogaea) belongs to the legume family of plants. The name hypogaea means “under the earth”, and is a reference to the development of the fruit — called peanuts — under ground. The flowers develop above the surface, but after they are fertilised the flower stalk lengthens, sending the the ovary containing the developing fruit underground. This develops into a peanut containing 1-4 seeds.

Peanuts have a variety of uses as food (raw, cooked in dishes, ground nut oil), but they can also be made into solvents and used in medicines and textiles. They are rich in nutrients including niacin, folate, fibre, vitamin, magnesium and phosphorous. Like soybean and other legume crops they are rich in protein (about 25% dry weight). The peanut was probably first cultivated in Paraguay, where its closest wild relatives still live. Today the major producers of peanuts are the US, Argentina, Sudan, Senegal and Brazil.

Prior to the arrival of the peanut in West Africa, local people cultivated a closely-related native legume called the Bambara groundnut, which is similar to the peanut, both in terms of how it grows and its uses in cooking.

Peanut seeds surrounded by their pod. Image by Texnik (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Peanut seeds surrounded by their pod. Image by Texnik (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Despite the name, a peanut is not actually a nut. In botanical terms, “nut” specifically refers to a fruit that has a hard outer casing that does not split when it ripens, for example an acorn or chestnut. The outer casing of a peanut is the equivalent of the pod found on other legumes (for example peas and beans). In most legumes, when the fruit matures the pod splits open along two lines of intrinsic weakness to release the seeds inside. Peanuts are one of the exceptions to this, perhaps because their fruits develop underground, but they do share the same core fruit structure as the other legumes (click here for some cool diagrams).

Time to get back to my packing! While I am away, my friend (and guest blogger) Kirsty will be looking after the site and posts will be still be published as normal so please keep reading!

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A lunchtime visit to Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Two weeks into my new job and so far things are going pretty well. My new work colleagues are all really nice, I’m enjoying the work and my long commute by train to the office is not as bad as I thought it might be. As an added perk, the office happens to be only 5 minutes walk from the Cambridge University Botanic Garden so, on a lovely sunny day last week, I went there for my lunch-break.


The garden, which opened in 1846, was a replacement for a smaller garden that was founded in 1762 on what is now known as the New Museums Site. The original garden was set up as a typical Renaissance physic garden to grow herbaceous plants for the teaching of medical students but John Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge from 1825-1861 and the driving force behind the project, wanted the new garden to be for the study of the plants themselves. This is reflected in the layout of the older part of the garden, where closely-related plants are still grouped together today.

This was not my first visit to the garden, as I used to go there when I lived in Cambridge as an undergraduate student. Going back was like meeting up with an old friend you haven’t seen in several years – familiar, but also a bit different. Since my undergraduate days new buildings have been built to house a new research institute The Sainsbury Laboratory  and accompanying plant growth facilities. Even the public café has now moved into The Sainsbury Laboratory building.


Goldsturm (Rudbeckia fulgida) also known as black-eyed Susan

On this visit, I stayed at the end of the garden nearest my office, starting with the Autumn Garden. This end of the garden was developed in the 1950s, and the plants are arranged by theme instead of family, as in the older parts of the garden. The Autumn garden was full of displays of brightly-coloured flowers such as the goldsturm (Rudbeckia fulgida) — also known as black-eyed Susan — a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) from North America.

Californian poppy (

Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Next I walked past the Chronological Bed, showing a timeline of some of the many plants introduced to the UK over the last few hundred years, including well-known plants like bamboo and the lesser-known giant ornamental onion (Allium giganteum). The most striking was the Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica), a relative of the red poppy found in Europe (see this guest post).

The gardens hold several collections of plants that were developed for research and many are considered to be of national importance. Near the new Sainsbury Laboratory building were displays of some of these collections, including the lavender collection, established by the garden’s curator Dr Tim Upson, to investigate their classification and evolution.

With the clock ticking, it was time for me to leave the garden and get back to work. I am sure this is just the first of many lunchtime visits and I look forward to seeing the garden change over the seasons.

All images by S. Shailes. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Reference: Cambridge University Botanic Garden website (retrieved 24/09/14)

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Plant science technologies help to improve agriculture


Cotton ready for harvest. Image released into the public domain (via wikipedia)

Over the last 10,000 years, we have altered the genetic make-up of plants to produce food, fibres and other materials we need (1). For most of that time we have relied on fairly primitive selective breeding, with farmers selecting plants by the usefulness or desirability of their obvious traits, for example grain size, taste or colour. In the last 300 years, our expanding knowledge of plant science has provided more sophisticated technologies for improving crops. Here are some of the major ones:

Hybrid vigour

The offspring of two very different individuals of the same species tend to be healthier, larger and more fertile. We call this hybrid vigour. When Charles Darwin noticed hybrid vigour while studying toadflax in the 1870s, he became the first person to study it systematically (2). In the 1920s, the first hybrid crop seeds were released to farmers. Although the seeds produced by hybrids can be re-planted, they do not have the same combination of good traits as their parents. Therefore, farmers tend to buy new hybrid seeds every year, if they can afford to.


It is possible to deliberately introduce random DNA mutations into plants by exposing them to a chemical or radiation treatment. Most of the time, these mutations will either be harmful to the plants or have no obvious effects, but sometimes they can generate a desirable trait. Crop breeders can screen large numbers of plants to search for individuals with these good traits, and then breed from them.

In the last 10 years, a new technique called TILLING (targeted induced local lesions in genomes) has been used to generate mutations in crops. It is proving to be especially useful in plants whose genetics have been less-well studied than other crops, for example to improve shelf-life in melons.

Marker-assisted selection (MAS)

Marker-assisted selection (MAS) is a more sophisticated form of traditional selective breeding (1). Now that it is possible to identify the genes that are responsible for producing a desired trait, crop breeders can select for the presence of the particular genes in the plants, instead of the trait itself. This is useful because genetic testing can be carried out when the plants are very young, so it is not necessary to carry out big field trials. Also, it is easier to track down, and eliminate any undesirable traits that might also happen to be in the plants.

MAS is especially useful for introducing genes from wild relatives or primitive varieties of crops where there are many difference between the two parent plants. For example, flood-tolerant rice was developed using MAS by crossing a popular commercial rice variety and another, less useful rice variety that carried a version of the Sub1 gene that made it flood-tolerant.

Genetic engineering

Genetic engineering techniques allow DNA to be inserted into the genome of plants. It makes it possible to produce crops with traits that would be difficult or very time-consuming to achieve with conventional breeding. For example, purple tomatoes, which contain high levels of the antioxidant anthrocyanin were created by inserting a gene that comes from snapdragon.

Since the first release of GM crop varieties in 1996, the production of GM crops has increased massively, and they are now widely grown in 29 countries. One of the traits introduced into crops is the ability to produce the Bt toxin, a naturally-occuring pesticide. Bt cotton is especially popular, and accounts for 70-90% of cotton grown in the US, China and India (1). Growing Bt cotton enables farmers to control pest populations, whilst using less synthetic pesticides, which tend to kill beneficial insects alongside the pests. An added benefit is the improved health of farmers, many of whom used to become ill from the large quantities of synthetic pesticides they were using.

The future

The human population is predicted to rise by 50 % by 2050. To produce enough food to feed these people we need to increase agricultural production. Given that land and water are both in short supply, this is going to be a challenge.

One new plant science technology that could potentially benefit agriculture is called genome editing. With genome editing it is possible to precisely alter DNA sequences in living cells. It can be used to recreate naturally-occurring mutations (found in other plants) in popular crop varieties without having to introduce new genes. For this reason, scientists and farmers believe that genome editing might be more readily accepted than genetic engineering has been (1).

Whatever technologies we use to help increase agricultural production in the future, it is important that they are combined with sustainable agricultural practices. Unfortunately this does not always happen at the moment. For example, in the US it is a legal requirement that all Bt cotton crops must be surrounded by “refuge” areas containing crops that don’t produce the Bt toxin (1). These areas promote the survival of beneficial insects, and delay the evolution of resistance to the Bt toxin in the pest. In India, refuge areas are not typically used and Bt toxin resistance in the pink bollworm, a major pest, is on the rise. To make the most of future advances we need to learn from the lessons of the past.


1) Ronald (2014) Lab to Farm: Applying Research on Plant Genetics and Genomics to Crop Improvement. PLOS Biology.

2) Darwin (1876) Cross and self-fertilisation of plants (via Darwin Online)

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Soybean: producing protein on a massive scale

US Department of Agriculture. Released into the public domain.

US Department of Agriculture. Released into the public domain.

This month’s organism is the soybean (Glyine max), a globally important crop plant that originates from Asia. The seeds (called soybeans) are rich in protein (40% of dry weight) and contain a good mix of essential amino acids needed by humans (1). Not surprisingly, this makes soybeans and their products popular with vegetarians and vegans as a source of non-animal protein. However, soybean-protein is also widely used as the main protein source for intensive farming of animals including chickens, cows and pigs.

Growing soybean a very efficient way to produce protein in terms of land-use. Soybeans produce twice as much protein per area of land than other vegetables or grain, and around 15 times more than land set aside for meat production (2).  The beans can be eaten whole after cooking (as in the Japanese dish edamame), but the majority of soybeans are processed to make a variety of soy-based food products, for example soya milk or tofu. Soy products are also added to many processed foods. Along with being rich in protein, soybeans are also rich in oil (20% of dry weight). The oil is extracted and used mainly for cooking with the remaining protein-rich pulp used as animal feed. Continue reading

Posted in Bacteria, Organism of the Month, Plants, Symbiosis | 4 Comments