Woodland management: the origins and power of coppicing


Why is coppice wood sustainable? It’s all because it grows back. A first cut of a broadleaf tree will see several new stems sprouting within the following year, and hey presto, you get several young trees instead of one. Split your area of trees into sections (cants or coupes), and then cut one cant every year or every few years, and you have a rotational system, a continuous crop of poles and timber.

What you also create is a mosaic of different ages and heights, as well as different light levels reaching various parts of the woodland. Having lots of different environments services so many different creatures, and in fact much wildlife has come to rely on this system, because we were so into coppicing for so many thousands of years: woodland fritillary butterflies have reduced in number with the decline of coppicing, for example, and nightingales and dormice are quite bummed out too, among many others. Coppicing then, gets a lot of thumbs-ups on a lot of bases.

It’s also great because a young stem is doing a lot more vigorous photosynthesising than a mature tree which reaches a balance between growth and decay. So if you have a woodland full of coppice, you have an enormous amount of carbon dioxide being snaffled away and stored in the form of timber. That stored carbon ends up one of three ways: wood products (where the carbon is stored indefinitely and perhaps quite beautifully in a bespoke piece of furniture!); woodfuel (vastly less emission-releasing compared to fossil fuels); or as deadwood, creating a lovely habitat for various creepy crawlies and food for decomposing micro-organisms.

Coppicing is normally done using chainsaws, cutting as close to the base of the stool as possible and leaving an angled cut, so that water will run off, rather than sit in the stool and cause rot. Typically billhooks are then employed to clean off the side branches along each pole. A billhook or side axe would also be used to provide the required finish to either end of the pole depending on the product needed, such as a point for a hedge-laying stake, a toothpick angle for a beanpole, or grooming branch tops into fans along one plane to support growing peas (peasticks). This is certainly the practice when cutting hazel coppice, which is a much sought after species for a number of uses. Its strength, flexibility, and potential for long straight growth, make it the favoured plant for supplying stakes and binders, for example – products needed to secure cut-and-bent stems as part of the beautiful practice of traditional hedge-laying.

Hazel is also of course the inspiration for the Sebastian Cox ‘Underwood’ collection, normally sourced from the Cox family woodland. This winter season we’ve sourced hazel from further afield, so as to give time to bring the Cox crop into rotation as part of its new woodland management plan [link]. One of these locations is the very lovely Plumpton Wood, part of the Plumpton College estate, which is where I was taught about coppice management in the first place! And how to formulate a woodland management plan!

Supporting coppice systems upholds a tradition which has come about through its evolution as a sustainable practice, and as a visible story in the landscape of the intertwining of human, animal and plant activity. Long may it continue.


Useful reading:

Coppiced woodlands: their management for wildlife

High Weald Woodlands Carbon Report


Luśka Mengham