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What is Coppicing?
Coppicing is probably the oldest form of agriculture although, surprisingly, it is rarely noted as an agricultural activity in modern agricultural or forestry literature. The simplest explanation of coppicing is that “coppice” means to cut a tree to about 5 centimetres (or 2 inches) above the ground, (the bit left is called a “stool”) and allow the tree to regenerate by producing lots of suckers or side shoots. After some years, normally between 6-20 years in the British Isles, depending upon the type of tree, the coppice manager returns and cuts back the side shoots to the stool again, taking the cut poles for use in making various useful items e.g. brooms, stakes, thatching spars, wooden bowls, cups and spoons. Any good book on woodland crafts and turnery is likely to list hundreds of items produced from coppiced wood. If it is looked after properly, the coppice stool will happily regenerate again, to repeat its delightful feat, sometimes for hundreds of years.
Until about 1920 coppicing was an important industry all over Europe, and beyond. It employed many thousands of people, directly and indirectly. Since the invention of man- made substitutes, like plastic, coppicing has been in decline, and in the UK it almost disappeared in the mid twentieth century. Fortunately several group of enthusiasts got together and from the 1980s onwards the craft (with many allied heritage crafts) has started to recover, although the number coppicers making their living from their skills (in 2020) is still believed to be less than 100. Several hundred more work part-time in the industry, including myself. It is gratifying to see a number of highly motivated and highly skilled younger coppicers now coming into the craft.
Isn’t cutting down trees a bad thing to do? Surely the earth needs more trees?
Cutting down trees and not replacing them seems like a very bad idea. Coppice managers allow their trees to regrow from the old roots, and replace any stools that might die. As long as the trees are cut correctly, and in a planned rotation, the number and diversity of plants and and wildlife in the woodland will improve. Man has been coppicing woodlands for nearly 7,000 years, and as long as we are not too greedy, coppices can sustain and improve biodiversity going forward. A very pleasant additional feature is that everyone seems to enjoy working and relaxing in a well-maintained coppice wood. Significant physical and mental health benefits have now been officially recognised. Most coppice managers seek to share the benefits of their woods with others.
For more information about coppicing and allied crafts, try the following websites:
http://www.bodgers.org.uk – The Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Woodworkers
http://www.ncfed.org.uk – The National Coppice Federation
Both these organisations have local groups, and all are pleased to see new faces. Go along to a meeting to see what they do. There are quite a few other groups as well, from basketry to black smithing. Many of us belong to several groups, depending upon our particular interests.