Return to the Coppice – by Richard Knowles
With spring well and truly sprung, the season for cutting coppice is over and attention turns to the many items that were, and still are, produced from a coppice woodland.
Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management that involves cutting the same stump (or ‘stool’) near to ground level every seven to 12 years and allowing the shoots to regrow. Coppicing is a highly effective and sustainable method of producing a great deal of fast-growing timber without the need to replant. The ability of native broad-leaved trees to coppice has greatly influenced British woodland from prehistoric times. The wood that is cut is called ‘underwood’ and is used for many purposes, depending on the tree type.
For thousands of years, the walls of houses were often made of coppiced rods from trees such as hazel, woven into a ‘wattle’ and covered with ‘daub’ (a mixture of mud, clay, straw and animal dung). Portable woven hazel panels (‘hurdles’) were used by shepherds to make pens for sheep. Versions of these are still made and are popular with gardeners seeking a more natural type of fencing.
A coppice woodland would have been something like a cross between a hardware store and a DIY warehouse and the products from a coppice provided many of the items used for daily life.
Nothing was wasted. What couldn’t be used in its natural state would be turned into charcoal for cooking or smelting metal.
A single coppice stool could provide dozens of useful straight rods and the twiggy growth at the top would be useful for plant supports or for bundling up for kindling. These kindling bundles were, depending on their size, called ‘pimps’ or ‘faggots’. Larger faggots, called bavins, are still used for soft engineering works to stabilise river banks and prevent erosion.
Coppicers would make a range of devices to assist in the creation of coppice products, particularly those that involved splitting the wood down the grain (“cleaving”). Mainly these devices were for holding/gripping an item while it was being worked.
Sometimes local blacksmiths would produce something in metal for a similar purpose.
Coppicers would adapt what they produced to suit local needs and changing markets through the year. Cutting coppice when the woodland was dormant through the late autumn and winter gave them enough material to lay hedges and make what the shepherds and gardeners needed in the spring. Through the summer they would make ‘treen’ (wooden items for the household), tool handles – and produce charcoal.
Nowadays, although there is still a steady market for garden products, such as beanpoles and pea sticks, coppicers need to adapt what they produce to suit modern tastes and living.The natural branching habit and individual features of coppice wood can inspire ideas for lots of useful and attractive items. All with a rustic, timeless feel that can bring a little of the natural into a home full of high tech gadgetry.
So, if you come across a coppicer at one of the Island’s shows or fairs this year, do take a look at what he or she is demonstrating and, even better, buy something locally produced and help to keep this ancient form of woodland management not only alive, but thriving.
The newly formed Isle of Wight Coppice Group aims to bring together all those with an interest in coppicing and sustainable woodland management. They can be found on @iowcoppicegroup on Facebook.