What is coppicing?

by | Feb 17, 2020 |

Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that involves repetitive felling on the same stump, near to the ground, allowing the shoots to regrow: this provides a valuable supply of small-wood or underwood (for fencing, wattle, charcoal, furniture, crafts and other uses – even making coracles) and a variety of habitats for wildlife. Coppice stools consist of the roots and stumps which give rise to the coppice shoots, usually known as rods or poles. Its history can be traced back to Neolithic times with the Sweet Track, a causeway in the Somerset Levels, shown to have been built from coppiced wood in about 3800 BC.

The part of a woodland coppiced is called a coup(e) or depending on locality, a sale, fell, cant, panel or burrow which may be useful to know for local history with regards to place name derivations or the history of woodland management within a specific area. The coupes (their number being equal to the number of years in the cycle) are cut on a rotation of 5 – 30 years depending on the species and product required. Historically, coupes were usually on south-facing slopes with the cuts made, as far as possible, to face south as well to aid drying. The regrowth can be surprisingly fast at about 5cm a day and Oak can grow 2 metres in a season. Coppice is best cut during the dormant winter period: the absence of foliage makes working easier, the bark is less likely to tear and new shoots are likely to grow better.

‘Cut not above half a foot from the ground. Nay the closer, the better, and that to the south, slopewise’ – John Evelyn (seventeenth-century silviculturalist and author of ‘Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees’).

This is a traditional method – the advice hasn’t changed. It is worth noting that one of the first recorded silvicultural experiments in Britain was at Hopewell in Flintshire in 1351: it was to determine the best height to cut coppice stools.

‘By the statute, men were bound to enclose coppices after felling’ – John Evelyn


Coppicing in progress

Protection of the stools from browsing is the most important practice in the management of coppice. Brash may be piled over stools but the protective value is uncertain and it may adversely affect the straightness of the shoots. To minimise browsing damage it is best to cut large coupes – between one and seven acres seems to have been the norm – and either construct a tall and wide dead hedge around the boundary (deer won’t usually jump over a hedge if they cannot see what is on the other side) and / or leave all branch wood and lop and top where it falls in order to deter deer.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of coppice. Simple-coppice is where the crop is clear-felled to give even-aged stands which may be of a single species such as Sweet Chestnut, Hazel or Hornbeam. Chestnut was used for fencing, Hazel was used for thatching, hedge-laying spars and hurdle-making and Hornbeam was used for charcoal.

Mixed coppice is a system using several different species managed for a variety of products and often leads to greater biodiversity. The woods may contain, for example, Hazel, Birch, Willow, Ash, Hawthorn and Alder. Finally, coppice-with-standards is a system in which selected stems are retained (for species, age and form) at each felling to form an uneven-aged over-storey of standards which need to be well-spaced so as not to shade the underwood. These are subsequently felled on rotation and used for beams, planks and larger-scale constructions. This gives the distinction between timber – trunks large enough to saw, and wood – poles, rods and branches. We talk of timber-framed buildings and wood-burning stoves…

Dead hedge to protect the coup

Regrowth of coppiced trees

Coppicing has huge benefits for woodland biodiversity. The process creates small glades with the resulting increase in light levels leading to more ground flora with species such as native Bluebells, Wood Anenome and Dog Violets being able to flourish. With more wildflowers come more invertebrates like butterflies and other woodland pollinators. Also, Hazel coppice is particularly good for Dormice, one of Britain’s rarest mammals and as the coupe becomes older it develops into a dense area of scrub which is a fantastic habitat for low-cover nesting birds.

It is really important to note that coppicing does not deplete woodlands. The demands for charcoal and fuel did not lead to the decline of woodlands and woods that are not worked can become derelict with a permanent high canopy and decreased biodiversity.  Working in woods helps them.

‘The thesis that woods were destroyed by heavy industry cannot be sustained, on the contrary where there remained a big concentration of woodland, there is an industrial or urban use to account for its preservation. It was the ‘unexploited’ woods that disappeared from the map… Woodmanship is an ecological factor in its own right’ – Oliver Rackham.