Coppicing at Chartwell

Chartwell rangers using a chainsaw to coppice at Chartwell

Coppicing is one of the many ways we look after our woodland here at Chartwell, using the ancient technique to encourage lost habitats back and helping us to support a much wider diversity of nature.

What is Coppicing?

As you’re walking through the woodlands at Chartwell by following the Chartwell estate walk, you may come across several clearings where we are coppicing.

The practice of coppicing can be traced back to Neolithic times and refers to deliberate felling of trees, with sprouts then growing from the cut stump (known as a stool). This process can be carried out over and over again and is sustainable over several hundred years. With each cut, the stool gets larger in diameter with more new sprouts occurring each time. This also provides a sustainable supply of wood for a variety of products and uses.

A coppice wood or ‘copse’ is usually divided into large sections known as ‘cants’ or ‘coupes’, with one section cut at a time. The time between cuttings can vary depending on the intended use of the wood, but needs to be regularly carried out so that there are always some open areas.

This continuous cycle of thinning and clearance followed by regrowth creates a varied understory in the woodland, allowing a mosaic of different habitats to form. The warmth and light that can now reach the woodland floor through this process helps to encourage new plant growth and insect activity.

When a copse falls out of regular cutting, this is known as ‘overstood’ or ‘lapsed’.  These old trees can then fail due to the increased weight and growth without this necessary management taking place.

Supporting nature

These days, a greater number of species can be found living in the first 10 metres in from a woodland edge, opening (glade), or path edge than inhabit the rest of the woodland. Selective thinning of unmanaged woodland can therefore seek to improve light and warmth levels, proving extremely beneficial and in some cases, essential for woodland biodiversity.

These methods create varied habitats for nature to thrive in, with different types of animal preferring different elements of the woodland edges. Some species prefer the tops of trees, whereas others find safety in foliage lower to the ground, or indeed on the woodland floor.

Here at Chartwell, using material gained from coppicing, we create different layers of habitat along the edges of the pathways, such as piling up some of the branches and leaves to create ‘dead hedges’. These areas are fantastic for small mammals such as wood mice, bank voles and hedgehogs, with the density providing safety.

Different birds also prefer different habitats in the woods. Some species such as wrens and robins spend a lot of their time close to the floor, even nesting in low lying hedges and on the ground. Song thrush and blackbirds, however, prefer to be a bit higher up.

Soon, plants too will also grow up amongst these ‘dead hedges’, with honeysuckle, bramble and travellers joy soon found amongst them – and are all fantastic sources of nectar. After these, then come an increase in invertebrates, with butterflies, moths, bees, wasps and more dragon and damsel flies – all in turn valuable pollinators themselves as well as providing a food source for further woodland creatures such as the woodland bat.

By managing woodland and successfully creating interesting woodland edges via coppicing, we can therefore help all these different types of wildlife thrive here at Chartwell.

Chestnut coppicing at Chartwell

The Chartwell estate has 25 acres of woodland, 5 acres of which is Sweet Chestnut.

It is likely that this would have originally been planted to provide the house and cottages with a continued source of firewood, charcoal, poles for growing hops and other necessary projects requiring wood, such as for fencing.

Since the demand for wood products declined and the keeping and grazing of animals became more intensive and centralised, these traditional management techniques such as copping have fallen out of use and our woods have become dense, dark, overgrown places of few species.

The copse at Chartwell is overstood and before work recently restarted to manage the woodland better, had not been regularly cut for over 30 years.

All the collected wood from the coppicing is gathered up ready to be used across the estate
Logs from chestnut coppicing out in the Chartwell woodland
All the collected wood from the coppicing is gathered up ready to be used across the estate

At Chartwell, our ranger teams have recently re-surveyed the area, mapped and divided it into 10 coupes. Each year one gets cut on rotation and winter 2019/20 saw us on our sixth coupe, taking us over the half way mark.

The timber from the coppicing is then processed and some of it is being used back on site for a range of different projects such as fencing that you may see up all around the estate.

Work traditionally takes place during the winter – October to the end of March – so that we can reduce the impact on the nature already living in our woodland such as nesting birds.

It may look drastic but coppicing is essential conservation work in order for some of our best loved woodland wildlife to survive.

The process of woodchipping, one gardener carries logs to be chopped and another feeds a log into the wood chipper

Wood chipping

One use for the coppiced wood is to be brought down to the wood chipper. The larger tree trunks and branches are first halved or quartered into smaller pieces, before being fed into a wood chipper. Afterwards, the chip is used throughout the gardens, forming paths or in the chicken coop, ensuring nothing goes to waste.