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What is coppicing?

Coppiced beech trees at Low Scrubs
Coppiced beech trees at Low Scrubs, Buckinghamshire | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Coppicing is an ancient woodland management technique that was once used to ensure a regular supply of timber and firewood. Today, we use it at many of the places we care for to create a range of habitats for plants and wildlife – dramatically increasing the diversity of species that thrive in these areas.

What is coppicing?

Coppicing is a traditional woodland management technique that dates back to the Stone Age. It involves felling trees at their base to create a ‘stool’ where new shoots will grow.

You can recognise a coppiced tree by the many thin trunks or ‘poles’ at its base. Most tree species can be coppiced but the best suited of our native trees are hazel, sweet chestnut, ash and lime.

What's it for?

Coppicing was originally used to ensure a regular source of firewood and timber. Traditionally, the long straight poles produced by coppicing would have been used for fencing, building and in the garden as bean poles.

These days, coppicing is primarily a way of improving the health and biodiversity of a woodland area by opening it up to the sunlight and allowing a wider range of plants to flourish. But the coppiced wood doesn’t go to waste at the places in our care – some is still dried as firewood and we sometimes use it to make fences, benches, stiles and stakes for hedge laying.

Ranger coppicing at Hindhead, Surrey Hills
Ranger coppicing at Hindhead, Surrey Hills | © National Trust Images/John Millar

How coppicing works

Coppice woodlands are often divided into sections called coupes or cants, which are then cut ‘on rotation’. The trees in one coupe are harvested for their timber in one year and those in the next coupe are harvested the next year, and so on, until the process comes back to the first coupe.

The coppice cycle

The length of the rotation cycle for a coppice depends on the type of tree and how long it takes to produce poles of a suitable size and length. Hazel is usually coppiced on an eight-year cycle, while chestnut has a cycle of 15 to 20 years.

Protecting the young shoots

In the first year or two after a tree is coppiced, the young, tender shoots are vulnerable to being nibbled by deer and rabbits, so they need to be protected. Traditionally, this was done by building a ‘dead hedge’ around the coppice using pruning material from the coppicing.

A more modern practice is to enclose the coppice with high deer-proof fencing. In Hatfield Forest in Essex, the coppices are each surrounded by an earth bank. In Smallcombe Wood, near Bath, you may notice little stick teepees protecting the trees that have been cut this year.

Primroses in old hazel coppice at Ashcombe Bottom, Saddlescombe Farm Estate, South Downs, East Sussex
Primroses in old hazel coppice at Ashcombe Bottom, South Downs, East Sussex | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

How coppicing helps wildlife

While there's less demand for coppice timber than there once was, we continue to practise coppicing at many of the places we care for because of its benefits to wildlife and to the trees themselves. Trees naturally retrench – shedding their branches to extend their lifespan – and coppicing can be an excellent way of simulating this to increase the lifespan of the tree.

Coppicing also mimics a natural process where large mature trees fall due to old age or strong winds, allowing light to reach the woodland floor and giving other plant species the opportunity to thrive. This can start a chain of events that hugely increases the range of plants and wildlife in a woodland area.

An explosion of life

After lying dormant and deprived of sunshine, ground plants such as bluebells, wood anemones and marsh marigolds burst into bloom. After a few years, brambles and climbing plants such as honeysuckle take over. Many of these species are food sources for butterflies and other insects, which in turn provide food for birds, bats and other mammals.

A range of habitats

While waiting for brambles to grow, the waste branches from coppicing – known as the brash – can be chipped into mulch or stacked to create habitat piles. These provide a good substitute for bramble thicket and attract nesting birds. Eventuallly, the overstorey – the taller tree species – outgrows the bramble thicket once more, blocking out its light. The brambles die off and the wood becomes more open again.

With a coppice in full rotation, there will be a range of habitats, increasing the biodiversity of the wood.

Rare species

By creating and maintaining this range of habitats, coppicing can help to provide a home for endangered or declining species. Dormice in particular depend on the diverse type of woodland created by coppicing, which results in a dense understory – the layer of vegetation below the main canopy. Dormice are naturally arboreal, or 'tree-living', and the understory provides them not just with food and shelter but also a safe way to travel through woodland without setting foot on the ground.

In Emblems Coppice in Hatfield Forest, we've cleared a softwood plantation and allowed bramble and young shrubs to grow back. You can now hear nightingales singing here for the first time in more than 50 years.

The Winter Garden at Mottisfont, Hampshire

Trees and plants

We care for 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) of woodland, 135 wild landscape sites and more than 200 gardens, and have as many wonderful stories to tell.

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