Coppicing in Hatfield Forest
Coppicing is an ancient technique used to manage woodland, to ensure a continuous supply of fire wood. The forest is divided up into compartments which are then cut down in rotation.
This involves cutting trees to their base, to create a so-called stool, from which new growth will emerge.
Protecting the young shoots
In the first year or two, the new shoots are young and tender. They are vulnerable to being nibbled by deer and rabbits, so need protecting if they are to survive and flourish.
Traditionally, this was done by building a dead hedge around the coppice, using materials from the coppicing. The hedge would eventually decay, but by then, the stools would no longer need protecting.
In Hatfield Forest, the coppices are each surrounded by an earth bank. The hedge would have been built on top of this this.
A more modern practice is to enclose the coppice with high deer proof fencing. Three compartments in Beggarshall Coppice have recently been enclosed (2017), in preparation for coppicing.
We have also taken the precaution of including tunnels under the fencing, to allow free movement of badgers. The tunnels have a bend, to prevent mischievous muntjacs trying to take advantage of this easy access.
Coppicing opens up the forest floor and bramble thicket quickly takes over. Whilst it is not particularly attractive, ecologically it is very important.
The brambles provide an excellent nesting habitiat for birds and should attract a wider range of species. In Emblems Coppice, where we have cleared a softwood plantation and allowed bramble to grow back, followed by young shrub, we have heard nightingales for the first time in over 50 years.
Bramble is also a great source of nectar for butterflies and insecs. Blackberries support a host of wildlife.
Once the overstorey (taller tree species) outgrows the bramble thicket, they shade it out and it dies of, so that the wood becomes more open again.
With a coppice in full rotation, there will be a range of habitats, enhancing the biodiversity of the wood.
The brash (waste branches) can be chipped into mulch or stacked to create habitiat piles. These attract nesting birds and provide a good substitute for bramble thicket.
The cut down wood, known as cord wood, is then cut into 2m lengths and left in piles to dry for at least two years, before being removed for use as firewood. Particularly straight pieces are used for hurdles or bean poles. The cord wood is not big enough to be used in construction or for furniture - this comes from the felling of so-called standard trees.
Mature coppiced trees are easily recognisable - a multitude of thin trunks growing from the base of the tree. Coppicing also opens up space, including the forest canopy, letting in much more light.
18 year cycle
Coppicing was traditionally carried out on an 18 year cycle. An area of woodland was divided up into a number of smaller compartments which were then worked in rotation - the coppices. Each of the coppices was protected for the first nine years of regrowth.
Pollarding is an alternative technique for tree management.
The tree is cut higher up, so that regrowth would be beyond the reach of grazing animals. Pollarded trees could thus be in the open plain, unlike coppiced trees which need to be in protected areas.