Coppicing at Ightham Mote

A ranger using a chainsaw to coppice trees

Coppicing is an ancient woodland management technique that was once widespread across England. However, by the late 1800s it was not financially worthwhile and in many places it stopped. The reduction in coppiced woods means that many species of wildlife do not have suitable habitats where they can thrive.

Woodland that is left to its own devices becomes dark and bereft. With overgrown canopies and trees too close together, the sunlight cannot penetrate. Wildflowers refuse to grow and the woodland becomes a dense brown mass. The wildlife that need the sunlight and flowers to live, move on. As they move on, so do the animals that live on them. It’s a cycle that impacts across the food chain. By coppicing, we regenerate the woodland, enabling flora and fauna to thrive.

 

What is coppicing?

Coppicing in a traditional woodland management technique dating back centuries. By cutting trees at their base to create a ‘stool’, we can exploit the ability of our native trees and shrubs to produce new shoots, and extend the life of the trees. Most tree species will coppice, but the best suited are hazel, sweet chestnut, ash and lime.

In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to produce new growth. We protect the new shoots for the first couple of years from being nibbled by rabbits and deer, before the trees start to flourish again. You can recognise a coppiced tree by the multitude of thin trunks growing from the base of the tree.

 

Benefit to wildlife

After lying dormant in the ground, shielded from the sun, ground layer plants such as bluebells, wood anemone, and marsh marigold lap up the sunshine and burst into bloom. After a few years, brambles and climbing plants such as honeysuckle take over, which are a great source of food and shelter for many birds and mammals. Coppicing mimics a natural process where large mature trees fall due to old age or wind blow, allowing light to reach the woodland floor and the opportunity for other species to thrive.

Dormice in particular depend on the diverse type of woodland created by coppicing which results in a dense understory, providing bountiful food, shelter and a structure for them to travel through the woodlands by. As they are almost exclusively ‘arboreal’ (living in trees) travellers, they avoid setting foot on the ground at all costs.

 

But we're cutting down all these trees?

It can look very dramatic, however we have not cut down any of the old veteran, ancient or protected trees as part of the rolling coppicing programme. Occasionally it is necessary to fell an isolated older tree due to disease or safety, however this is not part of the coppicing we undertake.

The coppicing is purely focused on the new growth on a rotation basis, with the clearance of scrub in the process, allowing more light in to the woodland floor. The wood you see stacked up afterwards will then be gradually reused to create fences, posts, benches, stiles or wildlife rich log piles around the wider estate.