Managing a hazel coppice

Bluebells in flower in a recently coppiced hazel coupe

Coppicing is a woodland management technique that was once widespread throughout England; but by the late 1800s harvesting timber from coppices was not financially worthwhile. Now, only a fraction of our previously coppiced woods are actively managed in this way. This means that many species of wildlife do not have suitable habitats where they can live and thrive.

What is a coppice?

Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management which takes advantage of the fact that many trees make new growth from the stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood young tree stems are repeatedly cut down near ground level and the new growth used for traditional woodland products such as fencing stakes and ‘heatherings’, the binders used along the top of laid hedges are produced in a hazel coppice.  Most tree species will coppice but those best suited are hazel, sweet chestnut, ash and lime.

When managed in this way, the age of a tree can be extended, creating a self-renewing source of timber. Active coppice woodlands are often divided into parcels called coupes (pronounced coop) or cants, which are then cut ‘on rotation’. This means a timber crop can be reliably harvested on a regular basis. 

A range of diiferent sized hazel coppice products
A range of diiferent sized hazel coppice products

Witley copse was an example of a neglected woodland. For 100 years it was out of rotation and the woods were left to grow unchecked and unmanaged. When left untouched, woodlands follow a similar pattern; a dense canopy of taller trees will develop, shading out any under growth and other plants which may grow on the woodland floor. 
Coppicing woodland prevents over-shading from the canopy, great for ground layer plants such as bluebells, wood anemone, germander speedwell, marsh marigold and violets. 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) travelers, they avoid setting foot on the ground at all costs.  

Coppicing in nutshell…
With chainsaws in hand, the Ranger team set about cutting the understory, removing all the hazel stems. These are then processed and sorted according to size.  

A Ranger coppicing an old ash stool
A Ranger coppicing an old ash stool

As Witley Copse was unmanaged for several years a number of large “standard” trees, mainly oaks were allowed to grow up, casting too much shade over the coupes. Some have been selected and removed to improve light conditions at ground level. Once the products have been extracted, they are used in various conservation projects across the estate such as hedgelaying, charcoal making or construction.  Finally the area is fenced off to stop deer from browsing the vulnerable new coppice shoots. The coupe will then be left to regrow for 12 – 14 years before it is cut again.