Coppicing the Hedge

A huge tree casting a lot of shade

A huge tree casting a lot of shade – and it’s supposed to be a hedge!

Over the past three weekends, we have been working on a very overgrown hedge between Alvecote Wood and Betty’s Wood. In particular we have been working on several very large holly trees, about 40 feet/15 metres high. These had been cut about 30 years ago, but the hedge has not been maintained since then. In consequence these trees have grown huge, and were cutting out a lot of light on the southern boundary of the wood. Behind the trees was some poor sycamore scrub and some bramble. We tried to get hazel established here, but it was just too dark. Nothing would grow.

So this year we decided to coppice back this holly hedge, removing three enormous holly trees (some with up to eight stems each), a couple of sycamore, hazel and hawthorn to open this area up and let in light.

We have also cleared the bramble, and plan to plant this area up with some hazel, birch and cherry, and also encourage oak seedlings to grow between these trees.

The photos tell the story: before, during and after.

There are also two videos showing how Stephen felled a particularly awkward twin-stem holly.

Felling the large holly

Felling the large holly

After, hedge is coppiced and a lot of light coming in

After, hedge is coppiced and a lot of light coming in

Shows the light coming into the area

Shows the light coming into the area

Apologies that the first clip of this video is out of focus.

Coppicing

This year's coppice

This year’s coppice showing the cut stems and large amount of light coming into the area

Coppicing is a traditional form of woodland management.  It seems counter-intuitive to cut down trees when you are trying to preserve ancient woodland but this is exactly what is needed.

First of all, a lot of species do not live very long unless they are coppiced.  By coppicing I mean cutting the tree down to allow it to sprout again from the base.  Hazel, in particular, thrives upon coppicing, living many times longer if it is repeatedly cut and allowed to regrow than if it is just allowed to grow and decay.  Other coppice species include ash, sweet chestnut, sycamore (not in our ancient woodland!), oak, willow, birch and alder.  Shrubs such as hawthorn, crab apple, holly and elder also coppice well.  In fact most trees will coppice provided they are not too old when cut, and provided the stems are protected from browsing while they are regrowing.

Our great ancient oak trees are not suitable for coppicing, but a relatively large area of our woodland has young, scrubby trees growing fast and crowding out each other and the light.  It also has an un-managed hedge boundary between the main woods and Betty’s Wood that can be revived by coppicing.

We started coppicing in 2009-10, cutting an area of predominantly willow, hawthorn, oak and a bit of hazel.  Since then we have extended the coppice area.

The photos here show a sequence:  the top photo is what an area is like when it has first been cut.  It looks bleak and empty, but it is not.  The key thing is that we have let in a lot of light to the area and this will stimulate both regrowth and regeneration.  At this stage we can do some targeted planting if we want to improve the diversity of the area.

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The next photo shows coppice that was cut 2 years ago.  It is regrowing quite strongly.  You can see we have protected the stumps (called coppice stools) using a combination of stock netting and chicken wire to prevent browsing of the new shoots by deer and rabbits.  This is essential – browsing can easily kill a regenerating coppice stool.  You can also see that there is a lot more ground flora in this area. A lot of woodland plants rely on coppicing to thrive, coming up periodically in the cleared areas to benefit from the light.  As well as some bramble, we have a patch of violet in this area, and the bluebells are spreading into what was once a sterile piece of ground.  Finally, we get natural regeneration happening – willow and birch seedlings are thriving because they have access to light, and where they come up, we provide them with protection.

4 year coppice

Coppice cut 4 years ago showing strong re-growth

Above we have a piece of coppice that was cut four years ago.  The regrowth on the willow, in particular, is over 10 feet/3metres, and the poles are 3 to 5 cm diameter at the base.  The hawthorn and oak are regrowing more slowly and will be cut less frequently.  There are some young oak that we are leaving to grow up as specimen trees or “standards” in our “coppice-with-standards” system.  We have also done some planting to increase the amount of hazel and ash in this area.  The regrowth will result in us being able to cut it again at about 7 to 10 years, and thus have a sustainable source of wood for craft, habitat and firewood.

We do the work ourselves.  It is not always straightforward as you can see below with a sequence of photos from the past weekend.

Hooking up the winch

A difficult twin-stemmed holly needs winching down

This year we are, amongst other things, clearing a patch of holly.  This has been slowly invading the coppice area and the problem is that it cuts out the light, particularly in the spring, which holds back regeneration.  Holly springs back very quickly, usually from root suckers, so we are not destroying this patch of holly, just reviving it, and allowing the coppice to thrive too.  However coppice species often have multiple and quite inter-twined stems.  This particular holly was separated at the base, and had welded itself together higher up, which mean both stems had to be felled together.  The area was confined, and the holly got “hung-up” rather than falling straight down.  we had to set up a winch to roll the tree away from the branches that were holding it.

Setting up the winch

Setting up the winch

We were using another, larger tree as a winch point, and you can see in the foreground the log pile, a brash pile (leaves and smaller stems) and behind that a habitat pile.  About 1/3 to 1/2 the brash will be left as habitat piles for birds and mammals to nest in, and the rest will be chipped to provide a good, dry surface on our paths and they will eventually rot down.  The log pile will be used mainly for firewood but the straighter stems may be used for rustic furniture making and some green wood turning.  We select wood that has crevices and particularly wood that is already a little bit rotten for the habitat pile.  Very large logs usually come from fallen branches, and we use these as sitting logs around the woods, and they provide habitat as they gradually decay.

Felled holly tree

Felled holly tree

We finally managed to fell the large holly (about 40ft, 13 metres tall), and here it is on the ground.  The smaller stem is underneath slightly to the right and cannot be seen in this photo.

Felled holly

Felled holly showing just how much light is now coming in.

And here are the final results.  You can see just how much more light is being let in.  The ring of stumps around the large oak are all holly, and you can see just how much it was dominating the area.  We still have to cut the hazel in the hedge in the background, and then our coppice will be open to the sun and ready to regrow strongly.  There is a lovely standing dead tree in the background too, providing excellent habitat for wildlife.  We leave our standing deadwood as habitat, and have no plans to fell this old tree.

In future we will extend our coppice along Betty’s Wood boundary to refresh the boundary hedge.  We always leave joined-up canopies as a route for dormice (although we have no evidence that they are present despite a survey for them), and never fell old trees with holes and hollows that are good habitat for owls, bats and other creatures.  The younger trees, however, should respond very well and the whole woods should be rejuvenated.  The coppice only comprises about 1/5 of the woodland.  There are other areas and plenty of other habitats being managed in different ways.  We have some areas planted with young trees that will become coppice of the future in the ancient woodland and in Betty’s Wood which was planted in 2010-11.

Coppicing is part of the way in which we try to ensure that there is an excellent variety of habitats in our woods – we also have mature ancient trees, wood pasture, wildflower meadows, hedgerows, dead hedges, thickets, areas that will become continuous cover forestry, and wet woodland, as well as eleven ponds.  The wildlife has already responded and we hope to report more and more species making their homes in our woods in the future.