The Dynamic Heritage of Woodland Management: Destruction, Renewal and the Art of Coppicing

In February, I spent a day on a coppicing course in the Cotswold Hills, with Cotswold Rural Skills. Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management, which involves the chopping down of trees close to ground level for the extraction of timber and in order to encourage new growth. It requires a delicate balance; leaving around 15% of the canopy, and should be done on a rotation (about every 7-15 years), depending on the wood. A well-managed coppice has a slightly open feel to it, and is a haven for wildlife and a diversity of flora, insect life and fungus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The practice can be seen as one of the key elements of intangible woodland heritage; one that celebrates the lives and skills of woodland workers, craftsmen and charcoal makers. As such, it is a key element of the long-term curatorship of the countryside in Britain (as well as in much of NW Europe). Many of the ‘ancient woodlands’ owe their longevity and upkeep to the practice of coppicing, with its language of coupes, standards and stools, and specialist equipment of bow saws, loppers and characteristic billhook.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our trainer was Simon who, as well as passing on some basic skills of coppicing and billhook work, including splicing and directional felling, also told us about some of the history as well as the environmental context of coppice work. In most ancient woodlands in southern England and Wales, coppicing was done regularly up until the Second World War, and in some areas into the 1960s.

This knowledge made me reflect on my childhood reminiscences of woodlands in the 1970s and early 80s – that perhaps woodlands really were ‘darker places’ in the memory of youth; a very full canopy allowing very little to grow on the woodland floor of what, in my youth, I thought of as a ‘natural ancient woodland’, but which was, in fact, a poorly managed coppice! I remember that many of the trees had multiple trunks coming up from the ground, but what I only now realize is that these were overgrown coppice stools, probably untouched for 40+ years. The darkness and strange woodland shapes that provided a sense of romantic mystery were ghosts of an ancient activity that had maintained the woodlands for previous generations; traces of human endeavor and injenuity.

In my memory, the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1987 in southern England was a ‘destructive force’ that threatened the very existence of the woodlands. But in opening up the canopy and ‘extracting’ many of the older trees, perhaps the Storm should be seen as a prompt towards heritage action. Mistakes were certainly made following the 1987 storm, as some ground was cleared, dead wood removed, and woodlands re-planted with plastic-wrapped saplings in rows. But the increased biodiversity and richness of flora and fauna in the ‘devastated areas’ can also call attention to the benefits of coppicing and the paradox that it encompasses – that the healthy maintenance and longevity of a woodland requires regular destruction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is a strange mix of sensations in felling a tree. On the one hand, there is a pang of guilt, as you cut through the living bough and the feeling that one shouldn’t be ‘killing’ such a mighty being; an organism that is probably older than I am and will be here after I am long gone. But of course, the knowledge that ‘death’ is not straightforward, and that the tree will recover and live for many decades helps to ease the worry – and, to be honest, the dramatic energy and sense of satisfaction as the trunk topples towards the ground is irresistible! There is almost a sense of electricity in the air as the ‘crack-crack-crack’ is followed by a moment’s silence before the crash of branches on the ground.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

During the afternoon of the course, I felled four trees all on my own. My first effort was a fairly small tree, which was already leaning at a fairly good angle, so as to make the direction of fall very clear and un-risky. Even a novice couldn’t go wrong here! And I was very pleased with the outcome; the ‘gob’ was cut precisely, and the back-cut allowed a nicely-sized ‘hinge’ to work in the favour of a very clear direction of fall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I moved on to a second, which worked in similar fashion. Then a third; slightly bigger and in a more difficult situation and angle. I concentrated hard; got some advice from Simon, and over it went. Simon and trainer inspected it, and said it was the ‘best of the afternoon so far’ – and I glowed with more than just sweat and hard work! I was now a very small part of the intangible heritage of woodland craft – and act of ‘creative destruction’.

Perhaps it was the kind words of encouragement from Simon, the trainer, which led me onwards – towards tackling a much bigger tree? Anyway, I made a hash of it! … it didn’t kill anyone, but my back-cut went awry and the ‘hinge’ actually cracked completely wrongly, and so it was absolutely down to luck, rather than judgment, that it actually fell (roughly) in the right direction. It left an embarrassingly bad stump of torn wood and a wonky cut … long-lasting evidence of a piece of shoddy woodland heritage craft practice!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oh dear!

But all was not lost: The official ‘Deadwood Code of Practice’, tells us that we should “LEAVE broken or shattered branches, they are far better habitat than straight cuts and encourage decay”.

So: what I thought was a terrible piece of woodland heritage skill, turns out to be an ‘expert’ piece of heritage management! … with hindsight, perhaps I could claim that I was just showing off – balancing a nice straight cut that reflected my newly learnt heritage skills, with a purposefully broken effort, to encourage decay and biodiversity?!

More seriously, I feel that the wider world of heritage management could learn a thing or two from coppicing. Good coppice work has very little to do with traditional ideas of ‘preservation’ – it is all about process and dynamism…. Material ‘heritage’ must be destroyed – in order to conserve the dynamic context of a world-in-being. As with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, the (creative) forces and processes of destruction are required for heritage value to be realized – only with coppicing, the processes of destruction are very much human-made, and reflect a heritage of skill and know-how (plus a bit of serendipity!).

Rodney Harrison (among others) has been recently pondering on the necessity for what he calls the ‘decommissioning of heritage’. As a society, we are laden down with a surfeit of heritage; what on earth can we do with it? How can we get rid of it – suffocating under a burden of material pastness? Well, I think woodland management practice has a partial answer to these quandaries – coppicing is all about ‘decommissioning’!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Preserving the heritage of heritage: heritage ruins, or ruined heritage?

In his book ‘Heritage: Critical Approaches’ (2013), Rodney Harrison calls for society to take more consideration of how we can de-commission ‘heritage’. Arguing that ‘we live in a world in which heritage is ubiquitous’ Harrison is concerned with all the piling up of heterogeneous items, traces and practices of the past in the present. Connecting this to the contemporary value systems that govern conservation agendas, he suggests that we are at risk of being ‘overwhelmed by memory’. This is very dramatic language, but perhaps we do need to think about how we can ‘prune’ some elements of heritage? There is, perhaps, too much of it about – but how should we make decisions?

This issue can be approached from at least two perspectives: First, as Harrison himself notes, we should recognise that (drawing on Mark Augé) forgetting is a necessary form of cultural production. So that while we might place a lot of emphasis on remembering and memorialising events and phenomena that have ‘social value’, we should not necessarily be sad or worry about to forgetting things that are ‘irrelevant’. In other words, we need to think sustainably and sensibly about the pasts we produce in the present for the future. Of course, this decision-making process should not be focussed on preserving and protecting ‘the best examples’, but by recognising and thinking about issues of power and equality. And this leads me to consider the second approach towards deciding what sort of heritage to maintain and what to let go – allowing ‘the market’ to decide.

Allowing ‘the market’ to decide what is preserved and protected seems to be an increasingly common method of dealing with the issue; and one which is an honest reflection of the Neoliberal world that we live in, whether you agree with the outcome or not.

There are many heritage centres and museums that are cutting their work force, opening hours and attractions, and are increasingly reliant on voluntary labour. Having gone through a period of ‘expansion’, as Heritage Lottery Funds, EU monies and other State-led grants allowed for a relatively positive environment for the celebration and marking of all sorts of heritage, we are now in an era of austerity.

As ‘austerity’ kicks in, the ‘market-led’ approach to preservation decisions is something that is increasingly clear. Optimistic visitor projections have come back to haunt several sites, leading to an increasing category of ‘ex-heritage sites’, representative of a sort of ‘heritage of austerity’; the heritage of decaying heritage; obsolete, due to market pressures. This is certainly something that crossed my mind last week when I visited the Minions Mine Heritage Centre, in the small village on Minions, high up on Bodmin Moor.

P3064107

Although the website reported that it should be open at 10am, the site was boarded up and clearly closed when we visited. A plaque on the wall celebrated the building of the original mine engine house in 1881 (at a time when the Cornish mining industry was already in decline); and its refurbishment in 1991, with a grant from the Rural Development Commission. I checked up on further websites when I got home, however, and found that the closure is only temporary – brought on by the need to replace some rotten lintels, it should be open by the Summer.

While this heritage centre was not permanently closed, however, the situation still turns our attention towards the wider issue of how to deal with the ‘heritage of heritage’: the recognition that heritage-related decisions, processes and practices, themselves, have a recognisable ‘heritage’.

In 1997, The Archaeolink Prehistory Park at Oyne, in Aberdeenshire, was hailed as a flagship attraction. Aberdeenshire Council was forced to take control of the prehistory park in 2005 after spending £1.5 million of taxpayers’ money in a bid to keep the centre afloat as its visitor numbers, originally projected at 100,000 a year, plunged to just over 19,000. The park finally closed its doors in February, 2011. (See article in the Scotsman for details: http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/aberdeenshire-council-to-pull-plug-on-archaeolink-1-2948032). There are a few blog sites that have recorded the slow demise of this heritage theme park: for instance, see the ‘Heritagelandscapecreativity’ blog for August 2013, which has some excellent photos: (https://heritagelandscapecreativity.wordpress.com/tag/archaeolink-prehistory-park/).

open-door

In many ways, this now corresponds to an exploration of the ‘heritage’ of the early 21st century ‘heritage industry’; one that reflects both the choices and funding regimes that permitted the park to open in the late 1990s, as well as the political-economic context that faces such heritage sites today. It strikes me that this ‘heritage of austerity’ is not something that should be swept under the carpet, in an attempt to air-brush out the political decisions that are being made about what is deemed fundable. And it should also be challenged, in a manner that goes beyond the slightly ironic – slightly dramatic realms of ‘urban exploration’ at such sites. Once more, we must be prompted to look towards issues of power and equality – in how sites get funded; what sorts of heritage get chosen to be preserved in a state of ‘managed obsolescence’ as a ‘heritage-ruin’ – or abandoned to become ‘ruined heritage’ of an obsolete past.