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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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’!

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