‘Does everybody know what coppicing is,’ Anna, from the Forest of Avon Trust, asked. The ten people facing her replied with complete silence in spite of most of the group knowing very well what it involved.
‘Well, in case someone is not sure, coppicing is a traditional management of woodlands,’ she began to explain. And I was glad she had chosen to. When signing up to volunteer my time to do some coppicing in Stockwood Open Space, I had only a vague idea of what it was. I had heard of it, and I knew the reasons behind it but I was very unclear about the details. I wasn’t even sure of the correct pronunciation of the word, having only ever read it.
‘We cut down young trees to ground level. This doesn’t kill them. They will regrow. What it does is allow us to harvest the wood, and manage the growth of trees in woodlands. We do it in rotation so different areas of woodlands are at a different stage of growth, providing a rich variety of habitats for invertebrates, birds, and other species.’
I nodded, my vague notion of the term a little more concrete. Anna carried on talking about the growth cycle of woods before turning our attention to the tools and methods of coppicing. There were pruning saws, bow saws, billhooks, gloves, and hard hats. We were drilled through the safe use of all the instruments, paired up, and sent to work.
The group spread naturally through the areas and without further ado we began to saw the wood. I watched my partner cut effortlessly through small stumps and began imitating his gestures, pretending I had a vague idea of what I was doing. We pruned one tree, the stump and branches laid carefully to one side for later use. Moving to the next tree, I glanced at it and said ‘Should we start with the smaller surrounding shoots before tackling that bigger one?’ It was the obvious thing to do and didn’t need speaking about. But by voicing it, I felt like I was in control of the situation. I knew what I was doing now. There are many things I don’t know about coppicing, but the vague notion I had at the start of the day, had turned into something I understood and could explain to others.
We carried one sawing, taking turn with the bow saw for the bigger stumps. Around us, the wood cracked and fell, the mud cushioned our steps, and Anna’s voice distilled advice and knowledge gained through years of work. She weaved her way between us, keeping a watchful eye on our gestures and collecting branches for the kettle she had brought.
Slowly the ancient smell of burning twigs filled the air and we gathered around the fire for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Conversations flowed easily, drifting away from woodlands and back to it as Anna told us we would build a hedge after lunch. The smaller branches we had cut down would be laid down between larger stumps to create a habitat for invertebrates. Ten people weren’t needed to construct the hedge so most people went back to their trees, finishing what they had began. But my partner and I had run out of trees to coppice, so we set out to gather the felled wood from the others to feed the hedge. Branches were laid down, more hands came to join us, and soon our wooden wall was taking shape and expanding fast. We had built a hedge.
Taking a step back, I took it in. This had been a day’s work with ten volunteers. I could only imagine how long those tasks would take for a whole woodland. But then, we hadn’t used power tools, we had chatted a lot, and we had taken our time. But it had been good and expanded my skills and knowledge of trees. I smiled as I noticed other members of the group taking photos of the hedge. They too were proud of the work we had achieved.
Anna lingered for a while longer, answering our last questions before we all parted way, half of us carrying some of our work home for fire or whittling.