Thursday, January 16, 2014

Coppice!

A cleanly-cut stool with a ring of moss

Last week I cut the first section of coppice in the woodland. Having no experience of this before I employed the help of a friend who is a seasoned coppicer to see me through the first season and make sure I was doing things correctly.

What is coppicing? A lot of people are not familiar with this practice which has been employed for thousands of years in Britain and other temperate regions, so an explanation is in order. Coppicing is simply the act of cutting down certain species of hardwood trees, such as oak, hazel, chestnut and ash, while they are still young enough to regenerate. This is done in the winter, when the ‘life force’ of the trees has retreated down into the root systems. By cutting off the trunks at between 3 and 6 inches the tree stumps will start sprouting shoots when Spring returns. These shoots are then protected and allowed to grow, and in another 12 years I will be back to cut them off again - although next time there will be four or five stems instead of one.

When I first bought Fox Wood just over a year ago, it was an abandoned coppice wood with brambles growing everywhere and some of the trees in a derelict state. The woods were planted about 25 years ago when it was part of the local estate - the Trevarno Estate - which was a big local landowner with family ties stretching back hundreds of years. Locals say it used to be full of pheasants which ‘gentlemen’ would periodically come along and shoot as they were flushed out by drivers. The estate went bust and was sold to a Russian oligarch (so I’m told) and the small parcels of woodland were sold off to individual buyers. Fox Wood is about six acres, with a two acre field attached. You can see it shaded in blue of the Google map image below.

A view of Fox Wood from above
Work has not yet finished on the coppice this year. The next thing I need to do is make some tracks for a horse to pull the logs into the field. Until I know exactly what to do with the wood I need to keep the trunks as long as is reasonably possible. The maxim is ‘Keep it as long as you can for as long as you can’. If I cut it all into short lengths I might miss up the opportunity of selling it as building materials. A friend knows someone with a horse trained to extract wood, so hopefully I will be able to borrow it for a day.

Once the wood has been extracted then I need to surround the whole area with fencing. This will be quite a big job and pricey too. I have never seen a deer in the area but locals say there are a few muntjac (a small Chinese deer) roaming around. If a deer were to graze on the new shoots in the Spring then this would be disastrous and might result in the death of all the trees. Therefore deer fencing has to be erected.

Rabbits are another problem. There are hundreds of them in and around the woodland and so I will need to put up a rabbit-proof fence and dig it into the ground all around. Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop there: there are rabbits actually living inside the area that will be fenced off. Thus, I need to contact a local known as ‘the ferret man’. He will come over with his ferret and put it down the rabbit holes. The rabbits will then be chased out and into nets, where they will meet their end. I’m told he will accept payment in rabbits, so it won’t cost me anything.



Unfortunately, due to laws preventing people from living in the woods they manage it is necessary to erect high fences to protect the new coppice. In times past the woodlander would have been able to erect his bender within the coppice and thus keep away any deer, which have an acute sense of smell. I’m told they are scared off by the smell of human urine and so will be encouraging any people working in the woods to head to the boundary when they feel the call of nature.

The reason the coppice is cut in large sections is to let in light. If we were just to cut a few trees every here and there the canopy would soon close over the stumps and no light would be available for the new shoots. They would die. By cutting half an acre at a time light is allowed to flood in and all of the stumps can regenerate at the same rate. To most people it looks like environmental devastation - but in fact it is quite the opposite. The trees have been planted relatively close together to encourage them to compete for the light. This makes them grow straight, and it also makes them grow quickly.

The half acre has been clear cut to allow light in
The actual work of coppicing was done with chainsaws. In the right hands these are invaluable tools and can save a huge amount of time. I expect chainsaws to be used even when oil is in short supply, but eventually their use will probably fizzle out and people will have to revert to the old ways of cutting wood. The two-man bow saw is the best tool in this respect, and I’ve heard reports that they can be almost as fast a chainsaw - although you’d have to have a very fit and strong individual on each end of it!



When Spring comes the coppiced area will be covered with an abundance of wild flowers as long-dormant seeds suddenly find themselves with a supply of sunlight. This will attract a lot of different species of insect, including many butterflies and moths, which in turn will attract birds and other predators. I’ve read that coppiced stands often provide refuge for several species of rare butterfly, bee and bird. I’ll be keeping my eye on this and will post some more pictures in the spring. Here's a picture of what it should look like:

A coppiced section of woodland in spring - image from www.wildgardens.co.uk
In twelve years, when I come to coppice this section again, there will be five times as much work as each stump will have sprouted multiple trunks. In their uncut state the young trees are called maidens and their trunks can often be twisted and gnarly. The new growth will be a lot straighter and easier to work with, but for now I have a lot of maiden trunks to put in the wood store. What will I do with them?

Selling them as long logs for construction is the easiest way to make money out of them - but also the least profitable. The more processing I can do, the more I will earn. As a bare minimum I will be cutting them into lengths approximately six feet long and then splitting them lengthways with a tool called a froe. A froe is a bit like an axe that you hammer down through the grain of the wood. These split pieces of chestnut can be sold or used as fence palings. Myself and another woodland neighbour are building a large coop in which to keep chickens, so quite a few of these will be used for that. 

But generally speaking, most of the wood from this year’s coppice will be used for construction projects on my own land, including raised beds, a wood store, a compost toilet and Hugelkultur beds.



Other pieces will be sold to various local greenwood craftspeople I’ve got to know since we started up a coppice and woodland skills network in the local area (more on that in another post). Some will be sawn up as logs for our own use and for sale. With the price of natural gas and electricity increasing so much, many people are installing wood burners to heat their homes, and the price of logs is rising in response. It’s something of a waste to use a high quality wood such as chestnut or oak for fuel, so I will try to minimise this and use only the small diameter branches. I’ll probably also make bundles of faggots, which will burn well in our new wood burner that is due to be connected to the central heating system in our house this summer. I will also be making charcoal with many of the offcuts using an old oil drum later in the year.

Wood is also a de facto currency. I have many offers of people willing to work on the land for a day in return for a car boot full of logs. The woodland effectively pays for itself. What's more, I've planted around 150 young trees, including a few birch which will be used for firewood and making birch sap wine. I will have a further 300 oak saplings planted from seed to use in hedges or sell to other people establishing woodlands.

Fox Wood, as it lies in the landscape of west Cornwall

Whatever wood is left will sit and season in the woodshed. I haven’t built the woodshed yet, but it’s on my list of jobs to do in 2014. One of the many good things about chestnut and oak is that the natural tannins in the wood preserve it for up to 50 years without the need to treat it with chemicals. I can build my woodshed at leisure in the spring or summer. In the meantime I will continue to learn more greenwood skills so that I can increase the value of my wood products. Ben Law, in his excellent book The Woodland Way, says that you can increase the value of your wood 800% by making bespoke green wood furniture, gates and other things. This is something I fully intend to do. I’ve already been taught how to make a long bow (see below) - so making my own shave horse is another job for this year.

Greg works a piece of ash with an axe to make a long bow

Working in a woodland setting has to be one of the most enjoyable ways to make a living. It seems incredible that this time last year I was sitting at a desk in a city and dreaming of doing what I am doing now. I see coppicing as one of the most sustainable ways to make a living. Woodland can be bought quite cheaply, compared to agricultural land, and trees require very little maintenance; they just grow! In today’s industrial system woodland is undervalued quite substantially and is priced in terms of the extractable timber. This represents quite an opportunity for anyone looking to make a sustainable living. Even a patch of old spruce or fir is packed with opportunities. The conifers can be cut down and used as construction materials or firewood while you plant up the cleared area with broadleaf species - and it doesn't need to be that big, two or three acres or more should be plenty (see this, for example). And despite what I wrote above, there are ways in which you can live perfectly legally in your woodland. You’ll have to be quite inventive to start with, but the law will either have to change or it will break down soon enough as planning departments struggle with cutbacks and are overwhelmed with people inventively living on their own land.

There can’t be many easier ways to capture the sun’s rays and turn them into energy and useful products. Furthermore, by clearing glades you can plant forest gardens to grow annual vegetables, fruit and nut trees and many other things that will provide for a subsistence living. People are an important part of the woodland ecology and I look forward to the day when the woods are filled with people again, harvesting timber, making products and burning charcoal. That is truly a future to look forward to.

Woodlanders and crafts people get-together at Fox Wood to share a bowl of hot chilli and a jug of hot cider

 

14 comments:

  1. Hi Jason,

    thank you for your posts here and over on 22 Billion blog. You have been great help for me in making sense of things here in the UK, especially as I am British only by marriage (originally from Czechoslovakia).

    I have been thinking about coppicing myself, partly influenced by you and partly, because we have a working coppice wood near to Bury St Edmunds where I live, so I could see it first hand.

    Unfortunately, I don't have enough funds to acquire one, as the less land or wood you buy, the more you pay for an acre on average.

    Nevertheless, I was pleased to see one of my chosen crafts to be on the Seven list as well and one I have the means and skills to pursuit: letter pressing and at the same time type foundry, as I apprenticed as type setter before entering university. I was still working with moveable type, which comes very handy now (who'd have thought so!).

    So for me it semi-rural livelihood with intensive organic gardening to supply whatever I cannot get by letter pressing and vice versa.


    Regards
    Martin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Martin. One idea is to team up with a group of like-minded people to buy a larger piece of woodland, and then divvy it up between yourselves.

      Saying that, if letter press printing is more your thing then that'll be a pretty useful skill to have!

      Delete
    2. Good idea about slicing the woodland, or any piece of land amongst friends, which slipped my mind too. The only thing is, I don't know anyone here to do it with me. That's one big thing on my to-do-list: get to know people; enrich my social capital.

      Anyway, wish you every success in your coppicing efforts!

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the post, Jason. It answered many of the questions I posed in an earlier comment about the economics of woodland management. My curiosity about coppicing mostly stems from my perception that while it is commonplace in Europe and especially in the UK, it seems to be pretty much non-existent in the US. Perhaps it has to do with population density. In the US, Oregon, west of the Cascades seems to have a climate similar to yours, but since the area was populated only recently, trees were still so plentiful that coppicing wasn't necessary. There does seem to be a parallel with Douglas fir management, however. Douglas fir which is one of the primary building materials in the US is usually clear cut since new seedlings need light and a clearcut encourages rapid growth of the new seedlings. Hence trees are not harvested selectively but rather like a crop of wheat. Another factor in the absence of coppicing in the US seems to be the lack of craftsmen/women to do something with the coppiced wood. Fencing and gates and other such items tend to be made out of milled lumber. As a matter of fact, if you go to a lumber dealer to purchase round lumber for fence posts or vegetable stakes, you will be buying wood that has been turned on a lathe. In any case, I am pleased to see that your wood lot is coming along. And good luck with the laws that prevent you from living on your wood lot. Thanks also for mentioning Ben Law's book. I will see if I can get a copy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wolfgang - I suspect the fact that Europe has been well and truly 'settled' for thousands of years has something to do with it. In the wide-open spaces of America it might seem easier to just cut the trees and move on, historically speaking.

      The benefit of coppicing broadleaf species, as opposed to re-planting firs, is that you get to use the root system again and again. It's faster! The roots are basically the tree's capital, and the branches and trunk are what it 'produces'. Of course, it's more complex than that, but that's one way of looking at it.

      Yes, do read Ben Law's book - it's very inspiring and full of practical knowledge.

      Delete
  3. Jason, can you please post some of these GREAT BLOGS on SUN?

    RE
    http://SUN4Living.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great to hear this in such detail - and to be part of your journey! Lots of similar experiences to share, as we learn how to manage the land we live in, and help enable more people to get back to be closer to the land than they are to a screen! Came across these guys this week - doing some great stuff in terms of land management and access...have you heard of them? They're also part of the 1000 Huts Campaign - inspired! http://centreforstewardship.org.uk/index.htm

    Cheers,

    Manda

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Manda. No, never heard of them before. I will check them out!

      Delete
  5. Great blog, Jason, thanks for reposting on the Doomstead Diner, that's where I originally saw it. You've given me some good ideas for courses for the Perma-culture Education Network, http://www.sun4living.com/moodle . One thing to note: deer can jump high, and they can jump wide, but they can't do both at the same time. Two fences 4 feet tall and 4 feet apart is as effective as one fence 8 feet tall.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John. Glad to have spread some ideas!

      I'm quite excited to explore the possibility of growing vegetables in the soil around the trees. The soil is incredibly rich after 25 years of leaf mulch has rotted down into it - and there are no weeds. Furthermore, some of the brash from cutting has been burned and the resulting charcoal and ash is being sprinkled around. It will be interesting to see the results.

      As for the deer - they are pretty small in these parts. The muntjacs are very small - only a couple of feet tall, so I doubt they can jump that high. They came over here from Asia and apparently escaped from a wildlife park in 1925. Now they have spread all over the place.

      Delete
  6. A nice post. Just curious, would "slash-and-burn" be an option? (Maybe not in your case, but as it looks like you've cut a clearing, burning would get rid of much undergrowth).

    At which altitude is Fox Wood located? If everything else fails, maybe you could seek refuge in the Alps: Just read about Sepp Holzer, a farmer in his 60's who started on a mountain farm located at 1100-1500 meters above sea level (even got to court because he didn't want to follow the practices the officials asked for! ) and now decided to start anew in another part of Austria! Quite incredible what he's accomplished as a gardener.

    http://www.holzeragroecology.com/
    http://www.seppholzer.at


    Btw, if you can't get a building permission for a "real" inhabitable building, how about starting off with building a sauna? There's a reason Scandinavians living in the wooden quarters built them, not only for personal hygiene but also for purposes such as to smoke meat (and trust me, having spent a winter night in mid-Finland, you can stay overnight in one as well!). Don't know if British Building Codes allow any-sized constructions but a sauna can be built into any size (in worst case, it can be used as a smoke house).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Carl. Yes, Sepp Holzer is an inspirational character. I'm copying his method of randomly planting vegetables and fruits all over the land and seeing where it does best. I'll also be experimenting with planting ground cover, such as borage and other herbs, around fruit trees to see if it has an effect.

      Slash and burn? That would be too disruptive to the ecology, and in any case, then I would have to re-plant the trees. As it is, the trees have 25-year-old root systems in place that will quickly regrow the 'above ground' parts over the coming few years.

      As for the sauna - yes! It was always my plan to build one. It will be earth-sheltered and a bottle ceiling will allow dappled light to illuminate within.

      Delete
  7. Jason,
    A interesting piece. I have heard of coppicing. But it isn't much practiced in the US. Coincidentally, I just finished a two part piece entitled Woodlot Management in the Anthropocene on my blog http://www.wingedelmfarm.com/blog/. Perhaps it is just the cold weather making us think about firewood? Regardless, thanks for sharing the info.
    Cheers,
    Brian

    ReplyDelete