Saturday, 4 April 2015

Bluebells and Brown Trout : in praise of coppicing and coppicers

Green Hampshire are delighted to feature another guest article from our friend Tim Sykes. Tim describes himself as a devout family man, hopeless Triathlete, plump basketball player/fanatic and incurable maple syrup addict. As his articles makes clear, he is passionate about enjoying & conserving our natural world. 

 Tim is a professional ecologist and has worked for the Environment Agency in Hampshire & Isle of Wight area for almost 20 years.

Click on the images for a larger view. Tim has provided the twitter names for a number of the organizations he refers to.

The Environment Agency is commonly associated with ‘wet’ habitats – chalkstreams, ponds, wetlands and wet-woodlands. The recent death of Professor Oliver Rackham, pioneering conservation-thinker and inspiring landscape historian (WoodlandTrust, Telegraph, Guardian), got me to thinking about our relationship with another critical natural capital – woodland; and the Environment Agency’s less obvious role in broadleaved woodland conservation. 

We use a range of natural materials to restore our chalkstreams, and woody debris is our favourite, to make in-stream conditions more complex, benefitting biodiversity.  We also use chestnut stakes to pin-down bundles of hazel sticks, called faggots, and it is the origin of these faggots through coppicing that I think of when I remember Rackham.


Charlotte Sams/WWF-UK.   Hazel faggots, like all woody debris, diversifies habitat, 
benefitting chalkstream flora and fauna. 

Coppicing is the process of cutting trees down, allowing the stumps to regenerate producing many new shoots, rather than a single main stem, and then harvesting the regrowth on a rotational cycle, in ‘coups’, for a variety of uses, in an elegantly sustainable way. The coppice, or shrub layer, is called the ‘underwood’, as in ‘under the woodland canopy’. After the more exacting needs are taken, the left-overs are bound into faggots - bundles of rods, compressed and trussed, often with twisted hazel.

Members of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust @HantsIWWildlife will be familiar with coppicing already - favourite nature reserves like Roydon Woods and Crab Wood, and on the Island, Eaglehead and Bloodstone Copses, Swanpond Copse, Briddlesford Copse, are actively coppiced to support their characteristic biodiversity. 


© Jon Cox.  New coppice, Sandpit Copse, IOW

© Tim Sykes.  Young coppice re-growth. Crab Wood

Coppicing of woodland creates structural diversity: in the early years after cutting, it increases light to the woodland-floor, painting our quintessential ‘English’ scene - a profusion of sun-dappled bluebells.  As the coppice thickens it provides habitat for a succession of woodland plants and animals from nesting birds to woodland mammals. Many of our most threatened iconic woodland species are dependent upon the various stages of coppice growth from wood anemone and woodland fritillaries in the early stages through nightingales and garden warblers in the thicket stage, to dormice – and on the Isle of Wight, Red squirrels and Bechstein’s bats in the later stages of the coppice cycle.


© Hazel coppice, blue bells and ramsons (wild garlic)


© Jon Cox.  Wood anemone, Sandpit Copse, IOW

The pollen record shows hazel has been abundant in the UK from 10,000 cal BC, not long after the last Ice Age.  And archaeological evidence from the early Mesolithic, shows hunter-gatherers systematically exploited hazel for food, fuel and shelter: Pit houses from between c 8200 and c 8000 cal BC have been found containing thousands of hazelnut fragments, in one case representing over a million hazelnuts, with a hazelnut roasting 'hearth'. To Archaeological Research Services Ltd @CarryOnDigging the scale of this exploitation suggests organised and deliberate hazel propagation, something that would have been significantly more efficient with coppice management. Oxford Archaeology @oatweet advise that the general impression is that the techniques of woodland management evident in Neolithic times were already being practised in the Mesolithic period.

Locally, some of the earliest physical evidence for woodland management is found at Wootton Quarr on the Isle of Wight. Isle of Wight Council @iwight describe how hazel and other locally-won wood was used almost continuously over a period spanning from the Neolithic to post-Medieval times, for inter-tidal estuarine fish traps, tracks and platforms. Hazel wattle hurdles and wood from collectively exploited coppiced woodland were also used in numerous tracks across the Somerset Levels, interconnecting settlements in the swamps about 6,000 cal BP.

Ever since, crafts based around harvesting and processing of woodland products, including hazel coppice, have been fundamental in creating and protecting many landscapes and biodiversity we value today. Coppicing provided work for numerous ‘underwood’ workers: cutters, wood merchants, craftsmen and purchasers, and associated rural industries, leaving behind the fascinating traces of archaeological features still evident in our local woodlands.

In many ways, the coppiced underwood was historically used to make and do most of the things we now use fossil fuels to do today – fuel for heat and cooking, and a raw material to make many of the things we now make out of imported wood, metal, or plastic.

Thomas Hardy writing in 1912 said the livelihood of the ‘copse workers’ he had described twenty years earlier, in his novel The Woodlanders, had virtually disappeared with many moving to game-keeping and conifer planting. After the second War, intensive agricultural policy, Government-sponsored commercial forestry, and un-sustainable development reduced the quantum, management and connectivity of our woodlands. 


Consequently many of the traditional coppice woodlands are now in a state of neglect, when the coppice is said to be ‘overstood’ - a habitat of relatively low biodiversity.  Over the last 100 years, the old coppice woods have reverted to a perhaps more natural structure with many more tall trees forming a woodland canopy that sheds a dense shade on the coppiced underwood.  This has left the coppice layer depleted and the remaining coppice stools dead or dying.

Locally, the coppice woodland resource in Hampshire was estimated in 1947 to be 13,000ha from a total of 47,500ha in Southern England: most was described as derelict even then. The in-cycle coppice actually being worked in 1947 was estimated at 1,538ha, and by 1994 to be only 345ha. In 1947 Hampshire accounted for over 30% of the worked hazel coppice in the Country, and by 1994 this had increased to 60%, most of the remainder in Dorset, Wiltshire, West Sussex and Surrey. 


However, the past 20 years has seen a revival in coppice management primarily for conservation purposes.  In 1994 Hampshire County Council @hantsconnect estimated there to be 230 people actively working coppice in the County and claims to have restored over 650ha of derelict woodland back into active coppice management. HCC like Dorset, Sussex and Kent Councils was promoting coppicing, expansion of local markets and supporting people to get into the craft. Now the largest-scale commercial coppice crop in England is sweet chestnut, grown in parts of Sussex and Kent, although locally, alder, ash, field maple, willow and hazel are still coppiced commercially. Many of our woodlands have survived because of their ability to provide coppiced wood – ‘a wood that pays stays’.

Society now enjoys a more enlightened awareness of the importance of sustainable land use, land management, and associated ecosystem services provided by managed woodlands. Communities (local people, special interest groups, future generations) and institutions (professional ecologists, NGOs, Local Authorities) all now have a stake in sustaining these habitats and perpetuating their management. The public volunteer to carry out woodland management, especially associated with NGOs whose aims are more altruistic than commercial - what Rackham calls ‘conservation coppicing’. Funding is now available to help establish and sustain rural small-businesses, as well as enable better woodland management.

Today Hampshire County Council @hantsconnect informally estimate that the potential coppice woodland resource stands at c14,000ha (excluding the New Forest, most of Hampshire’s ancient semi-natural woodland contains derelict ash or hazel coppice), of which between 1-2,000ha is actively worked for coppice.

That new awareness creates new markets too: A revived interest in trees and woodland, traditional crafting skills and demand for locally-sourced natural materials creates local markets for small-scale coppicing activities producing high-value products for new non-agricultural and suburban uses, rather than bulk everyday commodities. And traditional rural trades can still generate demand – a thatched roof typically needs at least 5000 spars; most styles of hedge-laying need stakes and binders from coppiced hazel.


It seems to me it’s a hard life, not without physical stresses and risks, and the bureaucracy around rural small business in not evenly balanced by the available funding support. Furthermore, wild deer numbers have grown hugely over the last 60 years (populations of all species, especially Muntjac continue to grow in numbers and distribution), and now present a massive pressure on new coppice growth. Restoring coppice in the presence of so many wild deer often requires expensive fencing to prevent deer eating all the new coppice shoots.  The Isle of Wight is lucky in having no feral deer to eat the coppice: here over 2 metres of regrowth can be expected in the first year after cutting.

Restoration of overstood coppices can require some radical and sometimes controversial management to bring them back to a working coppice. Canopy trees must be thinned to allow enough light into the underwood and woodland floor.  This sometimes means felling some big old oaks – something many of us find hard to do.  And where does that fit in the wider  ‘re-wilding’ agenda? 


Paradoxically, the socio-economic and environmental drivers that promote an increase in coppicing, albeit local and sensitive, is a contrast to Society’s wider and urgent needs to fundamentally limit the exploitation of most natural resources. The social and economic metrics of the coppice sector has not been calculated in recent years, although increasing interest in determining the value of ecosystem services may hopefully one day be applied to local woodland management.

Whatever the uses, commercial coppicing remains small-scale, localised, collectively unorganised and financially tenuous – practiced by few people and largely out of sight of the public – an underground underwood industry.  Where is the next generation of coppice workers going to come from? The quantum of available potential coppice woodland isn’t a constraint, and it appears that local markets exist, creating an un-met demand. The pool of qualified people, be it coppicers or other woodcrafts i.e. hedge layers, appears to be the limiting factor. The skilled people who coppice woodlands with their traditional crafts, tools and knowledge - the cultural capital - remain an endangered species in their own right.

The Forestry Commission @ForestryCommEng tell me “one of the key drivers for a lot of coppice work these days is for soft engineering, both rivers and coastal, and this is keeping many of the current work force in the woods.” The Environment Agency is indirectly playing a small part in supporting the conservation of our ancient semi-natural woodlands and the associated rural socio-economy, using locally-sourced hazel faggots for ‘soft engineering’ wherever possible, especially in river restoration.

Woody debris (WD) are the logs, sticks, branches and other wood that falls or are introduced into streams and rivers. This debris can influence the flow and the shape of the stream channel, kick-starting natural processes that drive the natural state and functioning of the river system in support of biodiversity, recreation, flood management and landscape development. A diverse water flow affects patterns and rates of sediment erosion and transport creating conditions to form riffles, pools, and temperature variations. It encourages silt to be deposited in some areas while other parts of the river bed are scoured of silt by the fastest flows.


This abiotic diversity is vital to fish because it provides the right circumstances to spawn, rest, feed, hunt, and hide (see The Wild Trout Trust WildTroutTrustItchen). Beds of silt are a critically important habitat for the pre-historic looking brook lamprey, and ‘clean’ gravels are equally essential as spawning beds for brown trout. Invertebrate and plant communities are more diverse in their structure and species composition when flow and channel-form is more diverse. 



© Jon Milliken.  Hazel faggots and egret. River Itchen

© Wild brown trout and woody debris

Clearance of bankside and riparian woodlands and trees for agricultural purposes or by catchment managers for perceived flood control, have deprived rivers of natural woody material input, and exposed roots. And traditional chalkstream management has had a presumption for the removal of WD, on the grounds that it restricts angling access, and could pose a risk of flooding. Many reaches of our chalksteams have been thus degraded, compounded by historic damage from dredging, piling, impounding flows for milling purposes and over-abstraction - all have over-simplified our chalkstreams. The outlook for a natural recovery to self-sustaining healthy chalkstreams looks bleak without physical restorative intervention. 

Hence, we work with others, including the Wild Troust Trust @WildTroutTrust, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust @HantsIWWildlifeWessex Chalkstream and Rivers Trust @WessexRivers and expert environmental contractors to restore rivers, and frequently do so using woody debris, including faggots. This winter we used 350 hazel faggots from woods near Stockbridge, in habitat enhancement projects in the Rivers Test and Itchen. Between 2008 and 2012 Aquascience  @InfoAquascience used over 2,500 locally-sourced faggots in restoring the Itchen Navigation (see  ItchenNavigationProject).


© Simon Cain.  Hazel coppice mattress “before”. River Avon

© Simon Cain.  Hazel coppice mattress “after” – a silt trap.

We’ve also recently worked with Cain Bio-Engineering @CainBio using 5,000 hazel faggots and 1,800 sweet chestnut posts to restore sections of tidal embankment in the Rother estuary SSSI (littoral sediment), which had been scoured by exceptional fluvial flows during winter 2013/14. Faggots were staked-out in a lattice, waffle formation and tied-down using specially manufactured hemp rope, to interrupt flows in the estuary and promote accretion of sediment (see CainBioEngineering).

Nationally, the Agency has used another 2,000+ hazel faggots (and more if one includes coppice willow and ash faggots) over the last year in river enhancement works. 


© Simon Cain.  Sweet chestnut coppice “before”.  Kent


© Simon Cain.  Sweet chestnut coppice “after”.  Kent

In this way, we are promoting the natural linkages between habitats and across living landscapes: in this case the flow of woody materials, nutrients and energy from our woodlands to our rivers/wetlands and estuaries. So, the next time you hear of the Environment Agency’s river restoration work, consider the benefits to hazel coppice woodlands, those who work in them, and woodland wildlife, as well as chalkstreams: think bluebells as well as brown trout. 

Tim Sykes
Environment Agency Fisheries, Biodiversity & Geomorphology Team Leader (Solent).
March 2015

Follow Tim on Twitter - @TimSykesEA


For more information :-

To volunteer your time to try coppicing, contact: @HantsIWWildlife, @TCVHampshire, @GreenHampshire, @DorsetWildlife, @SussexWildlife @sdnpa

To join a coppice group and obtain further information about coppicing contact: @ncfeduk, @WoodlandTrust, @Love_plants, WessexCoppiceGroup, HampshireCoppiceGroup, Sussex&SurreyCoppiceGroup, DorsetCoppiceGroup

To find out more about river restoration using woody debris contact: @WildTroutTrust, @WoodinRivers, @The_RRC


Learn more about our woodlands, their management and the associated crafts at these amazing family-fun events :-

Roydon Woods Woodfair and Local Produce Show. 7th June. The Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, in partnership with the New Forest National Park Authority, is hosting the 8th annual Wood Fair and Local Produce Show at Roydon Woods Nature Reserve, Sandy Down, Setley near Brockenhurst. @NewForestNPA

Hampshire Woodlands Country Show. 11th & 12th July. Royal Victoria Country Park, Netley Abbey, Southampton, SO31 5GA @hantsconnect


1 comment:

  1. It is totally untrue to claim that there are no wild deer on the Isle of Wight. In fact four of the six wild species of deer have all been seen at large in the island's countryside in recent years. Coppice growth remains good because of our mild maritime climate and the deer are not at the damagingly high density found in some areas of the mainland. But having too few deer also damages the environment, see http://wp.me/p4B2Cn-1q to find out how this has affected the Isle of Wight.

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