Prune with a purpose: coppice lots as radical ecology

Coppicing, pollarding, and espaliering are three pruning patterns with long historical legacies of productivity behind them.  In each case, although the wood taken is exceedingly useful, what re-grows after the cut is at least as important as the harvest.

What is coppicing?

The term ‘to coppice’ comes from the French word couper, meaning ‘to cut’.  The coppice lot is a woodland in which a portion of the wood is removed at regular intervals, and the trunks allowed to re-sprout.

Unlike in restorative forestry, where the biological woodsman select out trees for harvest with an eye to leaving an intact forest that continues to operate in their wake, a coppice lot is intentionally never cleared in increments smaller than ¼ acre.  This is done to allow sufficient sunlight to penetrate the area and trigger the stumps (or “stools”) left behind to re-sprout.

coppiced oak resproutingNot all trees will re-sprout reliably.  Many tree species have an upper trunk girth limit above which coppicing is no longer an option but below which the tree will comply.  Common tree choices over the centuries have included hazel, sweet chestnut, oak, willow, poplar, ash, elm, and even some fruit or nut varieties.

Initially, a stump will produce a veritable witch’s broom of sprouts: one hundred skinny sticklets all brushing forth from the ring of remaining trunk.  Almost immediately, however, the sprouts begin to compete with each other.  The tree roots simply can’t support them all, so they start weeding each other out.

After a few years, perhaps 5 sprouts remain (the number of sprouts, the speed at which they grow, and the years to achieve a reasonably stable number of new trunks varies by tree species and by the age/size of the root system supporting all this growth and competition).

Because of the competition, the sprouts-cum-whips-cum-sapling trunks grow exceedingly straight.  They grow up very quickly, racing each other for the sunlight.  Cinnamon trees are often coppiced in order to encourage long straight, branch-free stretches of trunk, the better to get at the cinnamon bark.

Economy, industry, and the 100-acre wood

Have you noticed the number of spindlewood furniture pieces around?  Wooden kitchen chair backs come to mind.  And all those stair banisters mounted on balustrades of turned roundwood? Paling fences, baker’s faggots, thatch roofs… these are all made from dozens of pieces of wood that are all roughly the same diameter.   Tool handles, wicker baskets, wooden utensils… it’s actually the need for sizable timber pieces that is more limited: buildings, ships, carts, and big furniture…

A huge chunk of coppice cuts have gone to be chipped for wood heating systems, or were burned for charcoal before coal began to be mined in England. While not my favorite use of these trees, it is a vastly more renewable and transportable biomass system than an annual crop plant or large timber pieces could provide.

Boom-bust ecologies

coppice lot ecology bluebellsEcologically, a large coppice plot, made up of a variety of ‘coups’, which are cut on different rhythms or at least at different times, creates a vibrant ecosystem.  Just after the cut, bluebells, anemones and other woodland edge flowers burst forth from the soil’s seed bank. These will enjoy several years of riotous bloom times before the coup regrows enough to shade them back into dormancy. Fritillaries and other butterflies are attracted to these flowers.

Brambles and a host of other small plants common to forest clearings attract insects and small mammals.  If the tree tops- the brash- were left behind in a woodpile, these too become a haven for tiny denizens hiding from predators. Birds follow the insects in and set up shop until the coup darkens with shade and quiets back down.

When the shade does start to close in and it’s time to go, it’s a fair bet that there’s another recent cut nearby.  In addition to not cutting less than 1/4 acre (~100 feet by 100 feet), one year’s coppicing work shouldn’t take more than 3acres at a go, less if 3 acres represents more than 25% of that particular woodland.

This is done so that the animals in the center of the coup the day before the cut starts have a fair shot at making it to the new forest edge after the cut.

Why do I call coppicing ‘radical ecology’?

My favorite thing about coppice lots (and their close cultural kin, the hedgerows) is the level of human agency.  So many stories abound about the devastating impact of humans on the ecology that sometimes a body despairs to breathe.

Here is a radical interaction: the cutting down of a whole acre of wood, and then coming back in 10 years and doing it again.  The idea that, because this system was allowed to stabilize over time and has not (to the best of my knowledge) had a bunch of chemistry-altering additives spritzed about,  a healthy ecosystem has evolved to take advantage of this human agency.

I’m not naive; forest interior animals and plants are going to have a hard time if the world is moves to being all coppice lots, but they are in trouble if we keep doing business-as-usual, too.  I think there is a way forward here.  That we’ve found success in the past is grist for the hope mill.

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4 responses to “Prune with a purpose: coppice lots as radical ecology

  1. I think coppicing has a lot of potential for the small-scale homesteader for firewood. You can let your coppice wood regrow to the right diameter and then not have to split it, and the skinnier trunks are easier to cut with handsaws (in a pinch.) We’ve got an unintentional coppice yard in our powerline cut and are about due to harvest it in a few years, so I’ll put the theory into practice then.

    • Ooo! Neat! Do take before and after photos please. Do you know which species you’ve go going there? For firewood, my ideal would be a black locust (burns hot), oak (burns long), and birch (burns pretty) coppice.

  2. This the damp floodplain, so none of the usual firewood trees are available — it’s mostly box-elder and walnut down there. That said, box-elder makes excellent kindling and quiet fires for spring and fall. I’m sure you’ll see plenty of photos on the blog when the day comes to cut!

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