To Coppice (To cut back a tree or shrub to ground level periodically to stimulate new growth)
At Rowhill, we practice coppicing during the winter months. We have 12 areas, or “cants” that we rotate. Coppicing is a healthy and beneficial form of woodland management. At Rowhill, our volunteers develop their skills to include fence building, hedge laying, tree felling (both with hand tools and for those specially trained with chainsaws). From coppicing, we’re able to produce and sell firewood and charcoal.
Periodic cutting actually prolongs the life of the tree as well as creating a rich mosaic of habitats, attracting a wide range of flora and fauna. Woods that have not been coppiced tend to be of the same age and structure, supporting fewer species.
When a new coppice panel is cut more light is let into the wood, four times more in spring and up to 20 times more in midsummer. This produces a sequence of changes in the plant life. First it stimulates a surge of growth from dormant seed and plants. In the second or third year, spring flowers, such as bluebells, oxlips, violets, primroses, wood anemones, ground ivy, yellow archangel and water avens, will carpet the ground.
More vigorous, light demanding species, such as grasses and brambles do not get a chance to dominate as the coppice canopy closes between five to eight years after cutting. This rapidly shades out most of the foliage underneath. But a few plants, such as dog’s mercury and herb paris prefer the shady conditions of older coppice.
Coppiced woodlands support more species of butterfly than any other habitat in the UK. Most butterflies have just one, or a small number of plants which their larvae will feed on and a poor ability to reach new, more suitable habitats. Usually these plants occur in open sunny areas created by coppicing or along woodland rides. Species such as the Duke of Burgundy fritillary whose larvae thrives on primrose, and the heath fritillary which needs cow wheat, wood sage or foxglove, have declined because of loss of habitat through neglected woodlands.
Insects like the warm microclimate and diverse vegetation of young coppice. Large numbers of ground species such as wolf spiders and ground beetles establish a year after cutting followed by numerous and diverse species in years two to five.
Small mammals, like birds, are strongly influenced by the coppicing cycle. Mice, shrews and voles are often the first to appear in recently cut coppice. By the third year the small mammal population will probably be at a peak before decreasing gradually until the cycle is repeated.
Coppiced woodland in south and west England is one of the most important habitats of the common dormouse which needs a high diversity of tree species to provide food throughout the year. Dormice spend most of their lives in branches and foliage and require a continuous canopy of coppice and standards, but do not thrive in very old coppice.
In general, birds will take advantage of the flourishing insect life. But different species prefer different parts of the cycle. In very open coppice, during the first three or four months of growth, tree pipits can be the first to colonise sweet chestnuts, followed by yellowhammers, linnets and whitethroats.
By the third or fourth year, when low vegetation is becoming dense, there will be summer visitors such as the garden warbler, willow warbler, nightingale, blackcap and chiffchaff. They remain until about the 10th year and rapidly decrease afterwards.
Old coppice species include the robin, blackbird, chaffinch, great tit and blue tit. If the coppice contains large mature standard trees, woodpeckers, nut-hatches and treecreepers will often be present.
Our thanks to The Conservation Volunteers Handbooks for the above information.