Managed coppice woodlands were once the source of a vast number of materials needed for everyday life. The wood produced from them was used for tools, kitchenware, furniture, fencing, building, charcoal and fuelwood. They were an integral part of rural life right up until the second world war. After this the woodland harvesting became more industrial with the need to rebuild so many damaged cities. Monoculture plantings of coniferous trees became common place and the old woodlots were either left to wild or were over taken by these single species forests.
But in the past 30 years or so there has been a resurgence in restoring these ancient woodlands and a renewed interest in woodland crafts, green woodworking (using fresh cut wood) and roundwood building. This has spread to other countries with many people embracing the concept of perpetual and sustainable timber woodlots. By coppicing or pollarding specific trees at staggered times, materials are gathered for many uses while the tree itself remains living and the soil and ecosystem only temporarily disrupted.
The planting of a woodlot is best done in winter with bare rooted trees, these trees are often more affordable and it allows for root development before dry weather sets in. Spacings should be approximately two metres square and can be done in rows or random placement, nitrogen fixers should be planted in the midst of this spacing to give maximum benefit. Some protection may be necessary from rabbit damage and mulch will help give the trees a head start against the grass and weeds.
Coppicing is the cutting of broadleaf woodland trees to low stumps, during their dormancy in winter. The cuts should be on angle to allow for water run off and preferably south facing. In spring the stump re-sprouts and these shoots are allowed to grow on till they reach the desired size. This can range from one year to twenty plus years, depending on the tree species and timber requirements. The tree is then cut back to a stump during the winter and the process starts again. Interestingly the regrowth times are usually considerably shorter here in New Zealand than in the UK, how this may affect the strength of the timber I do not know. Regrowth times for the trees below are for UK.
Pollarding is a higher cut, often around head height, this can be useful if there are browsing animals within the woodland, keeping the fresh growth out of reach. This process is best with deciduous trees, which are cut at low sap in the winter. This unfortunately means most of our native trees are not able to be successfully coppiced, Mahoe, Cabbage trees, Hoheria and possibly Pohutukawa being among the few that will.
Trees that reshoot after coppicing or other crown ‘damaging’ events like fire or wind have Epicormic buds. These buds lie are dormant under the bark, suppressed by the hormones of the actives shoots above. When damage occurs to those higher shoots or the light levels to the epicormic buds is increased, by removal of nearby plants, they can be activated into growing. While these shoots occur in many deciduous trees and shrubs they are not usually found in conifers and many other evergreens.
Maintaining the health of your woodlot.
By their very nature deciduous trees create a fertile self-perpetuating system. Their deep root systems draw up nutrients from the soil and sub soil, these nutrients are then returned to the ground by leaf and branch litter return. This process can be enhanced by including nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating trees and shrubs in your woodlot. By utilising species such as the fast-growing tree lucerne (tagasaste – Chamaecytisus palmensis), as nurse species for your slower growing trees you are not only feeding them, but are providing protection and weed suppression, plus stock fodder, bee food and firewood while you wait for the other trees to establish. Once you begin the coppicing and pollarding of your trees the return of ‘slash’ as ramial mulch feeds back into the system to support the new growth. A herb layer can also be used to provide ground cover and nutrient cycling, suitable plants are comfrey, clovers, lotus, plantains etc
Coppicing is the cutting of broadleaf woodland trees to low stumps, during their dormancy in winter. In spring the stump resprouts and these shoots are allowed to grow on till they reach the desired size. This can range from one year to twenty plus years, depending on the tree species and timber requirements. (Interestingly the regrowth times are usually considerably shorter here in New Zealand than in the UK, how this may affect the strength of the timber I do not know. Regrowth times for the trees below are for UK) The tree is then cut back to a stump during the winter and the process starts again. Pollarding is a higher cut, often around head height, this can be useful if there are browsing animals within the woodland, keeping the fresh growth out of reach. This process is best with deciduous trees, which are cut at low sap in the winter. This unfortunately means most of our native trees are not able to be successfully coppiced, Mahoe, Cabbage trees and possibly Pohutukawa being among the few that will.
Planting a woodlot is best done in winter with bare rooted trees, spacings should be approximately two to three metres and can be done in rows or random placement, some protection may be necessary from rabbit damage etc. Many of the trees listed below are easily propagated by seed, cuttings or poles. It may take a little longer to establish, but it means a woodlot can be created at a very low cost.
Alder, Black or Common – Alnus glutinosa
Alnus glutinosa is a fast-growing deciduous tree reaching approx. 25 m high by 10 m wide. Able to fix nitrogen and preferring wet sites it is a very useful tree where ground moisture is high e.g. Ponds, swales and boggy areas. It is able to spread easily through waterways and should probably not be planted along streams or where native riparian are planted due to its potential to become a pest species in such areas.
The black Alder produces both male and female catkins on the same tree which are pollinated by the wind. Its seed is a good winter food source for birds and the leaves can be used for stock fodder/forage.
Traditionally Black Alder has been used for clog soles, woodturning, carving, broom heads, furniture and underwater foundations, it can also be used a fuel wood. The wood is not very strong but has the ability to dry very fast, it is however durable underwater. The tree coppices well and will produce many straight poles in a damp or marshy woodland environment. It is useful for erosion control and for water purifying in swampy ground.
Ash – Fraxinus excelsior
This large deciduous tree grows to approx. 30m, the trees bear both male and female flowers but often not in the same year, these flowers are wind pollenated. The seeds known as ‘Ash Keys’ are best sown while still green to achieve faster germination. The Ash is able to grow on many types of soil but is best in limestone where it will seed freely. While recent times have seen Ash suffer with Ash Dieback it was once a highly important resource for smallholders and farmers due to its resilience and rapid growth. Though considered non-durable the timber has the qualities of high flexibility, shock resistance, and resistance to splitting. This makes ash wood an excellent timber for making bows and tool handles. The trees are often coppiced on a longer cycle of 10 to 21 years and therefore are often grown in a mixed woodlot. Ash is also popular used green for chairmaking.
Beech, English – Fagus sylvatica
Though this large tree, approx. 30m, is deciduous it will in fact hold its browned leaves until spring when the fresh growth appears. While this particular tree has green leaves, changing to yellow then brown through Autumn, there is a natural mutation the Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica Purpurea) which has purple new growth which gradually turns deep green and then copper in Autumn. The male and female flowers appear in spring and are wind pollenated. In autumn the hairy Beech husks drop, each husk has two seeds known as beech nuts, these are apparently edible and were often used as pig fodder. The leaves are also edible when young (for humans) and can be used as fodder/forage for stock. The beech grows best in well drained limestone soils. It is not usually coppiced in a woodlot situation due to its slow growth, but is pollarded instead to prevent browsing animals killing off the trees. However, it can be cut back quite hard and used as a hedging plant. Used in green-wood craft for furniture, tool handles, and kitchen utensils like spoons, spatula and bowls, beech is also excellent firewood.
Birch – Silver Birch – Betula pendula
A fast growing, deciduous tree reaching approx 30 m, it is very noticeable for its white papery bark. The Silver birch has both male and female catkins on the same tree and can seed throughout an area very easily. It is considered a colonizer, growing on poor soils, but its leaf litter can improve the soil over time allowing other species to grow. While it can be coppiced while young, older trees tend not to grow back. These are often replaced by seedling trees. An interesting feature of the Birch is its fungal relationship with the Birch Bolete an edible mushroom which grows under the Birches in Autumn. While the wood is not durable, it does have many uses, such as small furniture, cooking utensils, spoons and toys. The bark however is considered to be very durable and is used for canoes, pots, baskets, shoes and roof tiles. It is also an excellent fire starter. The sap is another product, harvested in early spring to make wine and Birch syrup. it is worth noting that some people do experience hay fever/allergy symptoms from the pollen of Silver Birch.
Black Locust – Robinia pseudoacacia
This hardy deciduous tree is very fast growing and reaches approx. 25m in height and is commonly used as windbreak or shelterbelts, though it does not tolerant severe winds well. It is able to grow in most soils, though prefers well drained situations and can handle drought. Black Locust is also tolerant of low fertility soils which means it can be used as a pioneer species. Its nitrogen fixing and mineral accumulating can support the growth of other plants, plus its light canopy allows sunlight to penetrate. In some areas it is considered a weed species due to its fast growth and ability to spread via seed and sometimes suckering. If used in a woodlot or food forest situation it needs to be managed regularly.
Its timber is considered highly durable, fence posts of Black locust are said to last 100 years in the ground. It is used as greenwood for furniture, tool handles, building and pasture posts. The tree is able to be coppiced and pollarded, but there can be some variation in growth form. For this reason, selecting seed from straight trees is more likely to give you suitable timber for building or posts. Root cuttings of 5cm length and about thumb thickness can apparently be propagated or stakes/poles can be planted direct into the ground.
There is conflicting information of the fodder value of this tree, some sources claim the whole plant is toxic. While others compare its nutritional value to Alfafa and apparently Black locust is used as a fodder crop in many countries. It is well recognised for its benefit as bee food with Robinia honey common in USA and Europe. The white racemes of flowers in summer are said to be edible, as are the seeds once cooked. It is also considered to have medicinal qualities.
Worth growing for its fence post potential alone, as we try to move away from using treated wood on the property. The discrepancies on its fodder value can be negated by simply planting the Black locusts away from grazed areas. Most stock will not browse on toxic plants unless there is a shortage of other feed, with low level toxicity some browsing may occur in a medicinal manner. We believe that the animals have an instinctive knowledge of what they can consume and to what level, however, as said above this can be over ridden if feed is short.
Hazel – Corylus avellana
Though more of a deciduous shrub than a tree, the Hazel is one of the most useful woodlot plants. Fast growing and multi stemmed it can still reach 12 m or more in height if left to grow. But Hazels are often coppiced and the many straight stems produced have many uses. Both the pendulous male catkins and small female flowers are born on the same tree and are wind pollenated. In nut production a different cultivar of pollinator Hazel is often necessary to achieve high pollination rates. These early spring flowers can provide early feed for bees. While mostly known for its nuts, the Hazel leaves are also a highly palatable forage for livestock. Widely used as a hedgerow plant many English villages would often have an area of Hazel coppice, which was traditionally cut on a seven-year cycle. Hazel is the traditional material of hurdle making (woven fence panels) due to its ability, when twisted, to form a strong ‘rope’ of separated fibres. This means the wood can be twisted back upon its self to form the woven panels of the hurdle. Other uses include thatching spars, walking sticks, garden stakes, garden climbing frames, baskets, traps, crates and many other useful everyday items.
Sweet Chestnut – Castanea sativa
An attractive deciduous tree reaching approx. 30 metres in height. Preferring slightly acidic free draining soils and dislikes waterlogged, alkaline soils and exposed sites. Both male and female flowers appear in summer on the same stalk, these are wind and insect pollenated. The edible nuts develop in a prickly case that splits open in autumn when they are ripe. The nuts and leaves etc. can be used as stock fodder and all parts of the tree, except the actual nut, are said to have anthelmintic (anti worming) properties.
Sweet Chestnut is a durable wood which coppices very well and can be coppiced at various ages for different purposes. At 5 years timber is used for walking sticks, yurt poles, garden stakes, woven panels, balustrades and rustic furniture. At 7-12 years, rustic furniture, laths, pales, garden arches, gate hurdles, trellis panels and trug handles. 20 years, rustic furniture, laths, pales, charcoal, firewood, barrels, fencing posts. 30 + years, roundwood timber framing, post-and-rail fencing, fencing posts, decking, cladding, arbours, gates, shingles, window frames, charcoal and firewood.
Willow, Osier or Basket Willow – Salix viminalis
A deciduous, fast growing multi-stemmed shrub up to approx. 6 metres tall with straight thin branches used for basketry. The Basket willow is best grown in wet non-acid soils and propagation is easy from stem cuttings, this is preferable to seed as it can cross pollenate with other willows. Coppicing is done yearly to provide the long straight flexible rods needed for basketry. It is also used to create living screens and sculptures in gardens by inserting rods into the ground and weaving them into required shapes. Other uses are fodder/forage for livestock, water purification and it has the ability to absorb heavy metals, often planted to ‘clean up’ contaminated waste ground. Other willow species can also be used but Salix viminalis and Salix purpurea (purple stems) are most commonly used for basketry.
There are other trees which can be included in your woodland, the ones above are chosen here for their ease of coppicing/growing and specific uses, including food or forage uses.
Wild Cherry – Prunus avium, Elm – Ulmus procera, Linden – Tilia cordata, Oak – Quercus species, Maple – Acer species, Gum – Eucalyptus species, Poplar – Populus species.
The Brandenburg Coppice at Lincoln College New Zealand was planted in about 1985 as a study on coppicing woodlots and suitable tree species for New Zealand. It is a very informative read for anyone with an interest in establishing a coppice woodlot.