Coppicing

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Time for the second of this winter’s conservation activities in our neck of the woods. A particularly appropriate phrase, that last one, since today we will be coppicing some hazel growing in a corner of a local nature reserve.

The weather’s been foul – windy, very wet – and we wondered whether today’s plans would actually come off. But we wake up to blue skies and light breezes. At the reserve the presence of the council countryside management team’s Land Rover, parked at a rakish angle across a footpath, announces where we should plunge into the undergrowth. Voices can be heard in the distance, and the sounds of work under way.

We take a few cautious steps into the boggy undergrowth and find the group, busy with saws and loppers. The idea is to take off the latest growth on the trees that are mature enough since their last coppicing. The poles are then loaded back onto the Land Rover trailer along with smaller, whippier switches and used for hedge laying tasks later in the season.

The task, for which hard hats and protective eyewear are available for those so inclined, involves lopping off the smaller shoots from the hazel bushes, sawing off the bigger ones, stacking up all the waste material in a heap and then clipping off all the side shoots, twigs and leaves to create a clean pile of poles. At first it seems hard to imagine that we are going to be let loose on this, but we soon get into the swing of things.

The team leader takes a two-handed scythe to some of the reedy undergrowth to let us get to work at the furthest corner of the reserve. Sometimes deer crop off the new shoots as they grow from coppiced plants here, so they are left with a foot or more in height and protected by bushy offshoots.

But these particular bushes might be receiving their last coppicing, since National Rail has an application in to make track improvements here and the corner of the reserve may be lost as a result. Whatever happens, it’s been a fascinating insight into a skill going back 1,000 years or more – not necessarily something we expected to find ourselves doing on a sunny Sunday morning in November.

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Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow - Thoreau