An ancient practice which provides a constant, sustainable source of timber and creates a diverse range of habitats for insects, birds, wildlife and plants, is being kept alive on the Hadlow Estate in Kent.
A three acre area of sweet chestnut is currently being coppiced at the Pembury Reserve woodland near Potters Wood, which is part of Tudeley Woods. The 890 acre site between Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge is managed by the Hadlow Estate in partnership with the RSPB.
Coppicing dates back to the Stone Age and involves the cutting of trees to ground level to create stems or ‘stools’, so the chopped wood can be harvested to make fence panels, posts and gates. Far from being a destructive process, coppicing can rejuvenate the tree and encourages multiple shoots to develop and grow. Within six to 15 years it will be ready to coppice once again and the cycle will continue, offering a constant supply of raw materials which support local businesses and the economy.
Kate Teacher of the Hadlow Estate, says: “Coppicing brings a great deal of ecological and wildlife benefits by creating a mosaic of habitats across the woodland, as different areas are felled at different times. It brings light flooding in and onto the woodland floor, with varying degrees of light and shade thanks to variations in the canopy height of the trees. This in turn creates a diverse, species rich habitat which benefits plants and flowers, insects, particularly butterflies like fritillaries, dragonflies and beetles, and small mammals like mice, dormice and shrews.
“Birds including tree pipits, yellowhammers and linnets also thrive. The benefits from a sustainability point of view is that the woodland can be carefully managed and the process is prolonging the life of the trees.”
These current works have been planned in conjunction with the RSPB to meet the Estate’s conservation objectives to improve the woodland ecosystem. Much of the woodland is ancient and semi-ancient woodland, and has been managed with coppicing for hundreds of years, with different areas, known as ‘cants’ or ‘coupes’ being chosen in rotation.
Experts from Torry Hill Chestnut Fencing are undertaking the work. Director John Leigh-Pemberton, explains the process: “When the timber is first cut, each piece is usually 20 to 30ft long. Initially it will be stacked up in the woodland before it is transported back to our factory where the poles are cut to the lengths required. They are then put through a peeler to remove all of the bark.
“Our skilled pale makers then split the wood and we’ll usually produce 20,000 pales a day – each one made by hand. Within two or three days they’ll be in a fence or someone’s garden. It’s quite a swift process.
“Coppicing has so many benefits and is completely sustainable as there’s no need to use any chemicals or fertilisers and you never have to replant new trees.”
Another benefit of the process is the beautiful flowers that flourish thanks to sunlight reaching the woodland floor. By the spring, the coppiced woodland will be a sea of colour with a blanket of bluebells. Wood anemones, violets and primroses, whose seeds may have been dormant in the woodland soil, can also appear in areas that have recently been coppiced.
Kate Teacher continues: “This is a wonderful way to keep valuable rural crafts alive and we are pleased as an Estate that we are contributing to the management of woodland using a traditional technique that has been going on for generations, protecting and preserving a long heritage.
“We are proud to be able to continue this tradition which also supports local rural employment and traditional Kentish crafts.”