Cutting to the chase
The Guardian, Wednesday 23 February 2005 - View on the Guardians site
The ancient craft of coppicing has gone from boom to bust and back again. But it is not out of the woods yet, writes Paul Evans
Karl Liebscher's bill-hook is an extension of his right arm. With more than 20 years' experience behind each swing, the cuts are turning random-looking sticks into something beautifully functional.
Liebscher is coppicing - cutting the tall stems of hazel down to stumps. The poles he cuts will be used as stakes for his hedge-laying business, and the light he lets in to the woodland floor by cutting down the hazel will encourage wild flowers and insects. The hazel shrubs will regenerate and, in seven to eight years' time, he will repeat the process, following a cycle of woodland management that has been carried out since neolithic times.
"Up to the 19th century, coppice was the major tree crop, especially in southern England," says Ted Collins, emeritus professor of agriculture at Reading University. "The products were used for fuel, charcoal, hurdles and a host of different articles.
"After its peak in the mid-19th century, the trade fell away because of technical obsolescence - hazel hoops for barrel-making were replaced by metal ones, coal replaced firewood - and foreign competition. By the 1930s the industry was in dire straits. The bad winters of the early 1960s were a death-knell. By then, there were only 600 coppice workers left, compared with up to 20,000 managing 100,000 acres of woodland in the 19th century."
An interest in traditional woodland management practices for nature conservation and a revival of countryside crafts stimulated a coppicing recovery in the 70s and 80s.
Andy Mason, rural development advisor at the Forestry Commission, which supports a lot of modern coppicing says: "The main driver for coppicing now is to meet biodiversity targets, especially where it is appropriate to ancient woodland and sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). By restoring traditional management, woodlands become vibrant and there are great conservation benefits."
Collins disagrees. He believes a flourishing coppicing industry that supplies materials to a burgeoning crafts market needs a sound economic base irrespective of its conservation value. "Woods that appeal to wildlife enthusiasts may not be the best for production," he says, "especially if they were last cut 45 years ago and they are steep and wet. It may take three cuts - that's 21 years - to bring a wood up to scratch. Conservation coppice often produces poor quality material."
While coppicing is regarded as one of the most idealistically sustainable activities, tensions remain between conservation and economics.
Farningham Woods in north Kent, a largely medieval sweet chestnut coppice, is an SSSI and a local authority owned nature reserve. Coppicing was revived here as part of the woods' management plan in 1986.
owever, according to Jennifer Gough-Cooper, a local resident and conservation campaigner, coppicing has become increasingly about revenue generation and insensitive to conservation aims.
"Certain designated non-intervention areas, left to be natural, may now be cut," she says. "Original conservation plans are being cast aside to get at economic wood. Because Farningham Woods are an SSSI, the balance should be 90% for conservation, but after 25 years they are tearing up plans to go for it willy nilly, losing the chance to see what would happen to woodland that was left to nature."
Despite the recent revival, coppicing faces a crisis. According to Collins, this is largely a problem of recruitment and business building, but also the supply of raw materials has to compete with cheap imports from Poland and Belarus.
"People entering the business are interested in the lifestyle. If they can learn the skills, get through a couple of winters and grow the market for their business, the market is buoyant and they can make a decent living," he says.
A small group of people gathered at Wenlock Edge, Shropshire, watch Karl Liebscher demonstrate his fluency with the bill-hook in awe, then have a go themselves. "This is the first coppicing course to be accredited by the Open College Network," explains Judy Walker, director of the Green Wood Centre in nearby Coalbrookdale, which is leading the coppice revival.
Liebscher walks sagely around his trainees, grappling with the wood. "There is more awareness now," he says. "People want to look after the land and find out about traditions that almost faded out.
"The rebirth of coppicing is a new thing. It will never be like it was. We have to be realistic. Coppicing could be a real industry but probably only as one string - part of an occupation - not all."