March Musings – on Brambles and Coppicing

In the short window following the strong winds of storm Gareth and before spring gets properly underway when the birds and bees get ready for, well, the birds and the bees, there has just been time to do a spot of woodland work.
If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Why? Because three hazel trees have been cut to near ground level, or coppiced, creating a clearing in the woodland. Sounds drastic? Well, allow me to explain.

Coppicing is an ancient technique that has been practised in this country for centuries. It relies on the fact that deciduous trees (and many other plants) resprout from below where they were cut. Trees, such as hazel and willow, are planted and then cut every few years to obtain products such as poles, whips for basketry, timber for fencing and firewood. In pre-industrial times this sustained people’s needs and was also amazing for wildlife. Coppiced woodlands are managed on a rotation system, a different area being cleared each winter, creating a mosaic pattern of different age trees and habitat at different stages of succession. As light floods into the woodland there is a profusion of woodland wildflowers and over the next few years young saplings rush upwards to close the gap in the canopy. The coppiced area effectively creates more woodland edge, the most diverse part of the habitat, attracting both creatures that like the shade and those preferring the sun. The unusable tops of the cut trees can be turned into protective dead hedges around the coppiced area, slowly rotting and returning nutrients to the soil. So, a win for people and a win for wildlife!
With all our electricity and modern stuff, we are less reliant on our woodlands for our direct needs, although of course we should value them highly as nature’s air conditioners, soil builders and flood preventers to name but three essential ecological services they provide for us. The sad thing is that much of the wildlife associated with coppiced woodlands has declined as they fell out of favour with modern society.

So, back to Sadeh’s woodland. By counting the tree rings on stumps, I reckon they were last coppiced maybe 30 years ago. The intention here is to gradually restore the hazel coppice at the northern end, while leaving the southern part as wilder wood to be enjoyed by all. The hazel limbs, which I cut with bowsaws over a few days in March, will become stakes for the farm, firewood, log piles and dead hedges. Plus, I collected many bags worth of litter from the wood, so it is becoming cleaner and less hazardous too. And the new clearing offers a perfect opportunity for woodland education sessions or just watching the evening sun set through the trees.

We can connect with our wild spaces more by obtaining from them some of our needs, none more so than our food. What a great fruit is the blackberry! And how do we wish we could reach the middle of the bramble patch, such that in the late summer you can find its edge indented with pockets as pickers reach ever further for the purplest, juiciest berries. Voila! The large bramble patch near to the compost heaps now features 3 paths, oriented towards the sun to maximise ripening, so we can access even more blackberries. And brought about by a combination of chopping, weaving the bramble into one other, a few stakes for support, cardboard to keep down the nettles and an acceptance that getting scratched by thorns is all part of the fun. Brambles are also great wildlife habitat, so half of the patch is left for non-humans to enjoy undisturbed.

Bramble leaves are also edible. Did you know that they make a tasty and nutritious herbal “tea”? I highly recommend it. Early spring is the best time to pick the new light green leaves while they are soft and thorn-free. Washed of critters and then dried in the dehydrator for about 7 hours we now have several jars worth adding to our stores of dried herbs.