This March we’re running subsidised training courses on the ancient woodland management technique of ‘coppicing’. But what exactly does it mean ‘to coppice’ and why should we still be coppicing woodlands in Sussex today?

Lost Woods woodland management skills trainer Chris Keeler explains.

What is coppicing?

Coppicing is a woodland management technique that can be dated back to the Stone Age. To ‘coppice’ means to repeatedly fell dormant trees at the base (usually in late September to early March) and then allow them to regrow. Not only does this provide a sustainable source of timber, the root systems that have already developed in felled trees speed up the regrowth process, and make the trees less susceptible to shading (so that more light reaches the forest floor).

Photos by ©Emma Goldsmith/ Small Woods

Why coppice in small woodlands?

Most small woodlands in the UK are either former coppices, or woodlands that could benefit from coppice management.

Lost Woods project partner the Small Woods Association consider coppicing as one of the most beneficial forms of woodland management – here’s why:  

Coppicing helps sequester carbon

This is still an under-researched area, but from what we know, coppicing is a good means of sequestering carbon.  Coppicing maintains trees at high growth rates, meaning high rates of sequestration.  Root systems remain alive even immediately after cutting; hence the trees continue to sequester carbon throughout the coppice cycle.  The associated mycelial networks also maintain their integrity, meaning that the 70%+ of woodland carbon that is below ground stays alive and continues to accumulate at all stages of its growth cycle.  

This is not the case with traditional plantation forestry, where the felling of a mature tree often kills the root and leads to the eventual release of the carbon held in the root systems through decomposition.  There is a great deal of variation, with continuous cover systems retaining more sub-soil carbon than clear cut systems.

Coppicing boosts biodiversity

Many plants and animals depend on sufficient levels of light penetration. Those that do have been in significant decline over the past decades - an example being woodland butterflies, whose numbers have dropped by 50% since 1990. Coppicing brings light to the woodland floor and promotes the year-round growth of ground flora, which in turn promotes insects and other animals, notably birds and small mammals.

Coppicing is unequivocally good for biodiversity and any carbon benefits need to be weighed alongside the biodiversity benefits.

Coppicing helps us make products

Many of our traditional crafts depend on coppice products, such as thatching, basket making, hedging, weaving, spinning, furniture making, etc.  As these practices enjoy a resurgence, we will need good quality product to enable their growth.  The shortest coppicing cycle is approximately 7 years for hazel, 1 –3 for willow, 15 – 20 for chestnut and 20 + for oak, meaning there is currently a limited supply.

Many coppice crafts sadly fell into disuse following the plastic revolution of the twentieth century.  As we now try to replace plastics in our everyday lives, we would be well advised to look back to move forwards, for example promoting willow and hazel baskets as sustainable alternatives to plastic shopping bags.

Join a training course

If you're a complete beginner or looking to improve your technique, then you can join our subsidised Introduction to Coppicing or Introduction to Making Coppice Products courses this March. Find out more and book. We'll be running more courses later in 2024.