Coppicing To Open Up Opportunities!

Coppicing: a conservation approach to that removes most of the above-ground tree

This approach is to manage your trees from over-shadowing the plants beneath it, giving the smaller flora a chance to grow & flourish, whilst developing the ideal leafy canopy to support a wildlife & plant-life alike.

How does coppicing work?

Trees respond to different stresses in their own way, although there is a shared reaction of almost every tree in response to naturally occurring damage caused by either fires, storms, and/or browsing animal, effectively debilitating the above-ground portion of any tree and therefore causing the future death of it. If their roots survive these situations then it is this shared special ability of theirs that activates to restore them, though not to their former glory, and this ability ‘stems’ (foreshadowing pun) from Dormant Buds. In damaged areas on the surviving stump, trunk and/or main branches, dormant buds dwelling under the surface of the tree undergo a response to the threats, creating multiple new stems that acts as replacements to the damaged portions of the tree and grow from the exposed areas.

Imagine having your arm lopped off, only to have 10 thinner ones grow back. If it were me, i’d be concerned about who lopped off my arm, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Instead, you could use those spare arms to supplement the loss of your old one, and use them to replace the necessity for your old one. This is what tree’s are doing, they grow numerous alternate thinner tree trunks in an attempt to offset the damage or loss of their main trunk, and thereby still getting their dose of sweet, sweet UV light.

The name given to actively encouraging this process is called Coppicing, and this is a very well-established practice.

A secondary method, Pollarding, is the conservationists answer to several issues when & if the need arises with coppicing. This practice relies on cutting higher up the trunk to create new growth at a higher level. This can chosen over coppicing to avoid animals stripping bark off new growth, or to keep the crowns in check when you don’t want to lost the old tree trunk! Though this isn’t as ideal as coppicing, situationally it can be a more beneficial choice for everyone involved.

Is coppicing for you?

For you, it could be out of concern for the environment, or perhaps a personal, practical, financial, or aesthetic reason. You may simply want to lighten up a portion of your garden for your other plants, or take down the tree whilst still retaining the space as a hedgerow or shrub. On the other hand, you could decide to you need a steady supply of kindling, a framework for climbing plants, or perhaps wooden poles for carvings, and such reasons can be both personal and financial. Finally, you may make the choice to do so for purely aesthetic reasons, perhaps as an alternative to bamboo canes, or as an addition for a rustic style to your garden.

Regardless of your choice you will have an opportunity to benefit the local wildlife & environment. You can use this technique to encourage the biodiversity within your garden by diversifying an overcrowded portion of your land, thus raising the light levels to support the low-growing plant-life, providing a steady supply of dead-wood, and act as a supplementary resource for wildlife.

What can be coppiced?

If you find any of the trees mentioned in this table in your garden, then you can confidently consider going ahead with coppicing them. These aren’t the only options, but they’re the ones native to the UK and therefore will support the more of the native wildlife.

Hazel (Corylus avellana)Beech (Fagus sylvatica)Oak (Quercus)Yew (Taxus)
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)Sycamore (Acer psuedoplanatus)Elm (Ulmus)Elder (Sambucus)
Poplar (Populus)Lime (Tilia)Dogwood (Cornus)Alder (Alnus)
Willow (Salix species)Hornbeam (Carpinus)Wild Cherry (Prunus)
UK Native Trees for Coppicing

The majority of these species take well to coppicing and often benefit from an extension in lifespan, though other species including Beech, Sycamore, Birch and Ash are less long-lived through coppicing, so it can be worth thinking & lightly researching about before getting stuck in.

How to Coppice a tree:

The basic of basics, coppicing is easy as long as you have something sharp to cut with. Well, lets say as long as you have a saw of kind (Bowsaw, hacksaw, chainsaw etc) to cut it back initially, and they you can rely on secateurs for the rest of the tree’s future. In terms of how to make the best cuts for coppicing, try to make sloping cuts where possible as this increases the chance & number of shoot-buds forming [and this applies to all species of tree]. You decide where on the tree to begin cutting, if you decide to coppice you can leave as little as a stump to grow shoots from, but alternatively you can decide how much tree trunk to leave behind to grow the shoots a little higher. Coppicing is the most beneficial method to use as the shoots tend to develop their own root systems through the leftover stump and can become independent in case of further tree damage, so cutting it low to the roots is a good idea if you’re worried about killing off the tree through inexperience. However you can decide to go with pollarding as this method produces more shoots for a denser canopy, though they tend to be more prone to health-issues and therefore less stable, but worth doing if done right.

If you have the patience you can go so far as to choose optimal seasons to both coppice & pollard! Conventionally it is viewed that the period between late-Autumn and early-Spring is ideal for cutting as this is a generally dormant period of activity, with less bark tearing, stump/trunk mortality or frost damage to developing shoots whilst also avoiding disturbing the bird nesting season (April-July). This being said, if you do decide to cut outside of this timeframe then there will be a difference in both shoot height & numbers, yet this tends to disappear after a few years of growth, though they may go through a few years of being more prone to deterioration & decay than the winter-cut trees. It’s a matter of both free-time and preference.

Now you’re looking for a tree that can handle being coppiced, one that’s old enough & ugly enough that can take being damage to such an extent. The best criteria is to find a tree that’s at least 15 years old yet younger than half of it’s natural lifespan, this age range is enough for the tree to have been around long enough to have established itself but still be young enough to spring back to full health. Theres a good rule of thumb for the tree to be a least 15cm in diameter, this can give a good indicator that the tree is ready to take to coppicing. Some tree species can react better to being cut earlier in their lifespan, such as Birch and Beech, so it’s worth doing a little research depending on what’s available in your garden.

If you have options then choose a tree that’s in a open location, somewhere like a hedgerow, low-laying shrub-land, or areas of thinned canopy. This gives trees the light resources they need once their new shoots start going through and providing much needed energy for regrowth. If you decide to go with pollarding, then also cut the high limbs first and leave the lower branches intact to support the development of new shoots before finally removing the lower limbs to create more space for new shoots to arise.

In the long term you can manage these coppiced trees with ease by simply keeping an eye on the shoots as they grow and regularly cutting them back once they reach your desired height. In the beginning you wont have to worry thinning shoots as they compete for resources amongst themselves to establish a few dominant shoots, but you may want to cut down a few shoots once the coppiced tree starts becoming overly dense.

If you notice your coppice is taking damage from wildlife (rabbits or deer for example, as they tend to nibble on fresh & tender shoots), you can take some steps to defend them if you haven’t gone down the pollarding route to avoid said troubles. Conservationists typically advocate for a natural-barricading approach using brash piles, often topped with thorny species like Rose-Briar or Bramble, or to create dead-hedges of the brash with some upright stakes to hold it in place. Though a combination of the two may act as the best deterrence in preventing damage, with a dead-hedge surrounding the brash pile. Ultimately though, fencing does work as well if it suits either your style of garden, or if you would prefer to avoid a the natural-barrier approach.

As a final note, if you have a neglected coppiced tree in your garden you may benefit from reintroducing it to the coppicing cycle, removing some of the aged shoots to let young growth stages begin. As you return it to being cut, the tree begins to regulate to development of new buds for shoots to develop from and begin to continuously grow new shoots, and developing a diverse canopy.

Extra Steps for Wildlife

From a biodiversity perspective coppicing can be an issue for a few reasons, but particularly if all the new shoots don’t vary in both age & development stage, and also that as the lifespan of the tree can be extended it doesn’t drop deadwood as frequently, thereby not supporting as much wildlife.

But there are remedies to the issues! All you need is a bit of spare time & TLC, and you’ll have a bunches wildlife visiting your trees all year round.

One such way is to cut away shoots from time-to-time to maintain your bright understory, and leaving the shoots to decompose back into the ground to support the local bug-life. This answers the most common issues of coppicing there is, a very simple solution.

If you have a specific conservation goal to achieve then you can even purpose select the species of tree you’d like to coppice and benefit from their unique characteristics. For example, Oak, Birch, and Ash all have a tendency to allow more light through and are perfect if you’re looking for a lighter garden for your light demanding plants. You can achieve the same affect by alternating trees with shrubs though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *