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Rockingham Forest Blog

  • Writer's pictureIan Hilbert

Coppicing then and now

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

By Ian Hilbert

Ian works for the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs & Northants (BCN) as a Reserve Officer. He is part of the team that carries out practical habitat management on nature reserves across Northamptonshire – it's like gardening, but on steroids! Everything is done on a much larger scale than in a garden and often with much larger equipment.

The aim of our work is to create or maintain a wide range of habitats for wildlife to live in.

Within Rockingham Forest there are several Wildlife Trust BCN nature reserves, some of which are Ancient Woodlands, meaning they have been continuously wooded since at least 1600. These relics of the former forest include Short Wood and Southwick Wood near Oundle, Kings Wood in Corby, and Old Sulehay near Wansford. There’s also Glapthorn Cow Pastures, which is now a wood but, as the name implies, it wasn’t always that way!

What is coppicing? A definition could be ‘the cutting down, to ground level, of trees and shrubs to stimulate new growth’. This looks very harsh when it’s first done, but it stimulates a natural response in the trees. Possibly this evolved to cope with Mammoths or Straight-tusked Elephants who would have pushed their way through the forests of Northern Europe in the not-so-distant past.

Most of our native deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter) respond in the same way if they are cut to the ground. This cutting back rejuvenates the tree and it throws out new shoots if protected from being grazed by cattle, rabbits and, especially, deer.

Traditionally the coppicing was carried out on a 10 , 15 or 20 year rotation. The trunks that you saw through would have been just that old, but the stools (roots) that they grew from could be many times that age. Some of the oldest trees in our reserves are not the mighty Oaks we can recognise – but Ash or Hazel coppice stools which could be hundreds of years old. The picture here shows a magnificent stool in Old Sulehay which must be many hundreds of years old

The coppicing we carry out tends to be of Hazel, this is an understory plant, meaning that it can exist in the shade of larger trees. However, whilst it ‘waits in the shade’ it doesn’t grow very quickly or set seed – it needs more direct sunlight to do that. Should one of the larger trees fall down or be felled, then the Hazels will put on a spurt of growth. This is important as, traditionally, coppicing left a few large trees standing in the same area. These trees would be left to provide much larger timber for houses and, famously, ships for the Navy.

Historically, humans have used this natural response to provide conveniently sized building material as well as fuel for cooking. It is very likely that the woods within the Rockingham Forest area would have been very heavily managed by humans throughout most of history. It is only in the last 175 years or so that coal became readily available – prior to that, burning wood or other vegetation would have provided heat. The woods would have provided food from the grazing animals as well as, in effect, being intensively farmed for wood products. So a lot of the woods that we see now are, in fact, derelict, abandoned ‘farms’ for wood. In a lot of places the last time the trees would have been coppiced seems to be around World War 2.

What’s this got to do with wildlife? The woods we have today are marvellous places for some sorts wildlife – the species that can cope with a wood that has a continuous cover of leaves during the summer.

There’s much less light available under cover of tree canopy than out in the open, though It may not seem so to our eyes, which are very sensitive to changes in light and compensate rapidly when we move from sun to shade. Consequently under the canopy it’s darker, cooler, and due to the trees’ roots, drier. The species that thrive in these conditions, the plants, the insects and the birds that eat those insects are the ones that tolerate shade the best.

Other plants and the life that depends on them, require more light, and that can be provided either by mammoths or elephants crashing through the wood, or by humans coppicing areas of the wood and letting the light through to the forest floor. This light stimulates different plants to grow, their seeds often lying dormant in the soil for years or being blown in to the cleared areas. These plants in turn provide food sources (often nectar) for hoverflies and butterflies amongst others.

The Wildlife Trust BCN carries out coppicing in all of the ancient woods mentioned above – in some cases we are able to use some of the wood we cut down to make stakes and binders for hedge laying, but mostly the wood is stacked to create habitat piles. The market for wood products, especially ones that require carrying by hand from the middle of a reserve, isn’t very good.

Our coppicing is generally done using hand tools by our fantastic volunteer teams. This takes place out over the winter months when birds are not nesting and before any ground flora starts to sprout. Centuries ago when they provided fuel and building materials for our ancestors, the woods would have looked very different. Today, we are able to coppice relatively small areas and our intention is to create a patchwork of different aged trees, some just beginning to shoot, others that are 10-15 years old and everything in between.

I mentioned the grazing of coppice stools. Rockingham Forest is an area where Forest Law once applied, mainly directed towards the protection of the monarch’s deer. There are many more deer around today than when Henry VIII was hunting here

When we coppice today, we try to make sure that the Hazel stools are not overshadowed by larger trees (to encourage them to grow quickly). We also ‘brash up’ around the cut Hazel stools. This means we place large piles of the twiggy ends of the Hazel over the cut stumps. This tends to keep deer away for long enough to allow the Hazel shoots to get above deer browsing height.

This coming winter in Southwick wood we intend to start testing to see whether the use of Heras fencing (6 foot panels like you can see around building sites) would be a good way of protecting against deer browsing in a wood that has a very high deer population – watch this space to see how we get on!

Guided Walk

In July Ian will be leading a guided walk in Ring Haw, part of the Old Sulehay Nature Reserve. The walk will focus on the part of the reserve that was formerly quarries, rather than on Ancient Woodland. More about this walk, including booking on the Events page.

Visiting the Nature Reserves

Elsewhere on the website you can see more pictures about three of the Wildlife Trust BCN nature reserves. Please see the Places to Visit page .

Volunteering for WTBCN

Conservation work parties operate on many of the reserves across Northamptonshire. You can find out more and join in by following this link to their website.



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