By Jemma Cuthbert
Jemma first wrote this article for the Ketton Parish Magazine in March 2022. She is secretary of the Ketton Green Spaces Group, and Education Officer with the Royal Forestry Society. She lives with her family in Collyweston village.
Collyweston Great Wood and Easton Hornstocks are two ancient lime coppices and remnants of the once extensive Rockingham Forest. They’re now managed by Natural England as a National Nature Reserve and since they are sensitive wildlife habitats, you have to apply for a permit for access. You can also volunteer to help coppice the lime trees, as some local residents have been doing over the last few years.
So what is coppicing?
Coppicing is a way of getting wood from trees by cutting them down to the ground, but unlike other forestry, you rely on each tree growing back again from the stump. It’s then cut again some years later, and again and again, in a continuous cycle for possibly hundreds of years. The regrowth is different from normal tree growth: multiple stems spring up from the stump, rather than just one trunk, as shown in this picture.
Most of our broadleaved trees have the ability to do this, though the ones most often coppiced in Rockingham Forest were hazel, oak, ash and small leaved lime. The number of years between cutting depends on the species of tree and what you plan to use it for. For example, hazel is often cut around every 10 years, whereas oak, ash and lime are left to grow for perhaps 20 or more years, to produce chunkier stems.
Usually, a scattering of trees are allowed to grow on without being coppiced. These are called “standards” – they’re often oak or ash destined eventually to be harvested as bigger timber. Care must be taken that these larger trees don’t shade the coppiced “underwood” too much, and that cut stumps are protected from grazing animals such as deer (a difficult job nowadays, as with no predators except humans, the wild-deer population is rocketing!)
A big enough area must also be cut in one season. If only a small area is cut, or a few trees cut here and there, then the re-growth is not good enough for making products: the light reaching the trees will be patchy, so the growth will be slow, uneven and poorly shaped.
Coppicing now and in history
There is archaeological evidence of coppicing from Neolithic times and it was the most common way of managing woodlands for resources in this country until the mid 19th century. If you think about the effort used to fell large trees and cut them into planks etc, in the days before mechanisation it made much more sense to get the wood you need from smaller-diameter trunks if possible. It was such a ubiquitous practice, it’s quite extraordinary that it seems to have now dropped out of our public consciousness. The fact is that it almost entirely died out by the later part of the 20th century. In the UK, the area of actively managed coppice declined by nearly 95% between 1905 and 2003. Some coppices are still managed to sell products – a fantastic local example is Rawhaw Wood, Pipewell, where the owners have restored a “derelict” hazel coppice and sell hazel products (such as stakes and binders for hedge laying, garden bean poles and charcoal) to make their living. But many former coppices only exist now as unmanaged fragments.
Some, however, are cut by conservation volunteers in an attempt to replicate this ancient woodland management cycle. This opens up the canopy temporarily to let more light in, benefitting many plants that live on the woodland floor, plus all the animals further up the food chain that depend on them. Disturbance is an important part of natural systems - the coppice cycle mimics natural succession and keeps it looping in endless repetition, benefiting different species at different stages. Of course, coppicing wasn’t invented as a conservation tool - the wildlife that it happens to benefit has for centuries lived in working coppices, where people coppiced to earn a living and to obtain the materials they needed for everyday life.
Our local coppices
So what resource were Easton Hornstocks and Collyweston Great Wood coppiced for? It’s clear from their shapes that the limes have been coppiced in the past. But are there any historical sources which tell us more? When researching this, I stumbled upon some pages from The Economist magazine from 1855, advertising the sale not of lime, but of oak bark from 13 local woodlands
It was like stepping back in time: reading words written by a real person from the past about a place you know -- that feels a little like time travel!
So, it seems at least one of the uses of these woodlands was to provide oak bark to tan leather. As Northampton and Kettering were centres of leather industry in the past, it’s tempting to presume this bark was sold to be used there. But what about the lime? Without any local historical documents shedding any light on this, I and other members of the volunteer group have had to look further afield and make some suppositions.
Options include wood for carving (it’s excellent for this – the famous wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, often used lime for his work). It was also used for piano keys: an article in the Peterborough Advertiser in 1912 looks back on former days in the neighbouring woodland of Bedford Purlieus, and says:
“Lime trees do not sell so well as formerly, because they were largely used in the making of pianos.”
Our favourite theory, however, is that the lime was harvested for the “bast” – a layer just under the bark which makes very good rope. But that’s another story and the subject of another blog article altogether: Making rope from trees, by Peter Lloyd Bennett, another member of our group.
Whatever resources people of the past got from these woods, learning about them is a reminder to us today that all of our resources have to come from somewhere. All have an effect on the environment whenever and wherever they are produced, and all have to eventually be disposed of (wood products rot away harmlessly, unlike plastic etc). In the modern world, it’s easy to be totally detached from each part of this chain: out of sight is often out of mind. Coppicing for products is one of the best types of “nature-friendly forestry” (I’m on a mission to borrow that term from the nature-friendly farming movement!) – perhaps we need to take a step back to move forwards, and get more of our resources this way?
The Easton Hornstocks coppicing group would love more members – it’s a great way to get outside and get fit in a green gym! You can also take away some lime wood to use for whatever you choose. Some of us take advantage of the supply of logs to heat our homes. There is a great sense of satisfaction from working in the woods, improving the habitat and taking home timber that you know has been managed in a very sustainable way.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get involved, or if you are interested in helping to survey the wildlife at these reserves.