The Heartwood Project has grown out of the need for sustainable management of UK woodlands. Our own Wiltshire/ Somerset locality is blessed with an abundance of native broadleaf as well as mixed conifer woodlands, yet much of it remains un-managed or receives a minimal level of stewardship. The problem here lies in the fact that much of our woodlands were managed in the past through methods such as coppicing and now lie in various stages of neglect; indeed many are at risk of complete collapse as the immense weight of the multiple stem regrowth of the coppiced stool can tip the whole tree when left overstood (growing beyond the coppice cycle optimum).
Decline and Neglect of Our Woodlands
The petro-chemical revolution propelled much of the world into a rapidly changing era of hyper-consumerism and cheap labour; fossil fuels and synthetic materials came to dominate industry displacing many of our rural industries and threatening the very substance of craftsmanship. The intensity of this new paradigm continues at terrifying pace and scale, as does the throw-away culture inherent to this growth/profit driven economic system; this is a way of life that stands worlds away from our traditional rural economies of people, and place.
Making and mending at the human scale; our woodlands were productive spaces which provided livelihoods and at times dwellings to workers and their families.
What Were These Woodland Folk Up To?
Produce from our woodlands included fence and gate hurdles, stakes and poles, thatching spars, laths for wattle and daub, shingles, tent pegs, pea sticks and bean poles, hedge-laying materials, bobbins, besom brooms, treen, furniture, hay-rakes, trugs and baskets, pencils, artist’s charcoal, walking sticks, sculpture and construction materials, shingles, faggots, firewood, charcoal and so much more than we can even try to mention here!
This history is apparent in many of our names today: Wood, Turner, Barker and Cooper for example all point to our woodland heritage and like many of our names, the landscape may also be read. Charcoal burner sites and old derelict coppices are traces of the proximity maintained between people and woods in the not too distant past.
So What Exactly Is Coppicing?
Coppicing is a traditional, sustainable and productive form of woodland management.
In a coppiced wood, troees are regularly cut off at ground level, causing many rods (rather than one large trunk) to grow from the stump or ‘stool’. The rods that grow from the stool are straight and long and can be used for many crafts and products. Most of our native trees will coppice well, with the most common species including hazel, ash, oak, birch, alder, and sweet chestnut (non native).
A coppiced wood is cut on a cycle, which can be anything from 5 to 30 years, depending on the size of the poles required. The wood is divided into areas or ‘coups’, equal to the number of years in the cycle, so one area is cut each year until you are back to the beginning.
The underwood (trees and shrubs to be coppiced) is cut and laid out to be sorted into different products. None of the wood is wasted, even the tops can be laid over the stools to discourage deer browsing.
Why Do we Coppice and Sustainably Manage Today?
Conservation and Biodiversity
Coppicing is great for wildlife as it allows light into the woods, causing a burst of growth and flowering of the woodland plants, increasing the diversity of species and creating a variety of vegetation heights within the wood. A coppiced woodland will encourage a wide diversity of insects, plants and animals to flourish such as woodland edge butterflies; in a derelict coppiced woodland, many of these species are likely to disappear.
The most usual coppicing system found in this area is called “coppice with standards”. In this type of coppicing practice not all the trees in the coup are coppiced, allowing a number of trees to mature. However, there should not be too many standards left or the regrowth of the coppice will suffer from poor light levels.
With thanks to BHMAT
Human Livelihoods and Resilience: Creative Diversity for the Future
UK woodlands have commanded much attention recently and have shown themselves to hold a very special place in the country’s heart.
Despite avoiding the big ‘sell-off’ proposals and being subject to extensive public consultation regarding the future management of the national forest and woodland reserves; there is, as yet, no inspiring or acceptable agenda in place for the future.
We find ourselves at a point of incredible potential however. The interest and passion that has exploded around woodlands reflects the growing concern around issues of sustainability, climate and stewardship as well as a back-lash against the all consuming mono-culture of mass production in the global market. Local, natural and small-scale appears to be the remedy of choice for many.
Austerity measures dominate the public discourse; employment and housing problems are increasing at an alarming rate as many of us are left in the wake of the current slump of the boom and bust cycle.
[SinglePic not found]Though not a Utopian solution by any means; our woods, managed well, can offer a renewable resource for housing, heating and agricultural materials whilst simultaneously ensuring increased biodiversity. Employment and training opportunities can be created within the woodland industries; a much needed resurgence would take place in our rural environments and economies. Young people would have some incentive to remain in the countryside, perhaps slowing the exodus to the cities which leaves our rural towns and villages to the sole domain of the ageing and retired.
The Housing dilemma
Housing issues must be addressed if this equation is to work; employment and training cannot overcome the distorted housing prices present in most rural locations. The planning system will eventually have to re-evaluate its criteria and facilitate the affordable and thus sustainable accommodation that will be required by a growing rural economy. Low impact developments or ‘LIDS’ present a feasible solution. Self-builds which draw on local resources can be constructed at no or low impact upon the environment and with major social benefit as communities are brought together in the creation of one another’s homes and associated livelihoods.
The Woodshare Agenda
The Heartwood Project can offer a point of contact for woodland owners and potential woodland workers who share an interest in sustainable woodland management, and the revival of our woodland heritage skills.
Our own project began when the needs of the woodland owners and of us, the landless woodland workers, were met. The owner receives assistance in management, and we benefit from the opportunity to develop our skills and knowledge of woodlands further. In this model of sharing resources and skills, there lies the potential to care for and diversify our local woodlands, whilst creating employment and training in our rural economies.
A woodland workers co-operative is the ultimate aim. Woodland management is demanding work and can be isolating and exhausting for the lone woodworker. The expense of equipment can be another off-putting factor for many. A co-operative could potentially provide a body of support where tools and machinery, vehicles, manpower and time could be pulled together to mutually support each woodworker and the wood he or she is based in. It could also provide the creativity and imagination required for diversification of woodland activities involving as many people as possible.
As Ben Law beautifully asserted in his ‘Woodland Way':
“We are dreaming of the day when we can walk from one wood to another and there will be a kettle boiling on the fire for a welcoming cuppa with friends.”