Curry Woods Conservation Trust

contact us at cwctrust@aol.com

Coppice is a ancient term applied to some wonderfully adaptable trees. It was discovered millennia ago that Hazel and Ash can be cut down to the ground and the stumps or stools will produce vigorous new shoots the following spring. The new shoots are straight and quick growing. As each stump throws up several shoots this is a very productive system. In the past the length of time the new shoots were allowed to grow varied according to the end use of the wood. As they were so straight they made excellent poles to support climbing plants or they could be used in simple agricultural buildings, stakes when hedgerows were "laid"' (another ancient method of using trees to make stock proof hedges) and very importantly in charcoal manufacture. Many tonnes of coppiced wood were used to make charcoal. There was a community of charcoal burners who lived in  forests in makeshift accommodation, harvested wood by coppicing, cut it into short lengths, stacked it and set it alight. After the wood was alight turves would be stacked on the smouldering wood in a conical, beehive shape with a small air vent at ground level and a chimney at the highest point, usually just a hole stuffed with straw. The restricted oxygen flow in the stack meant the wood dried and partially burnt but cleverly left each stick carbonised - each stick was left as a dried black, log shaped piece of charcoal; literally charred coal. The material made excellent fuel, burning hotter than untreated wood because it contained little if any water and was almost pure carbon. It was used in huge quantities and some charcoal burners spent their entire lives in the forests of old England coppicing and burning. A very dirty business, hopefully they had better accommodation in villages and towns in the winter but one suspects some didn't. At least they had a plentiful supply of fuel. I have tried my hand at charcoal making on a small scale back in the 1950 and 60s and it is very satisfying way of using wood. With the industrial mining of coal (coal was used on a small scale from Roman times) charcoal became less important even although it is one of the three main ingredients of gunpowder and black powder. Coppicing continued on a diminishing scale until the end of the 1940s when the value of the poles became too low to pay for the labour. Once it ceased entirely the coppiced woodlands and their particular fauna and flora gradually vanished as the old coppiced stools grew into mature trees. The trees were invigorated rather than weakened by coppicing and so grew rapidly forming a canopy which excluded light and shaded the forest floor. Many plants and animals that loved Hazel coppice vanished and some, like dormice, became nearly extinct in Britain. Curry Woods was once coppiced, old stools of Ash and Hazel can seen when one looks carefully. The trees coming from such stools are huge now. Could a relict population of dormice be hanging on? The trust will coppice small areas of the new wood to be planted - you never know, perhaps there is hope for the dormic there!