I originally wrote this article on coppicing for the Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL ) Bushcraft Special Interest Group (BSIG) newsletter which came out in February 2015.
Based in the south east of England, our woodland was badly damaged by the hurricane in 1987. Whilst many mature beech, ash, sweet chestnut and oak were unscathed, large parts were completely devastated and left levelled. Fortunately the owner saw fit to re-plant and now 28 years later the woodland has recovered and it’s difficult to imagine the damage caused.
Amongst the many native broadleaf species re-planted was hazel. I use a lot of hazel in my bushcraft, from simple tent pegs and poles for putting up a tarp to fire by friction bows and spindles, pot hangers for cooking and even for surprisingly effective stick bows; it’s rightly referred to as the woodsman’s friend. And we’re very fortunate that we have a lot of it.
Hazel is a tree that is harvested much like a crop in a process known as ‘coppicing’. The word coppicing is derived from the French ‘couper’, meaning ‘to cut’, and has left its mark on woodland names; when you’re out and see a woodland called a copse, it will almost certainly have been coppiced at some time. Coppicing takes advantage of a tree’s ability to produce new stems when it’s cut down. In coppicing the tree or shrub is cut to ground level; from this ‘stool’ many new ‘stems’ will grow, so a renewable resource. Hazel is traditionally coppiced on a 7 year cycle. A woodland would be divided into 7 sections and a different section coppiced each year, so in year 1 section 1 is coppiced, in year 2 section 2 is coppiced and so on, until in year8 section 1 is coppiced again. As well as many bushcraft uses, the stems from coppiced hazel have been used to make hurdles, poles for growing beans and pegs in thatching.
The hazel in our woodland is ‘overstood’, it hasn’t been coppiced regularly and many of the hazel stems we have are much bigger than they should be and so we’ve been working on getting them back onto a 7 year cycle. The wood we’ve harvested is being put to good use; we’ve made fire by friction bows and drills, laid several dead hedges and created drifts which make good habitat for invertebrates, small mammals and birds. The really thick stems have been stacked in cords and will make excellent firewood in a couple of years time.
It’s hard work and there’s plenty left to do still, but it’ll all be worth it!