Coppicing volunteers are the latest in a long line of guardians of the ancient woods
PUBLISHED: 15:13 05 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:13 08 January 2019
What better way to shrug off the festive excesses than with some good, honest work in the woods.
I had joined a group of volunteers in Bull’s Wood, a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve in the west Suffolk village of Cockfield close to Lavenham, to help (I hope) with their ongoing coppicing work.
Coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management, which exploits the capacity of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. The approach strengthens the trees, provides a regular supply of wood for all sorts of uses and creates different types of habitats for wildlife as the trees grow back and go through the various stages of succession.
According to the Trust’s west Suffolk woodland warden Giles Cawston, the remains of an ancient ditch and bank around part of the copse suggest it is likely coppicing has taken place in Bull’s Wood for at least 800 years although records are less complete than they are for the Trust’s nearby and better known Bradfield Woods.
Back in the Middle Ages, country folk would have used coppicing to sustainably harvest the wood, which would have been an incredibly important resource, providing firewood, handles for farming and hunting tools, furniture and fencing.
Today’s volunteers then, are the latest in a long line of workers who have sweated in Bull’s Wood, and testament to the importance of people who give their time and energy to ensure ancient woodlands like these remain in good condition.
Among their number are team leader Mark, the man with the chainsaw who takes the bigger trees down before they are processed by the team; Mike and Steve who have been walking over from nearby Thorpe Morieux to help out for years; and former PE teacher Adrian, who admits it is sometimes difficult to get out of bed and up to the woods for 8:30am on a wintry Sunday but once there, and enjoying the outdoors and the camaraderie around the fire, would not want to be anywhere else in the world.
I’m told there are some women members to the group who unfortunately aren’t present today.
The work is fairly physical: cutting up trees into logs; carrying wood to nearby piles; cleaning straighter branches to be used as fencing staves and moving and piling up brush wood. It’s the type of work that is good for body and mind - keeping you fit and outdoors close to nature, and a great antidote to the winter blues.
It’s also work you cannot rush - you must fall into a steady flow: slowly but surely creating a clearing through the woods, doing a bit each session. Besides, working amongst nature, it literally feels unnatural to do anything hasty. Here, there are different time paradigms at play.
Bull’s Wood is an ancient broad leaf wood consisting mainly of hazel, maple, ash, oak and even some elm, and the aim is to coppice on a rotation of 20 to 24 years, allowing the habitat to grow right through to high canopy before being cut once again.
And as the trees grow, so different wildlife benefits, says Giles.
A host of invertebrates and butterflies enjoy the light and food sources created by growth over the first few years, while the woodier, denser structures that develop from years four to seven are enjoyed by species such as dormouse, yellow-necked mouse and woodcock.
Beyond that, the high canopy provides a home for tawny owl and different species of bat while the dormouse also likes to climb higher. In parts of the wood, tall trees standing on different sides of a woodland ride are managed so their branches reach across and touch, providing a high-wire corridor for dormice to travel across the wood. In a few areas, rides are cut into rides to make them wider and to provide sunny and warm glades to encourage butterflies in the summer.
Sightings of dormice are rare in Bull’s Wood but it is hoped this work will encourage the population to grow. The work is carried out fortnightly, on Sunday mornings, for the four months between the first day of November and the last day of February. Beyond that time, the cutting and chopping must stop to avoid disturbing the wildlife, as the wood starts to come alive again after its winter slumber.
Never having seen a dormouse, Mike suggests (with tongue firmly in cheek) it must be a ferocious animal if seven men equipped with saws and scythes are not allowed into the wood after it awakes!!
One animal that, if not feared, is somewhat of a problem for the coppicing crew is deer.
Muntjac and roe deer, and to a lesser extent rabbit and hares, love nothing more than nibbling away at the fresh and soft growth from the coppiced stumbs. This will prevent the new trees from developing and eventually kill them.
Different approaches have been taken to try and deter the deer: last year brash wood was placed across the newly cut stumbs. Mark tells me that deer do not like to tip-toe through branches in case they get their feet caught - a survivalist instinct which allows them to escape the attentions of predators at all times.
This year, a double layer of protection is being built up to protect the new growth - a man-made fence is being erected around the area against which large amounts of brush is being piled.
A reward for the volunteers is that they can take some of the wood as firewood. We finish the session by helping to load up a truck for one of the team before heading off on our separate ways - ruddy, happy and fulfilled by our time in this special place.