Last week, the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers were carrying out coppicing at Ruffet and Bigwood in Coulsdon, a site owned by the Woodland Trust, that Sutton Council helps to manage.
Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees and shrubs to ground level, promoting vigorous re-growth and a sustainable supply of timber for future generations. Cutting an established tree down to it’s base instigates the fresh growth of many smaller shoots, which quickly grow upwards towards the sky. After 8-15 years, these are then harvested, restarting the cycle once more. This can help to prevent the manifestation of dead or diseased wood in the tree, by renewing constant fresh growth and the removal of old wood, allowing the tree to live for a lot longer than if it were left un-coppiced.
While originally used to produce various building materials (hurdles, wattle and daub etc.) and charcoal, today it is mainly maintained by conservation groups to create a habitat that was once prevalent in our woodlands and is now largely absent. By removing some of the canopy through coppicing, you can create a “coup” (a discrete area of coppice), allowing more light and heat to reach the forest floor. This presents an opportunity for woodland flowers, such as British bluebells, wood anemone, dog violets and St. John’s-wort to become established, making the area more suitable for many butterfly species and other woodland pollinators. As a coup becomes older, it becomes a dense area of scrub, which is a valuable habitat for low cover nesting birds, such as the declining Nightingale.
Coppicing can also help to increase the diversity of trees in a woodland, by leaving certain species to reach maturity, whilst other, more numerous species, can be repressed. The wood gathered can then be left in piles, providing great habitat for a large variety of invertebrates, mosses, lichens and fungi.
Creating different levels of shade and vegetation density creates a wider variety of habitat niches, which are filled by a diversity of plants and animals. Therefore, by partially coppicing even a small woodland, like Ruffet and Bigwood, you can dramatically increase the number of different plants and animal species that inhabit it, turning something homogenous and dreary into an area bursting with life and colour come the spring.
Over the last century, this practice has decreased drastically, which has had a hugely negative impact on forest clearing specialists, such as the Pearl Bordered Fritillary, a butterfly that requires coppice between 2 & 4 year’s old in this part of the world. However, there are many species that do benefit from shadier woodlands and as a result, species such as the Silver-washed Fritillary and White Admiral are now doing better now than they were doing 100 years ago. Therefore, un-coppiced woodland is not necessarily “bad” but we try to create a balance and variety of habitats in the woodlands we manage (or help manage).
Biodiversity Project Officer