I consider myself to be a woodsman (when I’m not a woodturner) rather than a coppicer, though I do a bit of coppice now and then. I have friends locally who are full time coppice workers so I wasn’t entirely sure whether being a woodsman was sufficient entitlement to attend this year’s Coppice Conference held last week at Lodge Hill, near Pulborough in West Sussex. In practice around 100 participants gathered and very sensibly this represented a cross section of owners, users of coppice products and associates as well as cutters (as the people who cut the woods are called) from around the country. But as I was asked to organise the tool auction and demonstrate with my lathe at the start of the conference it was a little late for second thoughts.
A coppice conference is something of an oxymoron – coppice workers (and woodsmen) being somewhat solitary by nature and generally fairly outspoken in approach, so an opportunity to get together and discuss with fellow workers from around the country is both a rare opportunity and something to be viewed with a degree of sceptiscism. Enroute to the next show I set up with the lathe, horse and the minimum of kit, just a tarp from the side of the landrover as weather proofing, though in the event the weather was kind and my oak bench seemed to be a popular seat at least with members of the Hampshire Coppice Craftsmens Group.
For those of you who are not involved in the wood or the coppice industry I should clarify a little. All native English hardwoods will coppice. That is, when cut off at the stump at a young age they don’t die and will grow again. Because the root system is that of a relatively large tree the regrowth is vigorous with multiple shoots and if the coppice stools (the cut stump) are close enough then the shoots are forced to grow long and straight to reach the sun providing a rich harvest of straight poles.
Being cut regularly in this manner is termed a rotation, as each season a different section or ‘coup’ of the wood will be cut, coming back to the original area after several years. The life of the tree is extended enormously by coppicing and with regular cutting the highest quantity and quality of poles can be produced. Applications for the poles range from walking sticks, to hurdles, hop poles, turning wood, charcoal and firewood all of which mean that every part of the growth is used and it’s entirely sustainable. Talking of turning wood I did actually do some turning, though not as much as I’d intended as the tool auction rather took over.
Pete ‘the voice’ Jameson had entered a number of lots in the auction, including gypsy pegs but had not got round to making any, so whipped a couple up just before the auction started.
The auction was well attended, it’s a great way to break the ice. In the end we had 65 lots ranging from the usual warmup assortment of lucky horseshoes and bags of charcoal through to bandsaw, besom clamp, a selection of nice bill-hooks and machetes and this years must have leatherwear for the fashion conscious coppice worker. Say no more. I consider it to have been a success as I went home with somewhat less junk than I had when I arrived.
On the Thursday we made visits to Hazel coppices in West Sussex. Coronation Coppice is near Halnaker and being restored by Alan and Jo Waters who have been working there for several years so this coup is now being cut for the second time. As I work a lot on Birch and am surrounded by Chestnut coppice I don’t know a lot about the challenges and opportunities in the Hazel industry – except for the deer and rabbits of course – which we already know about through the planting of about 2000 new hazel on the Lynchmere commons.
Unlike Chestnut which has uses for large fencing and as structural timber when its older and larger, Hazel needs to be cut on a relatively short rotation if its to be useful and if the quality of the product is to be maintained and improved. Quality of the rods – straight and knot free is key to making the coppicing valuable and worthwhile, otherwise it is just firewood, and difficult to extract firewood at that as the overstood stems tangle and lock in place. Perhaps that most demanding application of Hazel rods is in making the woven Hazel sheep hurdles so it should not be a surprise that hurdle makers are amongst the most vocal proponents of raising the standards in cutting and maintaining coppice.
Rosie is Alan’s apprentice and has the tough job of keeping him in order, something she is learning to do quite well. While we were there Rosie gave us a demonstration of using the side-adze for cleeving Hazel rods (no pressure Rosie!). The side-adze is a local tool variant in this part of West Sussex and called by some of my friends a ‘break-adze’ in the same way as a froe is termed a ‘break-axe’. Many were made by local blacksmiths in Petworth, and by the Moss family near Chichester.
One market for coppice is making faggots for riverbank restoration. It’s a good market to have as it helps to use up the tops of the tree. Alan has devised a machine to assist in the bundling and binding of these long faggots. Unusually these are being made up with the leaves on.
An opportunity to practice my guitar during the evening around the campfire and to meet with some of the participants from around the country. Despite the reputation of coppicing being for old men (reputedly an average of around 90), it was great to have a wide range of young and not so young, male and female around the fire.
One subject that always comes up at these gatherings is the formation of a national group. If a conference is an oxymoron then the concept of a national group is a steep challenge indeed. But the regional groups in Hampshire and Sussex and Surrey are prospering so perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come. The idea has been tried before and failed so it does need to progress with the enthusiastic participation and representation of coppice workers and regional group (the lesson endeth here). The conference managed to agree on two resolutions. The first being that meetings to form a national group should invite participation from all local groups as well as organisations and individuals where local groups don’t exist. The second was that the bar would remain open after the meal! Meeting around a campfire certainly seemed to be a most hospitable way of doing business, assisted by Cider and Song and perhaps it could be adopted as the format for an AGM in future!
The weather got better and better as the delayed Indian Summer set in and Friday dawned bright and sunny. On the way to visit Chestnut coppice around Haslemere we stopped off at the Lodsworth Larder, built using roundwood chestnut and one of local TV celebrity and coppice worker Ben Law’s creations. Built in the car park of the village pub the Larder has returned a shop to the village as well as being a showcase for building with local sustainable resources.
The Chestnut coppice being worked is on Vann Common/Marley heights and less than a mile from the part of Marley common that I help to manage. Two professional coppice workers, Pete and Alex, were working the site for Steve Homewood and producing palings for the twisted wire fences that are a hallmark of Steve’s family firm in Haslemere.
We had a good tour of the steep hanger slopes on which the sweet chestnut thrives. The regrowth is vigorous and doesn’t seem as susceptible to browsing as the hazel coppice.
Alex is a master of the art of peeling and pointing on the old 4stroke Petter peeling machine (safety guards are of course only removed for the purposes of the photography….).
It’s not rational. Going just on value and reliability it ought to be a row of nearly new Hilux pickups, but something about the coppice industry seems to thrive on being unreasonable so a row of beaten up old landrovers is the norm.
As you might expect I have a lot more photos and I will put them up in a gallery before too long.
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