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LU Conservation volunteers: Coppicing and dead-hedging

18 January 2024

3 mins

Guest blog by Rich-Fenn-Griffin, Loughborough University’s Assistant Gardens Manager. November, 2023.

Thank you to the amazing volunteers who braced the November weather to help with the coppicing and dead-hedging in Holywell Wood. Five students (Rose, Jess, Curtis, Mia & Caitlin) were joined by two staff members (David and Paul) as well as Steve and Luke (from the Gardens). Together this ace team laid into the tasks with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Coppicing is an old form of woodland management. In the days before plastic, almost everything that was used in the house was made from wood. A renewable source of wood could be obtained by cutting hazel (other trees such as oak and ash were also used) to the ground and letting it resprout. This cycle was repeated every 10-15 years. The coppicing wasn’t all done at the same time but done by areas in the wood called coupes. There would usually be the same number of coupes in the wood as years in the coppice cycle. Hence, you wouldn’t clear coupe one again until 10 years later in a 10 year cycle. As coppicing reduces the canopy cover in an area it lets lots of light in and this causes a profusion of flowers not normally seen in the shade. This attracts lots of different insects into these areas and as such birds and other animals that feed on them. This wildlife would move to newly cut coupes as the old coupe became shaded again. This system of managing the woods has lasted for over a thousand years and is crucial for supporting high levels of biodiversity in British Woodlands.

Dead-hedging was the traditional way of controlling the movement of animals in the wood. In previous years, pigs were put into the woods to feed on acorns in the autumn (called pannage). To prevent them (and deer) nibbling the young coppice shoots, woodsmen use to create dead-hedges around the coupes. These are created by stuffing all the twiggy bits cut off the hazel poles in between a set of parallel posts.
In both these cases, it just so happens that these practises are great for encouraging biodiversity in the wood. Coppicing increases plant diversity which in turn allows more species of insect to inhabit the wood. Dead-hedging makes a great big pile of brash where insects and small mammals can overwinter from the cold. Woodland birds can pick through these piles looking for bugs to eat. These are especially useful in spring when birds need to feed their young and find space to nest.

Continuing these ancient practises is no longer about the need for wood or controlling animal movements but is now mainly focused on conserving the exceptional biodiversity of Holywell and Burleigh Woods.

This article is in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land. To read more click here.

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