Ben Law's Woodland World: January/February

Ben Law
Thursday, 20th February 2014

The first instalment from roundwood timber framer, Ben Law, on life in Prickly Nut Wood for our new Woodlands and Outdoor Living newsletter.

Welcome to the first edition of this exciting new enewsletter, where I will be keeping you updated each month with life at Prickly Nut Wood and current events and news in the woodland world. I am Ben Law and I have been living and working in Prickly Nut Wood, West Sussex, England for the past 23 years and each month I shall be sharing the seasonal activities in the wood that I undertake.

The woodland is just under 100 acres (40.32ha) and consists of sweet chestnut coppice, mixed coppice with standards and a plantation of European larch which is in the process of evolving into an area of continuous cover forestry (CCF). It has been a wet and windy winter in Sussex so far and the heavy Wealden clay soils are saturated and very sticky under foot. The high winds have brought down a few larch and chestnut stools but I feel fortunate when only 100 metres away from my woodland boundary on a neighbouring estate, a whole plantation of Douglas fir has been uprooted or the stems have snapped clean off. 


To me this is nature's thinning, the wind hit my woods with the same velocity and although I have some trees down it is a small amount as the wood is diverse, whereas the monocultural same age plantation has been destroyed. We need to learn from natures thinning and plant more diverse, mixed aged woodlands to cope with the changing climatic conditions we are facing.

At Prickly Nut Wood, we have been cutting a stand of five year old sweet chestnut coppice. As I will refer to coppice regularly in this newsletter, I feel an introduction to the practice may be helpful. Coppicing is the process of cutting down broadleaf trees in the dormant winter season. In spring when the sap rises the stump (known as the stool) sends up new shoots, which are grown on for a number of years until they reach the desired size. They are then cut again during winter and the process repeats itself. This sustainable practice of woodland management yields a renewable supply of poles for craft use and is one of the few examples where the role of human activity is essential to increase the bio-diversity of the landscape.

In a well managed coppice wood, the cutting of areas (known locally as cants), allows light to the woodland floor and stimulates a diverse and varied flora. Species of bird, insect and butterfly are dependent on these plants. If coppicing stops, the canopy of the woodland closes over and in time shades out the food plants of these species and the bio-diversity decreases. It is wonderful to have a management system, where taking the resource for our needs (coppiced poles) benefits the bio-diversity of the woodland.

Our five year old sweet chestnut poles are being harvested for yurt poles, hedging stakes, straw bale spikes, bean poles, cleft wattle fence weavers and rustic furniture. As part of the process, I run a 'practical coppicing' course, where we look at the products, wildlife management and best practice for managing a coppice wood. On a day where the rain stayed away, I enjoyed the company of a geographically diverse group whom I hope will put some of the techniques learnt into practice. (Top photo.)

With the short rotation coppice cut, it is onto the larger poles. I am off to cut some 40 year old poles, and in doing so I will be restoring a derelict coppice and sourcing an unusual product! More on that next month. A tip for those walking in the woods - you will start to see the yellow catkins appearing on the Hazel trees, these are the male parts of the tree, look closely at the buds and you may be lucky to see one of the hidden gems of nature, the crimson female hazel flower. 

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Further resources

Check our our Green Shopping site for books by Ben Law:

A review of Ben Law's Woodsman: Living in a Wood in the 21st Century

A review of Roundwood Timber Framing: Building Naturally Using Local Resources

A visit to Ben Law's woodland house