The last three years has seen the emergence of a new generation of woodland co-ops. Back in January in the steep hills of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, our co-op, Blackbark Woodland Management, hosted the first 'Coppice Co-ops Conference' which brought together Blackbark, Leeds Coppice Co-op, The Coppice Co-op in Cumbria and Rypplewood Coppice Co-op from Bristol. It was a charmed weekend, with a magical collision of ideas, advice, problem sharing, honesty and friendship. There were full daytime programmes of serious discussions, followed by delicious laugher and serious fun into the early hours.
There is something wholesome and nourishing about being involved with a network of like-minded woodland lovers, who driven by stubborn determination, inspiration, heartfelt ethical decisions and environmentalist beliefs, are banding together to revive local coppice industries against the odds of 21st century capitalism’s globalised markets.
There’s no way any of us could do what we’re doing on our own. Both practically and emotionally, the support from our fellow members on a local level, and our fellow co-ops on a national level, enables us to find solutions, overcome problems, share ideas, equipment, workloads and skills.
For example in Blackbark we have five members. One person has a maths degree, someone else understands spreadsheets, one member is a trained carpenter, another understands machines and engines. It would take me a very very long time to collect this spread of skills myself. Also, we have one person who is very precise, one who’s an optimist, one who’s very logical, and one who’s an inventor. Some of us are good at seeing detail, others the big picture. We get to draw on five peoples wealth of experiences, and five people’s personalities and approaches. Instead of it just being me, we’re a five headed beast.
Running a woodland business requires all manner of skills, from accountancy to cross cutting, marketing to snedding, customer service to engine maintenance, from dealing with tax to dealing with deer. It’s overwhelming enough as it is - I can’t imagine how I could juggle all these things alone.
In Blackbark however, we are a Limited Liability Partnership, and we are each self-employed. So, as I am self-employed, I can also follow my own dreams and my own directions. For example, I have a background in Playwork and am a trained Forest School Leader, I am passionate about outdoor learning and free play. So, I can lead on Blackbark’s education side, and those members who can’t stand the idea of being out in the woods with a bunch of kids, can stick happily to working with grown-ups, if you can call us that!
Of course it is a struggle to be grown-up all the time: quarrels break out and passions fly around and communication sometimes fails. Five people’s dreams get entangled, misunderstood, let down and fired-up. “I thought you were going to... I thought I told you that... I thought we agreed that... why do you always... why can’t we just...?!”
We all hold the woods dear, we all care, to the extent that it’s easy to get upset, because it’s our passion so it means so much to each of us. Any inter-personal relationship is a challenge, and communicating five ways is a big commitment. But what we have in common is that we have all thrown ourselves into this whole-heartedly and in good faith. And hopefully this will prove enough to overcome our differences and enough to appreciate each others’ strengths, despite our weaknesses. And through all this grown up business of running a business, we also get to play in the woods, with chainsaws, trucks, billhooks and winches. Well worth it, even if we have to remind ourselves of this from time to time. The woods themselves remind us of why we’re here. And really we (sometimes!) love each other (almost) as much as we love the woods!
I am looking forward to the next Coppice Co-ops Conference, which will take place sometime in October. If you are a coppice co-op that we don’t know of yet, get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org
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