Coppice Workers Unite: The Annual Gathering

Guy Lambourne
Friday, 17th November 2017

The positives of attending the National Coppice Federation's annual gathering.

What joy! Putting up a tent in a gale and pouring rain. In October. We’d had the same thought – departure after tea might be wise, so had avoided the tent. In fact, the general bonhomie amongst seventy or so coppice workers, intriguing discussions and a fascinating visit to a 700 acre Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust woodland nature reserve, together with the lure of a truly respectable selection of real ales and ciders for the evening session, persuaded us out into the worst of what Storm Brian had to offer. And we dealt with the damned tent.  

A whole weekend away is inevitablexpensive and time consuming, so it can be hard to justify. But the National Coppice Federation’s (NCFed) Annual Gathering in October, held the promise of useful information, good contacts and of course that beer and some good craic. All allowable business expenses too. 

So what is coppicing? 

Coppicing, a method of woodland management with a history stretching as far back as the Stone Age, is the practice of cutting certain hardwood tree species to ground level every few years and allowing the cut stumps to throw up beautiful, vigorous new shoots. These shoots grow on for a number of years before being cut again. The resulting stems are used for a huge range of products – beanpoles, thatching spars, pea sticks, chair legs, walking sticks, firewood, charcoal, hurdles and many more. Coppice products are renewable and there’s no limit on the times a wood can be coppiced; some have records of continuous management since the early Middle Ages. 

As a breed, coppice workers can be pretty solitary and some of us like it that way. That’s the nature of the work and it has its charms. Working through the year in woodland is the envy of many, but it does have some down sides no chatting with colleagues around the photocopier or easy to reach networking events to share new techniques and practices. And whilst electronic media have made it possible for isolated people to share information easily, sometimes there’s no substitute for actually being there. That’s what made a trip to Gloucestershire and all that tent wrangling worthwhile. 

NCFed is a federation of groups of UK coppice workers. It aims to support the industry by promoting coppicing as a form of woodland management that provides economic, ecological and culturally significant benefits. There are groups in most regions, membership is open to anyone with an interest – you don’t need to be a professional, although many members are. Group members meet a few times a year. I’m part of the East Anglia Coppice Network, our members come from a wide area – north to Norfolk, south to Essex and west as far as Bedfordshire (where we are). Membership is very reasonable and meetings are useful and practical and include visits to woodlands and discussion of relevant issues – tree disease, insurance, making products, cutting techniques, sharpening tools. If you are interested, visit the www.ncfed.org.uk to find details of your nearest group. 

The Gloucestershire meeting was a regional one writ large. I’m a bloke, and sliding inexorably through middle age and I did expect most present to be similarly afflicted, but as it turned out this was not the caseIt was good to meet a smattering of younger people and quite a few women. It all bodes well for the future.  

Highlights of the many led discussions were affordable housing for coppice workers, the Grown in Britain initiative, and what to replace ash with after Chalara ash dieback has visited. James Hookway’s retort, as usual, prompted much interest and discussion - retorts versus kilns in the manufacture of charcoal. There were some memorable demonstrations and have-a-go sessions, notably felling using a hand-held cross-cut saw, replacing and retanging billhook handles, an impromptu demonstration of thatching spar making, and cutting hazel coppice with an axe.

It was all good stuff. The last of these was just the kind of thing that makes such weekends so worthwhile. It was a pleasure to watch Derbyshire-based coppice worker, Simon Fowler’s apparently effortless use of an axe. His favoured tool is a heavyish, perhaps four pound axe head, on a longish, maybe three foot handle, to cut hazel of about seven or eight years. He approaches stems of two or three inches diameter with three blows. The first a swing from below, the second from above reduces tension, then the third, again from below completes the cut. As anyone who has any experience of cutting hazel coppice will know, no two stools are the same, so no two swings of Simon’s axe are identical. Each is considered and delivered with minimal effort. He carries a billhook in a holster and uses this to tidy up cuts that don’t meet his rather exacting standards. Not only was he good to watch, but he was fast. He reckons he can keep up with someone armed with a chainsaw, which has to be impressive. When I saw this item on the day’s schedule, I was decidedly sceptical. Hardly twenty-first century, I thought. But having had a go, under Simon’s critical eye, I can see that with some practise, I could become passably efficient. It’s beautifully quiet and, as I sit at my PC nursing a strained back, the huge reduction in bending has some significant attractions from an ergonomic point of view. If nothing else, Simon’s approach has given me an excuse to acquire another axe.