Moving to the countryside: Part 14: coppicing the wrong way

Hazel hassles end in a coppiced tree and damaged chain saw

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Once my hill would have been much more heavily peopled. Any walk in the woods around reveals the mossy ruins of lost houses and other buildings – with 30-50 year old ash trees thrusting up where walls and chimney breasts might once have stood.

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I’m guessing that some of these dwellings housed charcoal burners and other folk who worked the coppiced woods that once dominated the hillside.

These old woods have largely disappeared, swallowed by conifer plantations stupidly located on slopes so steep it’s impossible to harvest them with modern machinery. So they languish, unloved and unlovely, darkening the landscape and providing almost nothing for animal or human save a few crossbill flocks that love the cones. There may even be a goshawk nest here but so far I’ve seen no sign.

On the marginally brighter side, whenever a conifer falls, ashes dart in to recolonize and light and life return in small patches. There is always hope.

But ash and hazel coppice survives in a few acres above and below my garden, with a handful of ancient hazel stools within the garden itself.

And now winter has torn back the brambly undergrowth, the untended overgrown hazel thickets are exposed in all their grotesque glory. Where once there would have been long, lithe poles springing up to the sky and regularly harvested, there are heavy, moss-covered trunks, swollen and twisted – trolls’ arms with arthritis. (I will take some photos, honest – the weather’s been too awful)

There is once particularly ugly example in the garden, hidden until the leaves fell. It was up a steep slope and was a morass of rotting trunks, younger poles, twisted and intertwined like the limbs of a demented giant squid.

I was determined to rejuvenate it by coppicing it properly over the Christmas holiday. This involved cutting the tree almost back to the ground and letting light in to promote new growth in spring.

The first step was to give it a hair cut with the bow saw to make it less dangerous to wield the chain saw at close quarters. Working for an hour or two here and there over two days in the pouring rain, I gradually reduced this tangle of woody horror to series of short poles that should prove even shorter work for the chain saw.

 
While I was working, I stirred up the leaf litter and exposed small shoots – snowdrops heading for the light. I can’t commit to whether snowdrops are a sign of spring or not but it was a welcome sign of life.

I cut out all the useable wood to dry out for next winter’s fires and left the brash (the thin tops) to dry out to be used as kindling.

Then, once I felt brave enough, I took the chainsaw up the slope. My brother in law, staying for Christmas, agreed to come up with me to catch any of my severed limbs. All started fine – I cut off a good load of the outer branches in safely and easily.

Then disaster. As I was cutting into the heart of the hazel, sparks started flying from the chain. I’d hit a hidden piece of rusted metal fence wire – at least 10 or 15 years old. It blunted the chainsaw instantly. Game over. I was deeply disappointed with my ineptitude. The saw needs resharpened – as does my brain.

We lugged out as much wood as we could and were amazed at how much this single smallish tree has generated: fence posts, firewood, kindling, pea sticks, bean poles and materials for green woodworking (if I ever find the time). Thank hazel tree.

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And here’s the final coppice stool. Not as neat as I’d like but the trunks are full of all bits of barbed wire and I don’t want to damage the chainsaw again.