by Martin (Mort) Schmidt
for Simply Living
Coppicing is the ancient practice of cutting down a tree or shrub, and harvesting the growth that sprouts from the stump. Coppicing was once widely used to provide construction material, fuel, and fodder, and it’s gaining renewed interest, especially as a source of sustainable energy.
According to Coppicing – A Brief History, a causeway crossing a bog in the Somerset Levels, England, was built almost entirely of coppiced wood around 3800 BC.
Coppiced wood had many advantages over conventional lumber to earlier people. Today, trees are typically harvested with massive machines, transported to sawmills on trucks, and rapidly sliced into boards. In earlier times, wood grown from a stump (referred to as a “stool” in coppicing), could be cut with simple tools, such as axes, when the tree reached the desired size. The poles could then be carried to the building site by foot, cart, or boat. Little processing was required, other than perhaps peeling off the bark, depending on the project. Poles and wands could be lashed together with fiber or leather, with no need for the nails and screws used in modern construction.
Because of the historic abundance of trees in North America, coppicing was not widely practiced here. But trees have long been managed as a crop in Europe and Asia, where wild forests were generally exhausted centuries ago. The Medieval Landscape in Essex, in Archaeology in Essex to AD 1500 reports coppice stools as large as 18 feet in diameter, which suggest that coppicing took place over many years or centuries.
Coppicing was often conducted in forests, and some trees, especially oak and ash, were allowed to grow to larger size. These timber trees or “standards” were used for construction, and were scattered among the coppice rows. Smaller coppiced logs were, and are still are used for construction. While traveling in Southeast Asia in 2019, I saw many buildings constructed of logs and poles. I have no way of knowing which logs were coppiced, but coppicing is practiced there, and I saw a number of tree farms along the roadsides. Lumber stores often consisted of an open-sided pole barn with sawn boards on one side of the building, and poles sorted by diameter on the other. Many buildings on the Mekong Delta rest on poles, and large stores of poles are seen on the water’s edge.
Furniture was once widely constructed of coppiced wood. Willow was especially well-suited for bentwood furniture. Chair frames were often made from two- or three-inch willow poles, with seats and backs made from slender, flexible wands, or “withes”. (Withes are sometimes called “witches”. This might be the source of the term “water witching”, which is done with slender wooden wands. It’s also the source of the name “witch hazel”, which has slender twigs and hazel-like leaves). Of course, wicker furniture is still made, and much or most of it is from coppiced wood. The material used to make baskets, hampers, and other household items is also often coppiced.
Coppiced wood was once a major source of firewood and charcoal, and still is in some parts of the world. During my travels to Southeast Asia, many street vendors and small restaurants cooked outdoors over natural charcoal (made from wood chunks, as opposed to briquettes made from sawdust). Tractors on country roads hauling wood chunks and charcoal are a common site in Cambodia. In Great Britain, charcoal made from coppiced wood was the primary fuel for iron smelting until it was replaced by coal in the late 1800s.
An unexpected use of coppiced trees is fodder. Because trees have deeper roots than many ground plants, they are potentially better able to survive drought, and they might be able to draw nutrients from deeper, less depleted soil. To prevent animals from grazing on coppice shoots, trees were often cut several feet above ground. This practice is known as “pollarding”, and is presumably the source of the family name “Pollard”.
Yet another use of coppiced trees was as a source of tannin for processing leather. Small-diameter twigs have relatively more surface area than larger branches, and the thinner bark was easier to peel off than the bark on mature trees.
Willow, poplar, and hazel were once extensively coppiced in Europe. They grow rapidly and produce slender, flexible twigs that were readily fashioned into baskets and other objects. According to Tree Hay, A Forgotten Fodder, coppiced trees in Europe generally consisted of whatever was available, but ash and elm were preferred, and holly, because it keeps its leaves in winter, would serve in severe winters or after poor harvests. Ash coppiced at a diameter of two or so inches was ideally suited for tool handles. Ash, oak, and many species of hardwood were used for fuel.
In Southeast Asia, Acacia magnium and various species of Eucalyptus are planted extensively for coppicing. Although they’re native to Australia, they do well in many equatorial regions – they grow rapidly, are hardy, and produce hard, high-quality wood that’s good for lumber and fuel. A. magnium has the additional virtue of being a legume, and adds nitrogen to the soil, according to Sustainable Plantation Forestry In Southeast Asia.
Coppicing is getting renewed attention as a biofuel source. Unlike fossil fuels, wood removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As a source or paper pulp, coppiced wood can be planted in rows and harvested in its first or second year using farming techniques, in place of cutting mature trees which disturbs forest habitats.
Coppicing can potentially also be used for the remediation of contaminated soil and groundwater – so-called “phytoremediation”. Depending on the contaminant and tree species, trees can extract organic chemicals, metals, or nitrates from contaminated media, and then be burnt, buried, or otherwise processed to destroy, extract, or quarantine the pollutant.
The ancient practice of coppicing might yet have a bright future!