Today’s blog is an Interview with Mark Krawczyk, author of Coppice Agroforestry, featuring a question that was asked by a reader on social media.
Why should I care about coppicing?
First and foremost, because it’s something most woody plants (trees and shrubs) do whether you intend it or not. Coppicing harnesses trees' and shrubs’ ability to sprout after they’ve been cut. This means you’re not limited to a single harvest of wood off one stump (or stool). It also means you can “reset” the height and stature of the plant to open up a view or invite better airflow. And for many people, the reasons why they care about coppice all revolve around the utilitarian value of the new wood coppiced trees produce. Because trees are often coppiced every 1-25 years, resprouts can achieve a wide range of diameters and lengths in a relatively short time period.
Historically, coppicing has generated fuelwood, materials for craft like bowl and spoon carving and other greenwood crafts, fodder for livestock, living fences, biomass for all sorts or purposes, and much more. The art of coppicing is a tool that allows us to essentially reset a tree’s top growth while at the same time rejuvenating it. Ultimately, I think one of the most important reasons people should care about coppicing is because it produces materials that are useful to your daily life or your trade or livelihood.
And while there are a number of other important reasons why coppicing is a useful technique to learn to use, including diversified woodland ecology, carbon sequestration, productive conservation efforts, phytoremediation, etc., I think perhaps key among them is that it shortens the management rotations for trees and shrubs to a time horizon that most of us can relate to. We might choose to coppice a plant every one, five, or ten years which means we may see several harvests in our lifetime and have an opportunity to watch the remarkable process of regrowth during the intervening years. The relationship that emerges from this type of management helps connect us to our landscape and to other living beings in our ecosystem in a way we might not otherwise get to experience. I believe that this deep paradigm-shifting understanding and appreciation is perhaps coppice systems’ greatest yield.
What challenges/pitfalls to anticipate/avoid?
Probably the biggest one is browsing and girdling by wildlife. Tender young sprouts and their attendant leaves provide a delicious, tender food source for all sorts of wildlife and livestock. In the case of coppice sprouts, which emerge at ground level, they may be readily browsed by rabbits, deer, elk, moose, etc. Thankfully, they tend to grow quite quickly in their first season, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve escaped damage altogether. There’s no easy answer as to how to avoid this problem but starting off with an awareness of your wildlife pressure is a good place to begin.
Overall, coppicing appears to be quite forgiving. Despite this, there are certainly better and worse ways of doing things. Three details I think are particularly important include:
- Season of harvest - For most applications, coppicing should be done during dormancy. This means after the leaves have fallen and before the buds have begun to break in spring. The book explains the why in much greater detail, but try to avoid cutting during the growing season. Of course if you’re harvesting leafy sprouts as tree hay or fodder/browse for livestock, then you’ll have to cut when the leaves are out.
- Quality of cut - Remember that the stool (the stump of the coppiced plant) is very important to the longevity of the resprout potential. It’s ideal to use sharp tools that leave a clean surface, make cuts that slope away from the center of the stool whenever possible, and that you avoid damage to the stool like tearing large bits of bark during the felling process, striking a hand tool into the end grain of the stool to store it off the ground, or driving over it with a truck or tractor.
- Make sure there’s plenty of light - Cutting trees below a forested canopy will likely not result in vigorous sprouting. It’s very important that young sprouts are flooded with sunlight. This means you either need to open up a large enough patch or you need to cut trees along a wooded edge or in a field so that they have plenty of light to stimulate new growth.
So what’s wrong with “regular old” forestry?
Ah – I love this question! The answer is absolutely nothing. Well, at least in most cases.
I’ve been teaching folks in the homesteading/permaculture/DIY/farming communities for over 15 years, and often folks tend to think that perhaps there’s something inherently backwards or destructive about conventional forestry (silviculture), and something superior about coppicing. And like most everything in life, it depends. Coppicing can be applied at extensive scales, resulting in clear cuts covering dozens or even hundreds of acres along steep slopes. This type of coppice management is as destructive to forest ecology and landscape hydrology as any high-impact conventional logging.
At the same time, coppicing can be done at the smallest of scales, using little more than a few basic hand tools -- something that is difficult to achieve when harvesting large timber trees from a more conventionally managed woodlot.
Coppicing is a tool. And it’s very much complimentary to more mainstream silvicultural practices. Coppicing maintains living roots in the ground as the means to restore a forest ecosystem after cutting. But usually to do this effectively, it’s necessary to create small-patch scale clear cuts, just as is often done in conventional forestry, a practice we call a patch cut.
In our landscapes here in North America, we’re commonly blessed with relatively diverse multi-storied ecosystems that yield valuable products and provide important ecosystem services. These probably aren’t the most appropriate places to transform into coppice stands of sprout origin. In these landscapes, look to what modern silviculture has to offer -- especially when the forester providing the insights does so through a holistic, ecological lens. My book discusses this in some detail and even provides a cursory overview of the fundamentals of “regular old forestry,” because I believe that in order to be the best land-stewards possible, we owe it to our communities to thoughtfully consider a broad range of options before settling on the “best” one.
Winning Giveaway Question
What are your favorite hand tools to use when coppicing?
A good pruning saw. I love Silky's pocket boy saws for compactness and quality. My favourite billhook is made by the Morris and Sons company in Devon, UK. The pattern I like most is called the Llandeilo. It's pretty long compared to most billhooks, and a bit heavier, which makes it well-suited to larger poles. And then I definitely use a chainsaw. I've got a Husqvarna 455 rancher that has served me well for 15+ years, but last year I also bought a small battery-powered Milwaukee chainsaw called the Hatchet and I love it! It's got a 6" bar, it's super quiet and convenient, and makes short work of most coppice poles. The only thing is that it doesn't leave the cleanest cut.