Why are you cutting down the hazel?

man working with bill hookBluebell Wood has in the past been run as coppice. In the north of the wood it was ash and hazel coppice and in the south hazel coppice with standards. We have no idea why it was run differently, as the furthest record we have is the mid 1800s, when most of it was owned by the same family; the Clarke-Jarvois.

Adding to the history, there have been several changes in the wood over the years. Someone planted oak, presumably for house or ship building, and some beech avenues were planted between 1841 and 1871. The hazel was last systematically cut in the mid 1960s, as we know a now senior member of our coppice group was involved when he was a lad. Since then, only a couple of acres have been kept in rotation by various people, and these are now just to the north of the bridle path behind the permanent deer fencing. Some of the hazel from the wood was used to make faggots to fire a bread oven at Heath’s bakery in Cowplain, which is now the KFC. Part of the wood was planted with mixed broadleaved trees between 1935 and 1955.

Hazel is quite a short lived tree. If it is left uncut, it usually falls over in 50-70 years. In the areas we have not yet restored, you will see that we are losing the hazel for this reason. However if a stool is regularly cut so that new rods grow from it, it may last for hundreds of years. There are records of a wood planted with hazel in medieval times which is still being worked.

So what happens when the hazel is cut?

The first spring after the cutting, the hazel starts to send out new shoots, and these can grow up to 8’ in a summer, although 4-5’ is more usual. Because there is very little shading, plants that have been dormant in the soil grow, and you will see, as in the in-rotation coppice, that lots of different things flower. In that particular coup (cut area) you may have noticed some very tall wild angelica, wood spurge, primroses and others. The exact mix of flowers varies even in the same wood, so in other coups we have had more yellow archangel, early purple orchids, or violets. You may also have seen foxglove leaves the first year followed by the flowers the second year.

The flowers continue until the hazel starts to shade them out, so depending on how closely the stools are spaced, and how fast the rods grow, this can be from 3-5 years. Some flowers will continue to produce leaves in the spring, but not flower, and others will remain in the soil as seeds.

What is the hazel used for?

Hazel is used traditionally in the UK for sheep hurdles, thatching spars, broom handles, withies for tying thing together and hoops such as for barrels. Today, thatchers still use hazel spars to keep the thatch in place, as they are the best material in spite of trying plastic and metal. Some are imported, but a lot still come from worked hazel woodland like Bluebell Wood.

Sheep are no longer kept behind hazel hurdles as metal has been used for many years, but hurdles make good fencing, and buying a British craftsman made hurdle will help to keep the wood going, give employment to a craftsman, and ensures a properly made hurdle.

Besom brooms are made with hazel handles, and I have used split hazel to make baskets.

Hazel coppice that has been left too long, or overstood, is excellent for making charcoal, and some of the rods from the very overstood coppice are also used for firewood. If we can’t get all the coppice we have restored used on a 7 year cycle, we may well leave some to something like a 14 year cycle for charcoal.

What are you going to do with the ash trees?

Until a few years ago when we cut the hazel coppice, we were re-cutting the ash coppice at the same time. This would be allowed to grow until it was typically large enough to be used for firewood. Unfortunately Chelara ash die back had affected the woods, and a large number of other ash trees in the area. As the new growth is particularly prone to Chelara infection, where we can, we are leaving the ash uncut. However, when it gets to something like 70 years in this wood, for various reasons, it tends to suffer from butt rot, so if it is not cut, the whole stool will fall over. If a tree has butt rot, we cut it, as it will die if it falls over, whereas, if it is immune or resistant to Chelara, at least some trunks will survive. At present we are encouraging the trees to seed as there is a chance that some of the seedlings will be immune, and although we may lose trees, we will still have new ash saplings in the wood to replace those we lose.

What are you going to do with the other trees in the coups you cut?

When we restore a new coup we look at what is there other than hazel. In some cases there are some good oak or beech trees that we want to keep, and some very old beech trees that are characteristic of the wood. We have already restored one coppice coup where there are a lot of good oak trees, so this coup will be run as a two layer wood with an oak over storey and a hazel under storey. The hazel will grow more slowly as it has less light, but it can be used when it is grown to the right size rather than 5-7 years.

Old trees, mainly beech, will be left as they are a good habitat, are a special feature of the woods, and will only be taken down when they start to become dangerous.

Younger birch, beech and field maple will be felled as they will coppice in their turn. Birch tops are ideal for the heads of besom brooms, and field maple is good for carving and turning as well as firewood and charcoal wood. Other species will be felled or left depending on how many we have in the wood and how they react to coppicing.

What are you cutting this winter?

We will be cutting a coup just to the north of the pylon line. Some has already been felled by the power line people as it was getting too close to the line, but we will be felling about 1 acre there. We will be leaving the big beech trees and a fair number of the oak trees, but we may take some of them out as a crop, which is what they were planted for. They can be used to make timber framed buildings, which are still in demand, furniture, or shingles for roofs. There is a fair bit of field maple and birch in there, so these will be felled, along with some of the younger beech.

One of our coppice group members is cutting, with help from some friends, in the in-rotation coppice. He will be mainly using the product for hedging stakes and binders as well as bean and pea sticks.

In the north of the wood we have two more coppice group members cutting some hazel that was brought back into rotation 7 years ago. It has come on well, and they will be using it for similar purposes and perhaps making some thatching spars and hurdles with it.

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