I have just spent a week and a half volunteering with coppicing co-op Blackbark in Calderdale (that’s in the North folks). Blackbark are in their first season of turning 30+ acres of unmanaged woodland around West Yorkshire into coppice. As well as learning some new skills, it was a research trip as much as anything. I went wanting to know whether coppicing could become a viable income stream for me, whether it was feasible as a business venture, how long it would take me to develop the skills I needed, how much money I would need to spend on equipment.
Those ten days were massively instructive, not just in the practical aspects of coppicing such as laying hazel and using a chainsaw (I managed to not sever any limbs) but in what it takes to be a coppicer and to turn your coppicing into a business. Here’s what I learnt:
1) Use small and slow solutions: Coppicing, like a puppy, is for life, not just for Christmas. With a system that runs on 3-50 year rotations (depending on the tree and what product you are harvesting) it isn’t something that you can do for just a few years. Therefore, this isn’t something that I can really start whilst in my current, unsettled state. I am choosing to see this long lead time as a resource rather than a hinderance though. It means that I will be forced to spend enough time observing, building skills and designing this project properly. I think this is going to be the slowest growing of all my projects. But slow is appropriate for a project which involves trees
2) Integrate rather than segregate: Before I went, I was imagining that coppicing was a skill like scything, but of course it isn’t. There isn’t just one skill to learn. You need to know about trees and woodland management, how to use a chainsaw, how to use an axe and a billhook, how to manage people, about conservation issues, how to design systems, be pretty strong, know how to drive off road, how to fill in a forestry commission form, know how to build a shelter… Here’s one we failed to make earlier. Those skills range across the length and breadth of people care. earth care and fair shares.
3) Use edges and value the marginal, use and value diversity: Despite imagining that they would probably be working with private landowners, most of Blackbark’s sites are actually council run. Because I have a downer on the south east, I imagine that there is no opportunity to do anything ‘like that’ here, but in fact there are probably more opportunities than I imagine, and certainly working with institutions like the council is something that I need to explore.
4) Use and value diverity, Integrate rather than separate. I imagined that any coppicing enterprise that I started was likely to be me working on my own, but working with Blackbark has convinced me that working with other people might be a way forward. For a start, working with other people would divide the workload and therefore make any enterprise more likely to succeed. I also got the feeling that, on a practical level, working with other people would be a safer thing to do. With my track record of injuring myself, using a chainsaw alone in the woods might not be a great idea…
5) Obtain a yield: But it struck me that the yield doesn’t have to be financial. A sustainable supply of firewood, charcoal, peasticks and beanpoles is nothing to scoff at – especially in my fantasy future of back boilers, productive gardens and long summer BBQs. Maybe I don’t want to start a business. Maybe I want to provide for my own needs.
6) Which leads me to consider appropriate scale. If I was working to provide only for my own needs then the resources I would need to do it would be much reduced. If I wasn’t working in the woods all the time, I might not need a chainsaw for example. Perhaps I could borrow one when I needed it, or perhaps if there was not too much work it would be feasible to do it all by hand. Again, if it wasn’t a commercial enterprise, I might not feel too bad about spending time moving wood by hand (which is hard, hard physical work) rather than driving a pick-up onto site.
6) Integrate rather than segregate: But if it was a commercial operation, maybe I could look at sharing tools such as chainsaws and vehicles. If I was fencing an area off to protect it from deer (as Dion is doing here) what else could I use that protected area for? I need to work out how much time I want to spend in the wood. My first few days with Blackbark were pretty hard. We were stacking big sycamore logs – much bigger than you would ever get in established coppice. I got exhausted. Integrating coppicing with less physically demanding work would be perfect but in what percentage?
7) Use and value renewable resources and services. The 80:20 principle. We spent some time laying hazel in an attempt to establish further hazel coppice. Laying hazel is a fabulous example of putting in work at the beginning of the project and then letting nature take over…
On the left there is a picture of a laid hazel stool. You’ll see that the rods have been cut through until they are at a point when they will bend over and touch the ground easily. This stool was cut mostly
with an axe, hence the axe in the picture. The rod is buried or pegged to the ground and a bit of bark scratched off to encourage it to root from that point. The picture on the right shows what happens a year on. It’s not very easy to see, but the red mark indicates the ‘parent’ plant. The green arrow indicates the line along which the rod has been laid and the pink mark indicates the new plant which has taken root. This one has been pegged down with an enormous rock!
So what are my next steps? Well, I am going to join the Sussex and Surrey Coppice Group for a start and I am going to try super hard not to immediately become deeply involved in the administration of he group as is my wont. I can’t two-time the Scythe Association. I’ll try to get more coppicing experience closer to home and also learn some skills associated with coppicing – e.g. making hurdles. I’ll also spend those long, dark winter evenings learning knots and studying shelter building so that next time I have to put up a shelter, it’s a bit more successful…