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The expression 'coppice' comes from the French word couper, meaning 'to cut', and Coppice woodlands are normally cut in a rotation which is normally between,6 to 25 years, and with one part of the wood harvested annually. Coppice trees, all of which are deciduous, produce material called underwood. Underwood species respond to cutting by sending up multiple stems from the cut stump, called a stool. Periodic cutting in many instances extends the life of these trees, so that coppiced stools may be many hundreds of years old.

Archaeological evidence from the Somerset Levels has revealed Neolithic trackways made from wattle as evidence of a sophisticated coppicing system. Archaeology has also shown extensive use of coppiced products throughout the Bronze, Roman and Saxon periods, and coppicing remained the most common form of woodland management in Britain until the mid 1800s. It is directly traceable back to the Neolithic period, and this longevity makes a case for ancient coppice woodlands being direct descendants of the original forests that covered most of Britain after the last Ice Age. This importance over such a long period allowed the harvesting of the woodland crop, and its conversion using simple hand tools, and avoided the problems of harvesting large, mature trees, which were difficult to cut, transport and convert, whereas coppice growth is far easier to handle.

The first evidence of clearance of land for agriculture appears at the end of the Mesolithic period with an increase in agricultural weeds such as plantain and stinging nettle, together with archaeological evidence of Neolithic settlement. In some places, the population increased dramatically, and virtually all of the wildwood vanished. However, the sharp decline in elm around 4000BC is more likely to be the result of elm disease than clearance. Clearance increased during the Bronze Age reaching its probable height in the early Iron Age period, and it is suggested that as much as half of England had ceased to be wildwood by 500BC.

For much of the next two thousand years, the management of woodland by coppicing was extremely important, producing material for buildings, roads, fences, carts, and the fuel for heating, cooking, metalworking and pottery. Ever since Neolithic time's man had realised that the re-growth from a stump was in fact more useful than the original tree.

The Domesday Book is evidence that every wood in England not only belonged to some person or some community, but also had an economic value. In 1086, only about 15% of England was woodland or wood-pasture, 35% was arable, 30% pasture, 1% hay meadow and the remaining 20% was mountain, moor, heath, fen or urban land. The Domesday landscape was more like modern day France than the untamed woodland of folklore. Nearly all woods were highly managed, as either coppices or wood-pastures. The produce of English woodlands was mainly underwood for fuel and other uses, with small oaks used for domestic building. Typically, the construction of medieval timber-framed houses used mainly of oaks less than 18" diameter, larger timbers were in short supply, and reserved for the great ecclesiastical buildings.

From its low proportion of 15% in 1086, woodland cover continued to shrink reaching a figure 10% by 1350, largely due to population increase. The arrival of the Black Death in 1349 brought this increase to a stop, and any woods still surviving in 1350 stood a good chance of surviving the next 500 years. Nearly all clearance of woodland throughout history has been for agriculture, industry tended to sustain woodland rather than destroy it, relying as it did on coppice woodland for fuel.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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