The permaculture practice of wood coppicing
Coppicing is a traditional woodland management practice in which trees are felled and new sprouts arise from the stump, called a stool. The practice has many sustainable benefits and dates back to the Neolithic era. Throughout history, people have gathered coppice wood for a variety of uses, including charcoal for the smelting of iron and bark for preparing tanning liquors. Before modern machinery allowed for the cutting and transportation of large timber, coppicing was a pivotal source of wood material that could be easily gathered.
Permaculture farmers often practice coppicing because it is carbon neutral as well as a renewable energy resource, providing shelter for farm animals, fuel wood, pulpwood, and charcoal, among other things. Coppicing practices are found all around the world, from cardamom trees in Guatemala to oak stands in Austria. The practice has steadily declined in parts of Europe since the Industrial Revolution, but remains widely used in France and Belgium.1
Europeans didn’t need wood coppicing when they initially moved to the United States; instead, they mostly took advantage of seemingly endless old-growth forests to harvest the bulk of their wood supply. As a result, the practice does not have the same cultural history, though researchers are now working to see how coppicing could serve as a renewable energy resource and potentially help in the fight against the climate crisis.2
Benefits of Coppicing
Coppice trees are considered carbon neutral because the carbon released when they’re burned is offset by the new shoots arising from the stool and absorbing carbon, whereas nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels convert stable carbon sequestered millions of years ago into atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Because wood coppicing creates new sprouts from the same tree, a single stool can produce for decades, if not hundreds of years. When compared to agricultural fields or arable land, coppicing also produces more diverse habitats for birds and beetles, which is equated with species richness. That said, biodiversity is higher in traditional forest ecosystems.3
Coppice trees can serve as windbreaks to protect crops from the impact of strong gusts, and have been shown to reduce the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes in Florida, as well as help moderate temperatures and help manage pathogens and humidity in agricultural areas.4 They also provide additional cover for birds and other animals, and encourage the growth of ground cover vegetation. Many woodland plants benefit from coppicing, especially spring flowering ones. Butterflies have long benefitted from coppicing, feeding on herbs which grow in the open sunny areas the practice creates.5
The types of materials available to homesteaders from coppice forests will depend on how they manage the area. In Europe, one common practice called coppice-with-standards encourages numerous and varied coppice rotations that eventually yield a multi-aged stand consisting of an even-aged coppice understory with a multi-aged overstory. With the right distribution of ages, the system can provide farm shelter, small roundwood production for fuelwood and fencing, sawlog, landscape enhancement, wildlife conservation, pulpwood, fuelwood poles, charcoal, turnery wood and timber. This technique is understandably more labor intensive and complicated than traditional coppicing.1
Research has also shown that free range chickens prefer access to coppice forest when compared to an open grazing area with an artificial shelter. The birds traveled farther and tasted better in a blind taste test, meaning that coppicing could potentially be an opportunity for dual land use for poultry farmers.6
Coppicing vs. Pollarding
Pollarding is an ancient management technique referring to lopping off the branches of trees at a variable intensity and in a variable way. The practice remains common in agroforestry systems in rural areas, like the traditional Quezungual system in Honduras, where naturally regenerated trees are left after land is cleared and regularly pollarded to use the branches for fuel wood and to make tools and buildings.7 For farmers and homesteaders, this method can be ideal when compared to traditional coppicing because new sprouts are 2 or 3 meters above the ground, protecting them from grazing animals. Areas with wild deer may also benefit from pollarding.
Tools for Coppicing
For small farmers and homesteaders, coppicing is relatively straight-forward. After selecting an appropriate tree, the area around it should be cleared of any surrounding vegetation, particularly blackberry or invasive species. The tree should be cut when it is dormant, in winter months, at a 15-20 degree angle slightly above the basal area, where the bottom of the trunk is swollen. (The angle allows for rainwater run-off and may prevent stump rot). The trees can be re-harvested after a number of years, depending on the species. As far as specific tools, traditional wood cutting tools suffice, such as an ax, chainsaw, bowsaw, billhooks, and loppers.
Best and Worst Trees for Coppicing
Not all trees can be coppiced, and coppicing isn’t always successful. Shelters, repellents, and electric fences may be required depending on what animals live nearby, with deer and rabbits being a particular nuisance. Coppice species must be able to tolerate shade and produce satisfactory stool shoots. Many different types of trees will work, including apple, birch, ash, oak, willow, hazel, sweet chestnut, sycamore, alder, black locust, and field maple.
All broadleaves coppice, though some more strongly that others. Most conifers do not coppice, including species like pine and fir. Some conifers, including Douglas, white, and red fir, can be regrown from the same stump in a process called stump-culture, where a new tree grows from a branch whorl left behind when the tree is cut.
Coppicing for small farmers and homesteaders is much different than coppicing on a large scale for biomass fossil fuel, and it’s important to note that there are negative impacts on biodiversity when coppice forests are not properly managed. Research has shown that clear-cutting coppice areas have led to an increase in invasive species in parts of Europe.8 That said, wood coppicing as part of a holistic agroforestry system can be a great way to gather wood material for a variety of uses while also regenerating new materials for future use.
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