Coppicing With Mast-Producing Trees
Coppicing is an ancient form of woodlot management that was widely practiced in Europe for thousands of years and is now experiencing a revival of interest around the world.
Coppicing is the practice of cutting young trees back almost to ground level to harvest the wood. The tree regenerates from shoots and suckers growing from the roots. It is then allowed to grow to the desired size and maturity before being cut back again.
Coppiced woodlands are traditionally harvested in sections called “coupes” in rotations of anywhere from 6 to about 25 years. These rotations ensure at least one coupe will be harvested every year. Coppiced trees live for very long times because coppicing resets the aging process of the tree. In Britain, there are coppiced woodlots that have been producing steadily for 800 years and individual trees believed to be over 1000 years old.
The benefits of coppicing include:
- A renewable, carbon neutral source of energy. Coppiced woodlots were the primary source of firewood and charcoal for energy in many areas of Europe for thousands of years. Thanks to improvements in technology such as high-efficiency wood stoves and advanced wood combustion power plants, wood is now regaining its former prominence as a clean and renewable energy source.
- Improved soil and water quality. Because the root systems are preserved, coppiced woodlots experience little or no erosion compared to conventional forestry methods and annual crops. In fact, if left in place, leaf matter and other organic debris can improve and build soil in coppiced woodlots. Coppiced woodlots also tend to be relatively drought and flood resistant, and they can help improve ground and surface water quality through natural filtration.
- Coppicing preserves natural woodlands. Because coppiced woodlands are so productive, they can relieve harvesting pressure on natural woodlands.
- Multi-aged stands benefit wildlife. Because coppiced woodlots are harvested in rotation, they promote a diverse woodland environment, improving wildlife habitat for many species.
- Carbon sequestration. Although trees in general are carbon neutral over their full lifespans, coppicing can actually be used to sequester carbon in the soil due to root die-back after cutting back trees. Many coppice products, such as fenceposts, wooden furniture, and crafts can also be regarded as a form of long-term carbon storage.
Almost any broadleaf tree can be coppiced, though some are better suited than others. Common products from coppiced woodlands include:
- post and rail fencing
- picket fencing
- garden stakes
- bean poles
- rustic furniture
- woven baskets
The most common mast-producing trees to be coppiced include hazel, chestnut, and oak. In addition to traditional wood and charcoal products, coppice woodlots containing mast-producing trees can also produce nuts that can be eaten, sold, or used as livestock feed. The newly developed woody agriculture system uses intensively managed hazel and chestnut coppice to produce crop yields per acre that rival or even exceed those of annual crops, in addition to wood products.
Update: There is great news for North American farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners interested in coppice! David Jacke, co-author of the classic Edible Forest Gardens, and permaculture expert Mark Krawcyzk have recently announced that they are writing a book on the subject, to be called Coppice Agroforestry: Perennial Silviculture for the 21st Century. You can keep track of their progress on their blog, Coppice Agroforestry.