Lighting up the woods

Area of woods that has been coppiced

Peter Loy-Hancocks has contributed this blog post explaining the importing of coppicing and why it is needed in Manor Woods Valley.

As anyone who keeps houseplants knows, plants need light to grow and thrive – for most, the more the better! There are several different types of woodland in Manor Woods Valley Local Nature Reserve. The shade created by trees and shrubs in some of these are so dense that few plants grow beneath them. This is especially evident in Allotment Wood; the woodland along the northern, Bishopsworth Road, side of Manor Woods Valley.

Ivys and Ferns in a coppiced area
Ivy and ferns are the only plants that thrive in the dense shade

Allotment Wood is very young; developing naturally following the abandonment of war-time, ‘Dig for Victory’, extensive allotments on the site – hence its name. It has developed through phases, from well tended plots, to a massive Bramble patch, then through a stage of impenetrable, mainly Hawthorn and Blackthorn, scrub. Today the shrubs and trees are tall enough to allow access beneath them, but the leaf canopy is so dense that little light hits the woodland floor.

A few woodland plants, such as Ramsons, currants and young Hazels, are appearing beneath the trees, but all are struggling to survive. Ivy and ferns are the only plants that are thriving!

In 2017 Manor Woods Valley Group commenced coppicing small areas in Allotment Wood. Coppicing is the now largely forgotten practice of cutting back shrubs, especially Hazels, every few years, to encourage prolific new, strong and straight growth. Historically this re-growth was used to make a variety of items including baskets, hurdles or pins to hold thatch. There is little use for these items today! Now, when shrubs are cut-back, the debris is made in to ‘dead-hedges’, which often become covered in Brambles and Nettles, and form the same valuable wildlife functions as traditional living hedges.

Dead hedge in Manor Woods Valley
A ‘dead-hedge’ in Allotment Wood

Coppicing has the added benefit of creating lots of variety within the structure of woodland. Within a relatively short time of coppicing, Ramsons start to thrive and flower, followed by Nettles and Great Willowherb. As the Hazels and other shrubs re-grow, they again start to shade out the flowering plants, and its soon time to repeat the coppicing cycle. All this plant growth encourages a range of wildlife, such as basking butterflies and their feeding caterpillars, hunting dragonflies, pollinating bees and nesting birds.

Area of woods that has been coppiced
An area coppiced earlier this year – note how dark the surrounding woodland is and how quickly vegetation has grown once the light is let-in.
Coppiced area after 2 years
An area coppiced two years ago. The Hazels stools are growing strongly, Ramsons are in flower and Nettles are growing.

The areas that have been chosen for coppicing during the winter of 2019/20 are on the edge of Allotment Wood, near the cycle-path. These areas are sheltered and south facing, so encourage rapid growth of flowers and shrubs, which make ideal habitat for the likes of Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper and Brimstone butterflies, and Southern and Migrant Hawker Dragonflies.

Speckled wood butterfly
Speckled Wood butterfly
Close up of Southern Hawker Dragonfly
Southern Hawker dragonfly

 

If you would like to help Manor Woods Valley Group with the rewarding work of coppicing this winter, look out for notices posted in and around Manor Woods Valley, or on our Facebook page. Why not sign-up for our regular newsletter and receive notifications of our volunteering sessions – which are usually on the second Saturday of the month?