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Coppicing

Yesterday I wrote about beheading as a theme in gothic art.  It’s a chilling subject because if a person (or other vertebrate) is so fundamentally cut apart…well that’s pretty much it for him or her except for obsequies and obituaries. However this weakness is not universal among organisms.  Many invertebrates like worms, jellyfish, and sponges can be cut apart and continue to thrive. The animal world is not really the direct subject of today’s post though. Certain plants are particularly good at regenerating despite trauma.  A large number of common forest trees can be entirely cut down and still regrow from the stump. This fact formed the basis for coppicing, a practice of woodland management which involved harvesting certain trees by cutting them down for firewood or timber and then waiting for the living stump (which foresters call a stool) to regrow.

This method of forest harvesting/maintenance was most effective when different parts of a wooded land were kept at varying stages of regrowth.  Certain areas of trees would be cut back to ground level.  Other trees would be back to full mature size.  Most trees were somewhere in between.  The cycle depended on the location and the sort of trees being harvested but it was apparently a favorite way for communities to have their woods and burn them too.   Chestnut, hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash and oak were all frequently coppiced.  The process was extremely common during medieval times but seems to have fallen away as mercantilism (with its emphasis on shipbuilding) and industrialization took hold.

This is a shame because coppicing was not as environmentally devastating as clear cutting. To quote an online article at The Great Escape Treehouse Company:

Coppice management favours a wide range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. Often brambles also grow around the stools. Woodpiles (if left in the coppice) encourage insects, such as beetles to come into an area. The open area is then colonised by many different animals such as nightingale, nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows up, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again but, in an actively managed coppice, there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.

Forests that can survive and thrive despite coppicing probably evolved to do so in conjunction with animals.  Beaver are infamous for cutting down forests both as food and as building materials.  Deer and related artiodactyls are also hard on forests (though not like elephants—African and Indian trees must be hardy indeed).

Woods which never had to deal with any of these animals are susceptible to vanishing when tree-cutting invaders appear.  When beavers were introduced to Patagonia they caused an ecological crisis, both from flooding caused by their dams and from cutting down trees with their teeth.   The local trees could not survive coppicing and quickly vanished before the onslaught of the industrious rodents.

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