Around this time of year you may be seeing some freshly cleared areas of woodland in your local nature reserve, with perhaps an unnerving number of tree stumps, and the jarring sound of a chainsaw ringing through the woods. Although the reason for this may not be obvious at first, and often elicits anger from those who enjoy visiting woodland, cutting down trees is unfortunately a very important practice for maintaining biodiversity in the UK.
What is actually occurring is a practice known as coppicing, where a certain number of trees in a designated area are periodically (normally every 20 years or so) chopped down to near the base of the stump, but so enough of the stump remains for the trees to stay alive and continue growing. This enables more sunlight to reach the ground, allowing new plants to germinate from seeds which have dispersed throughout the forest over the last few months, or even years, allowing wildflowers to appear and serve pollinators, the conservation of which is so vital at the moment. As the trees re-grow during the coppice rotation, they do so in a bushy manner, resulting in a few new trunks growing from the original trunk stump. This habitat is great for song birds and invertebrates alike, so although the main concern surrounding coppicing seems to be the belief that it is destroying habitats for other species, it in fact creates habitats for more species than it would have if left.
I am currently volunteering with a regional Wildlife Trust in coppiced woodland, and public complaints aren’t exactly rare. Recently an individual who regularly walks their dog through the woods expressed disliking of coppicing. Their arguments were that it looked nice and mysterious before – which to me sounds like it looked dead, dark and gloomy. If this individual returns to the site in the summer, they will rapidly lose count of the butterflies in the area, see lots birds attracted to the area because of the increased number of pollinators, and be dazzled by the colours of wildflowers allowed to grow in the area due to the increased levels of sunlight. A neighbouring site that was coppiced last year already has trees that have re-grown to over 5ft in height, from a mere 5inch stump. I don’t mean to pick out one individual complaint, because there are many to choose from, this was just the most recent I witnessed. I highly appreciate that there are lots of people who do not like to see trees being chopped down – it is in fact comforting that many people feel this way – but if people hadn’t built on so many of the natural clearings in the UK, or used them for monoculture farming, conservation groups wouldn’t have to create new clearing in order to try and prevent a mass extinction.
The truth is much of the UK woodlands aren’t natural anyway, and it’s very likely your local wood has a history of coppicing, and would look very different if coppicing had never taken place! Before the industrial revolution, coppicing was needed for the young, narrow trunks that grow from a coppice stump, to be used as things like stakes or tool handles. It was understood then how to obtain the wood sustainably by rotating the areas cut down, and it is also cut down sustainably today. It’s a hard truth to understand, that most of what people consider nature, simply because it involves plants and animal species that aren’t human, is very rarely natural, to the extent that many actually argue that nothing is natural on Earth anymore, due to the gross impact of man. So, for as long as we wish to assuredly preserve the existence of our songbirds, butterflies and flowers, and everything else intertwined, without taking the gamble of adaptation, we must maintain this kind of artificial nature, which is partly achieved by keeping up the practice of coppicing.
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