Homes & Gardens


Sebastian Cox on woodland coppicing


There is a particular pale shade that birch or hazel hold in that first cut in the autumn. This custard-cream is so pure in an otherwise autumnal wood, it’s tempting to reach down and eat the chips. I always make the first cut with an axe before starting the chainsaw, an odd ritual

I’ve fabricated out of respect, easing the woodland into its felling season, but also acknowledg­ing the woodmen managing Broome Wood with axes and billhooks for a thousand years before me.

I’m sure the birds know the sound of an axe or hook through generation­ally passed knowledge, so my first cut is also a request for their permission, demonstrat­ing my understand­ing of the old ways. Nonsense, possibly, but I like to show intent towards nature’s needs through an understand­ing of our more connected past.

As we are approachin­g that first reflective cut, the great diarist and forefather of silvicultu­re John Evelyn comes to mind. I think of him today because this October marks his 400th birthday. He wrote a significan­t book called Sylva, published in 1664. It was a book where sustainabi­lity links to economic and political might, and has shaped the woodland, and indeed the nation, we have today.

We often think of woodlands as places that look back, but those who manage them are looking forward, often beyond their own lifetimes. Sylva was looking hundreds of years onwards, making plans for forests with purpose. I often wonder what John would make of our modern relationsh­ip with trees; woodlands offer such value to us; carbon sequestrat­ion, urban escape, pollution filtration, biodiversi­ty services, fuel and fibre supply, and yet woodlands are under threat from us too, through poor management by saw, spade or unbalanced ecosystem.

The future of forests is unknown, but it does look promising. In the recent general election campaign, tree saplings became political confetti. I prefer a political promise of acres of land left to self-establish as wood-land than a zillion trees planted, but there is still need for slipping a sapling into cut turf where natural woodland succession happens slowly. The Woodland Trust offers good advice on how to get involved with tree planting, and now is the time of year to do so. After we coppice this autumn, we’ll be inter-planting our mixed woodland with species such as wild service, cherry and crab apple to boost the arboreal biodiversi­ty.

This century there will be great commercial demands on woodlands as industries discover new and exciting uses for tree fibres or fuel, many of which I welcome if they work with wood as habitat, too. We must educate ourselves on the nuances of these complex organisms and ecosystems in order to manage or protect them better. A great place to start is a book; The New Sylva was written by Gabriel Hemery for today’s silvicultu­ral predicamen­t. As Gabriel writes, ‘Caring for trees and forests is an intergener­ational responsibi­lity’, and he’s right. What we do now with our trees and forests is not for us, but for generation­s after us. So we must take responsibi­lity with spades, axes, billhooks, and our own understand­ing of these generation-spanning life-givers, and aspire to leave a legacy as thoughtful and purposeful as John’s.

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