Ancient oak coppice

Hopefully we’ll have the time to blog on this site about all the things us Blackbarkers are up to, what excites us and what we’re thinking.

multi-stemmed oak

Back in February we did some upland coppicing over in North Wales – you can read all about it at Woodknot’s site. We spent one evening in an old wood near Nantmor. As the light was fading, we stumbled between large, craggy stools and wondered how long since this wood was last cut: eighty years? a hundred? more? It is what we call ‘overstood’. It is a textbook location for ancient woodland: it covers a rocky hill which emerges from the surrounding fields: the least valuable farmland is kept treed. The stone walls are high and steep on the outside. On the inside, leaf fall has built up the soil almost to the top.  Perhaps it has been coppiced for a long time, perhaps not. I can well imagine that during the 19th century the bark of the coppiced oak was stripped and sent to the tanneries of Portmadog, the burgeoning industrial port down the road. Now sheep haunt the slopes and there are no young trees. Ah, if only it was a productive woodland once more!

blackbarkers inside a huge old sycamore stool

Renovating an overstood coppice wood like this is not as simple as keeping the sheep out and cutting the trees once more. Many species, especially oak, lose their ability to regrow with age. An old oak tree is unlikely to send up many fresh red shoots when it is felled. When neglected woods are worked once again, they often need a lot of replanting to fill up the gaps and replace the trees which refuse to regrow. This is called restocking.

I am always deeply moved by old spring woods such as these. It is not just the beautiful, fantastically-shaped trees or the blanketing moss. It is not just visual or sensory. It is not just about what is here, now. The woodland tells a story of a long relationship between humans, our forbears, and the land. The repeated cuttings of wood, the careful boundary building, the repetitious year after year of actions. The past is written into the living beings that surround us. I feel awe and sense beauty, but also keep loss close. If only it was a productive woodland once more. But actually, if only it had never stopped being a productive wood, if only the repetitious chain had never been broken. This not romantic and sentimental – it is real and pragmatic. Not only has a beautiful symbiotic relationship been destroyed, but I sure could use an in-cycle oak coppice right now. It would make making a living so much easier. And I know that the next generation, and the one after that, and after that, could all really use healthy, vibrant coppice woods. Once a wood is neglected, it sure is hard work to bring it back.

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