Today’s coppice workshop at Little Hidden Farm was an excellent nature conservation event. The outstanding rustic cooking made sure we’ll remember this day for a long time!
I have been on lots of countryside task days, and the food is not always easy to get right… balancing the quantities, the prep time, and who will help, etc. For this event in aid of FARM Africa, cooking volunteers were keen to help out and the whole task team was very grateful. They had brought out the clay oven early and it was waiting at the edge of the hangar for us. [hangar = a long strip of woodland]
On a chilly winter day the freshly baked bread, creamy artichoke soup and slow-baked jacket potatoes were culinary cuddles. Spiced with chutneys, jam, sauces and a selection of home-made cakes… real coffee… who needs romance on 14th Feb when you have food like this?
The what? Oh yes, the work. Everyone was keen to learn more, many being absolute beginners with coppicing. The enthusiasm and love of nature in everyone who came meant that we had a very positive atmosphere, cooperative, and well-humoured.
Bill and Sue Acworth are brilliant hosts, truly welcoming and always excited about what’s going on the countryside around them. They run a horse riding school as well as the organic farm and agroforestry, and are involve with environmental initiatives such as HEAT.
Bill began the workshop by telling us about his plan for the wood.
Coppicing is an ancient method of rotational woodland harvesting, but wood produce is not always the primary reason for using this method in modern times. Here, the coppicing is intended to create the right habitat structure for a range of wild fauna and flora, but the Duke of Burgundy butterfly is the top priority species.
Duke of Burgundy needs primulas for its caterpillars to eat, usually primroses when in woodland, or cowslip on chalk grassland. These host plants also have to last well into the heatwaves of summer if the caterpillars are to survive long enough to pupate. So the primulas must be shaded enough to avoid drying, but in a patch that is sufficiently open and sunlit to be packed with nectar sources and host plants.
After this wood is coppiced, the first few years afterwards are perfect for the Duke, if we get it right. The males of this rare butterfly only lek until mid afternoon, so we want the morning sun. However, we cannot open the woodland too much, otherwise the butterflies will not have the shelter they need, and the primroses won’t be shaded enough to avoid being dried by the sun in summer. There is a lot to consider in the design of the woodland management system.
Simon Smith kept it simple at first and started, as you should, with a tool demonstration, a safety talk and a quick guide to tackling the “jigsaw” of a hazel stool. Bowsaw, loppers and a billhook were the main tools, but I was impressed by the small pruning saws, which sped through the hazel wood.
Simon is the Assistant Director (Operations) with Wiltshire Wildilfe Trust and previously worked for BTCV. As the day progressed, Simon went around us all, checked we were OK, and shared his eperienced advice to help everyone. A few times he stopped and demonstrated a tool technique, or introduced a craft skill. Later, we heard how the range of coppice regrowth suits a range of different wildlife, and learned the historical context of coppice management as the key to rural life.
Large parts of the local landscape can be described as ‘chalk and cheese’ (cheese being clay soils) and in Saxon times a closely meshed variety of different habitats were managed within each parish. Parishes were self-sufficient and had a mix of woodlands on the clay and wet river valleys, with chalk downland where sheep were herded and walked along droves from place to place.
Hazel hurdles were essential mobile fences which enabled sheep to be penned in at arable fields at night, where they left their dung. A system of transhumance was vital to the sustainable land management.
The event was supported by the North Wessex Downs AONB.