Sunday, 5 August 2007

Butterflies and Coppicing

Britain's biggest butterfly conservation project started a couple of weeks ago: it seems that many traditional species are in decline due to the lack of ancient woodland management.

In my village there is an ancient wood: now in your imagination this wood might be full of enormous gnarled old oak trees, but not so. It's full of spindly chestnut and hazel trees that have been coppiced for hundreds of years.

Many of our high forests are the result of woodland management - such as coppicing – no longer being carried out. The canopy of these trees eventually cast deep shade but ancient semi-natural woodland that's coppiced is made up of multi-stemmed trees that only cast a dappled shade in which many species thrive.

Ancient or semi-ancient woodland is defined by the number of 'indicator' species: generally this is the number native flowering plants - ferns, lichens and native conifers -that are present on a particular site. The greater the number of these species present the more likely it is that the wood is ancient but, obviously, these species differ depending on the area.

In Kent there are, amongst many, primroses, wood violets and sorrels growing in the woodlands; lichens, fungi and insects live on the dead wood and nightingales and dormice are resident. If the wood is too dark these species won't survive and eventually the woodland floor will become dense scrub: coppicing prevents this.

Coppicing – the word comes from the French word couper, to cut - is an ancient art that can be traced back to 4000 BC: it involves the cutting of trees and shrubs back to ground level on a regular basis to give a sustainable supply of timber.

When the trees are cut back they are known as stools: stooling results in vigorous re-growth that produces multi-stems known as poles. These poles are then harvested on a regular basis – anything between 6 and 25 years - depending on the species and the product required.

However, some wood is removed on an annual basis: if the trees have been planted close together they'll grow tall and straight and the wood used for bean poles (hazel) and the brush for 'dead' hedges. Coppiced ash was traditionally used for tool handles, oak and chestnut for fencing. And the wood not suitable for products would be used in winter as firewood or in summertime burnt in kilns in the wood for charcoal.

Charcoal burners are as old as the hills, without them there would have been no Iron Age: charcoal burns at a higher temperature than wood and so was used for smelting. But when we started using coal – and now gas, oil and electricity - for fuel as opposed to wood, coppicing declined as a form of woodland management.

Although the art is not totally forgotten: when we cut back our garden dogwoods (Cornus alba) and willows (Salix alba) to produce fresh new stems, or our Eucalyptus gunnii to produce vigorous juvenile growth, we are, in effect, coppicing. And we're coppicing when we cut back overgrown hornbeam or yew to produce fresh new growth.

As is so often the case in nature, one thing goes hand in hand with another. If woodland is coppiced it affords a wide range of habitats but if this lapses then the species it supports falls off. Coppiced woodland has sunny clearings in which flora and therefore butterflies thrive: without management the wood becomes the dark place of fairy tales and many species of butterfly decline.

Orange and woodland fritillaries are nearly extinct in the south east of England and if woodland isn't coppiced for over 5 years then the pearl-bordered fritillary will not survive. The South East Woodland Project is hoping that rare and endangered species of butterflies like these - along with moths and insects - will make a comeback if the woods are properly managed once more.

They are therefore encouraging landowners to coppice their woodland again: the charity is holding demonstrations throughout the SE of England for landowners but also for any Tom, Dick or Harriet who would like to learn the art of coppicing.

To get you started on saving butterflies, vote for your favourite one (either painted lady, peacock, red admiral, brimstone, comma or holly blue) by going onto the website

And you can do your bit in your own back yard: go gentle on the weeding, leave the corners to take care of themselves. A tree, some native wild flowers and a clump of nettles and you've created a little butterfly heaven.


Book Note: when I'm out and about and want to identify wildlife, I prefer a pocket-sized book. Butterflies in Collins gem series is a perfect example: it is a very small paperback with one butterfly or moth to the page. A clear photograph and a short description means that you can look up a butterfly when on the hoof before it darts away (with luck). It covers the butterflies of Europe but for some strange reason it's for sale in Canada: is this because the same butterflies live there?
Most enthusiasts would probably like a more detailed tome for their bookshelves: mine is an illustrated book of insects. Looking for it just now a yellowed sheet of paper fell out - Butterfly Conservation campaign 1994 - bemoaning the loss of butterfly habitats. So, if this is a trend, I should be able to recycle this blog circa 2020.

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