Many relics of medieval woodland management techniques, such as this coppice stool, can be found in the British countryside.
Although evidence of medieval systems of woodland management can be found throughout Europe, the following post is based on studies of ancient British woodlands and their management, especially as discussed in the work of Dr. Oliver Rackham, an acknowledged authority in the field. Updated versions of many of Dr. Rackham’s older works have been revised and reprinted. His most recent book, Woodlands, was published in 2009. The term “ancient woodland” is used to designate areas that have been continuously wooded since at least 1600 and is thus applied to woodlands of medieval date.
Pollarding, a technique of woodland management discussed in last week’s post, afforded a valuable renewable resource. A pollarded tree was pruned back drastically at the top, above the browse line, in order to protect the crop from grazing animals in areas where livestock had access to the trees. The technique lengthens the life of the tree, and pollards that date to the Middle Ages do survive. Pollarding was not typical of woodland, but rather of wooded pasture, although pollards were used as boundary trees to mark the legal limits of a given woodland. (The timber and trees of a medieval woodland were protected by an earthwork with a ditch on the outer side of the boundary, known as a woodbank; a hedge was planted to protect the perimeter of the woodland from livestock.)
Another technique, known as coppicing, was used for managing the trees of the understory and producing wood for various purposes. The tree was cut back almost to the ground, rather than at the top, and the wood produced in response was harvested from the stump. The base of a tree that has been systematically pruned in this way is known as a “stool.” The trees were cut back to stools on a regular rotation in order to provide a perpetual succession of young wood that could be harvested for many practical purposes. According to Dr. Rackham, much of the economic value of a medieval woodland was in this so-called “small wood,” rather than in large timber trees.
Certain species of trees respond well to this systematic hard pruning, including ash, elder, oak, hazel, lime, hornbeam, willow, and many others. Depending on the species, the length of the rotation, and the length and thickness of the growth produced in response to coppicing or pollarding, the wood might furnish fodder, firewood, materials for either basketry or wattle fencing and construction, and tool handles.
Coppicing was practiced well after the Middle Ages. Although it fell into disuse in the first half of the twentieth century, the practice has been revived in contemporary Great Britain, where there is tremendous interest in both the conservation of ancient woodlands and in the ecological rather than the economic benefits of coppicing. The cycle of open and forested areas created within a managed woodland encourages biodiversity. Colonies of native plants such as bluebell and primrose benefit from the successive periods of light and shade provided by managed trees; a greater variety of plants supports a greater variety of insects and animals.
For more information on many aspects of the preservation of ancient woodlands in Great Britain, visit the website of The Woodlands Trust.
Rackham, Oliver. The Illustrated History of The Countryside. London: Orion, 1994.
———Trees and Landscapes in the British Countryside. Archaeology in the Field (revised ed.). London: J.M. Dent, 1990.