Coppicing and Pollarding

Coppicing and pollarding are essentially two different methods of pruning trees and large shrubs, both of which have been practiced across Europe for millenia. And both were practiced regularly in Regency Britain, though for slightly different purposes. Most people who lived in or near woodlands or forests during the Regency, or depended upon the products of such tracts of land, would have been aware of the differences, though that knowledge had been nearly lost by the Victorian period. Knowing something about both of these pruning practices and their purposes might prove useful to Regency authors who wish to develop knowledgeable, or ignorant, characters who are involved in woodland or forested property management and maintenance during our favorite period.

Coppicing and pollarding through the Regency . . .

Though most people assume a tree will die when it is cut down, such is not usually the case. Certainly, the bulk of the tree above ground is gone, but the stump and the root system continue to live, even after the main part of the tree is felled. Unless the stump and the roots of the tree are completely pulled out or poisoned, the tree will continuously put out new shoots from the stump which, in time, will grow to be new trees. Having observed this natural habit of tree growth, woodsmen, from ancient times, realized they could take advantage of that growth pattern to harvest more material from each tree over a longer period of time. Similar pruning methods also made it possible to control the height of tree growth while keeping the tree healthy for decades longer than it might survive on its own. Over time, these pruning practices were improved and refined and developed into the practices of coppicing and pollarding. However, it must be noted that these practices were only successful with deciduous trees, those which drop their leaves each season. Neither of these pruning practices could be successfully employed with most conifers, which have very different growing patterns than deciduous trees.

Coppicing

Coppicing is the oldest of these tree-pruning practices and evidence suggests it has been in use since pre-historic times. The English term derives from the Old French word couppeiz, which had the meanings of "having the quality of being cut," or, "to cut with a blow." The first step in coppicing is to cut down young trees, typically about five years old, in most cases, to about six inches above ground level. This must be done in the late winter or early spring, before the buds break, when the tree is dormant and the sap has not yet begun to rise. Otherwise, there is the risk of doing the tree permanent damage. The remaining tree stump is known as the "stool," which will gradually increase in size over the years. When the next growing season begins, the stool will put out new shoots which will sprout fairly quickly from its living base. These new shoots are allowed to grow until they achieve the length and thickness needed for the purpose to which they would be put, from fuel to craft materials. One of the greatest advantages of coppicing is that it is not necessary to replant a coppiced tree, it will continue to grow and produce new shoots for many generations. For example, an ash tree left to grow naturally can live for about 200 years, but an ash tree which is regularly coppiced can survive for 800 years or more.

For some purposes, a single year’s growth of shoots would produce useful stems which could be harvested at the end of that growing season. But for many other purposes, the shoots or stems of the coppiced tree had to be allowed to grow through several seasons before they were long enough or thick enough to be used as intended. Therefore, it was typical to coppice many trees in a forest, in which case, the woods were divided into units, known as coupes. A woodland of mostly coppiced trees is known as a copse. Each coupe in a copse was harvested on a particular cycle, since the trees in each would be at a different stage of regeneration. Depending upon the species of tree and the purposes to which these young shoots would be put, any given coupe might be coppiced on a scheduled cycle of from one to as many as ten to twenty-five years, though three to five years was the average growing cycle for most crops. In a large forest, this cyclical harvesting method could mean that the trees in a few of the coupes would be harvested each year, usually in the winter, while the majority of coppiced trees would be allowed to continue to grow until it was time for the coupe in which they stood to be harvested. Thus, by harvesting coppiced shoots on a scheduled rotation, the woodsmen were generally assured of a mature crop in some part of the copse or forest each year.

Most deciduous or broad-leaved trees can be coppiced. The species of trees which best lend themselves to coppicing are those in which the sap most completely descends into the stump and roots during their dormant period. Those species which will coppice most vigorously are ash, hazel, lime, sweet chestnut, hornbeam, birch, elm, plane, sycamore, holly, alder, oak and willow trees. Trees with less vigorous growth, such as beech, poplar, and wild cherry can be coppiced, but they will require several more growing cycles to produce stems of a useful size. However, maple trees are not good candidates for coppicing, since their sap never really stops running and they usually "bleed" excessively when they are cut. Most conifers and evergreen trees do not respond well to coppicing. In fact, the stumps of most of them will not put out any new shoots once they are cut. One notable exception is the yew tree, which will coppice very well.

Even before the Middle Ages, woodsmen were coppicing trees in England for firewood. By coppicing, the lifespan of the tree could be very greatly increased. Not only were the thinner stems faster and easier to cut, they also took much less time to season. Green wood tends to produce a lot of smoke, so the freshly cut wood must be allowed to dry out, or season, before it was burned. Once properly seasoned, these thinner stems would burn clean and hot, producing a minimum of smoke. A large log cut from a tree trunk typically had to be seasoned for a year or more before it would burn clean, while coppiced stems cold be seasoned in just a few months. In the later Middle Ages, when charcoal was needed for the smelting of iron and the making of iron objects, coppicing enabled woodsmen to produce much more wood to be made into charcoal from a given acreage than was possible by felling mature trees. In 1544, during the reign of Henry VIII, Parliament enacted a statue which required forests to be enclosed once they were coppiced, to protect the new shoots from grazing animals. In addition, to ensure there would be enough large timber for coach and waggon making, ship and house building, among other large construction projects, at least "12 standels" (uncoppiced trees) were to be left standing in each acre of woodland.

In addition to fuel, coppiced trees produced materials for a host of other purposes. The shoots which were put out by the stool typically grew tall and straight, without the forks or bends which would appear as a tree grew older and thicker. These long, straight stems were ideal for making a wide range of items. Coppiced willows, particularly the species known as osier, produced many new shoots each year which could be harvested for the flexible withies used in the making of wicker items. Other willow species were coppiced to produce the strong flexible stems used to thatch roofs. Coppiced hazel stems were used to produce roof thatch as well as to make wattle fences and walls. Hazel stems were also used to make "hurdles,&quot which were portable, openwork rectangular frames that could be used as field gates, or to set up temporary fencing for small groups of sheep or goats. Sweet chestnut trees which had been coppiced produced long straight stems that were ideal for the production of hop poles. Many such poles were used to support growing hop plants for the brewing of beer. Such poles could also be used for fencing. Coppiced oak and ash trees grew into long, strong stems which were ideal for the making of the handles for tools such as axes, shovels, pitchforks and rakes, among others. The coppiced stems from a number of species grew strong and straight and were popular with woodworkers in the making of canes and walking sticks. Coppiced stems of various species and sizes were in demand by coopers to make the hoops of certain types of barrels. They were also necessary to wood turners for use in producing spindles and balusters for a wide range of furniture and architectural elements.

Coppicing created many multi-stemmed plants which grew in a bush-like fashion while remaining within a few feet of the ground. This was in contrast to standard trees, which consisted of one plant with a large, thick, single trunk which could grow to a considerable height, while leaving open ground at its base. Woodsmen, right through the Regency period, understood that the practice of coppicing, implemented on a regular rotation, was a very efficient and effective method of ensuring a rapid and reliable source of constantly renewable wood products, with a minimum of waste. But coppicing also had some valuable side-effects which were not fully understood or appreciated during this time. A copse, or forest, which included a mix of coppiced trees and standels or uncoppiced trees, also known as standards by the Regency, provided an excellent habitat for a wide range of wildlife, what would be called biodiversity today. The patchwork of micro-environments created in such a woodland offered many different communities of plants and animals just the conditions they needed to flourish in the forest.

Pollarding

Pollarding is similar in practice to coppicing, though it is much more difficult and generally has a slightly smaller yeild. Essentially, pollarding is coppicing a tree at a height of from six to twelve feet above the ground. The term pollarding has its source in early English, originating from the word "poll," which, from at least the Middle Ages, meant the top of the head. When used as a very, "to poll" meant to cut a person’s hair. Which is quite appropriate, since the pollarding of trees is rather like cutting off most of their "hair." Generally, pollarding was practiced on trees which grew in areas which also served as pasture land. Coppiced trees grew close to the ground, and their tender new shoots were often irresistibly tasty treats for grazing animals. It was for that reason that Parliament had enacted a statute, in 1544, which required coppiced lands to be enclosed, to exclude animals which might eat the young stems. But in regions where pasture land was essential to agricultural husbandry, grazing animals and trees had to share the same acreage. Therefore, younger trees were pruned at a height at which animals seeking tender shoots could not reach. Thus, the animals could eat the grass and other plants which grew at ground level, but they would not be able to reach the stems of a pollarded tree. Over time, pollarding was also practiced in other woodland areas, since it eliminated the need for protective enclosures or fencing and the accompanying cost and effort of their construction and maintenance.

To be successful, pollarding had to be done on the same seasonal schedule as coppicing, but only to relatively young trees, typically between ten to fifteen years of age. Attempts to pollard fully mature trees could irreparably injure the tree, leaving it unsightly, with cuts that may not heal and unable to combat disease. When a tree is pollarded for the first time, most of the branches of the tree would be lopped off near the top of the trunk, in the late winter or early spring, before the sap began to rise or the buds began to break. This pruning practice will stunt the growth of the tree, as the main trunk of most regularly pollarded trees would not grow beyond the height it had attained when it was first pollarded. It is also the case that pollarding often produced a tree which was less attractive in shape than one allowed to grow naturally, and typically provided less shade. However, the benefit was that such pruning kept the tree in a partially juvenile state, when it was most resistant to harsh weather conditions or disease. Thus, though pollarded trees tended to be shorter, less pleasingly shaped than other trees of their species and provided less shade from the sun, they also tended to live much longer than comparable standard trees which were left to grow unpruned. Like a coppiced tree, a pollarded tree would produce new shoots or stems from the top of the trunk which could be harvested when they had reached the desired length and thickness. A tree which was regularly pruned in this way was known as a pollard. It was necessary to continue to pollard a tree on a regular schedule to maintain its health. A pollard which ceased to be pruned regularly would weaken and might even die.

Most species of trees which could be coppiced could also be pollarded. And each species would grow new shoots from the top of the trunk in much the same way when pollarded as when coppiced, just higher off the ground. Thus, those species which had vigorous growing habits would produce the greatest number of strong stems in the fewest number of growing cycles. Oak, ash and holly were some of the species of trees which were most often pollarded. Species like wild cherry, beech or poplar, which had less vigorous growth habits, would take several more growing cycles to produce stems of the needed size and strength. As with coppicing, maple trees, from which the sap would "bleed" excessively when cut, were not good candidates for pollarding. Nor were yew trees. Though yew trees could be successfully coppiced, their growing habits made them quite unsuitable for pollarding.

The stems produced by pollarding were just as valuable as those produced by coppicing, though they had a somewhat more limited range of uses. A large portion of the stems harvested from pollards was used for firewood or in the making of charcoal. Another important crop produced by pollards was winter fodder for farm animals and other livestock. These fodder crops were typically known as "pollard hay." Hazel pollards produced significant crops of the strong flexible stems which were needed for thatching roofs, though pollard stems do not appear to have been used in the making of wattle fencing or hurdles. Oak and ash pollards were a regular source of stems for tool handles. However, pollard stems do not seem to have been regularly used for the making of canes and walking sticks, furniture and architectural elements.

Though pollarding was a pruning method which was somewhat similar to coppicing, pollarded trees were never part of a copse, or forest of coppiced trees. A copse was a mix of coppiced trees and standard trees only, though pollards might be found growing on the edges of such a forest. Typically, during the Regency, pollards were most often part of pasture or other farm land in which the largest possible yield was sought from the available resources. Few, if any, parklands around a mansion or great house would include pollards, as the aesthetics of naturally growing trees was usually preferred by most landowners.

Dear Regency Authors, both coppicing and pollarding were important methods of woodland management which were practised across Britain during our favorite decade. In most cases, copses and pollarded acreage would have been in existence for many generations by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Typically, land owners or their estate managers would have simply carried on the practice, harvesting the stems on whatever schedule had been set up. However, it was important that this harvesting be done on schedule, or there was a significant risk of damaging the crops or the trees which produced them. Perhaps the hero, recently elevated to a noble title, is also an experienced woodsman. When he soon notices that the copses on his new lands are being mismanaged, how will he handle the problem? Mayhap the heroine is a crafts woman, used to harvesting the withies she needs for her wicker work. She was given permission to harvest her withies in a copse on a neighbor’s land, but unbeknownst to her, it has been sold. What will happen when the new owner comes upon her in the copse, cutting withies? Are there other ways in which coppicing or pollarding can enhance a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Coppicing and Pollarding

  1. Pollarding is also nowadays a means of managing trees on avenues in towns, at least since the Victorian habit of putting trees along streets. Coppicing and pollarding are both still in regular use in the east of England, and as far as I know the skill never died out here. We have many beautiful woodlands some of which may have been managed by coppicing since the bronze age, which is a respectable record. I love the more recent mixed coppiced birch and standard oak forests just 5 minutes out of town. A wonderfully peaceful place.
    A note on pollarded trees; they were also used to edge orchards, there are lime trees extant with massive boles which are plainly pollarded, which edged the orchards of the big hall and its estates local to me, which was sold off piecemeal and built up from around the 1860s, so fairly recent, I know, but there is nothing to suggest that though the trees which are extant are not that old, there was probably the same policy. I live on part of the old orchard, and have seen the final demise of the last apple and pear trees in local gardens over my lifetime, the last went about 30 years ago. And then there’s the stubborn survival of the cherry trees which propogate by suckers [one reason perhaps they do less well as coppiced trees]. I presume that the reason for pollarding trees edging orchards would be the general use of orchards for extra grazing.
    Pollard is a surname [possibly also giving rise to Ballard] but for coppicers you have to seek Copthorne or Copestake as there is no direct surname from it, probably because every man might easily coppice his own trees but pollarding is a little more specialised. I’ve done both, and believe me, being up a tree with a chainsaw is moderately nervous. I’d not like to do the job without [a] power tools and [b] modern ropes and karabiners to control the polled logs so I have every respect for our forebears. Which leads to the plot bunny of when the rope is frayed and breaks, and the hero pushes aside the forester’s lad to save his life when a quarter of a ton of tree is headed for him, and is injured himself. Naturally the heroine nurses him back to health.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      WOW!!! Thanks for all that wonderful information! I am glad to know both tree pruning practices are still alive across the pond. Based on my research, those pruning practices began to be abandoned in the Victorian period as fewer people were willing to do the work and the need for craft and construction materials which were harvested from those trees began to be met by other sources. I also discovered that today, some trees are pollarded not only to extend their life, but also to remove the risk of large branches dying then falling away and causing injury or damage.

      I was wondering about surnames associated with coppice. Thanks for that information, too! Funnily enough, I was just watching the movie Seabiscuit, whose primary jockey was John “Red” Pollard. He was from Canada, and there must have been a woodsman somewhere in his family tree.

      I salute you for your skill and courage in having both coppiced and pollarded trees. I am not sure it is something I would want to do, with either modern or historical tools! I like your plot bunny. I had not thought about any associated with the practices themselves. Very romantic!!!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I suspect the safety aspect is the main reason for the pollarding of trees in avenues. Also to extend life to avoid having to take them out! I have to say it’s a treat to watch the council crew at work, they are very efficient. Watching them take down a massive horse chestnut which had become unsafe, which was big enough to fall right across the main road and possibly hit my house was a lovely bit of teamwork. And what I like is that they leave the logs if there’s any open ground for things like stag beetles to breed in. We’ve got a pretty green council at the moment. But I am very aware of the safety aspects, because of living opposite managed woodland, so I can see any number of potential accidents from burned hands through holding a rope which runs away because the branch falls without being properly secured [one man can hold a pretty large log, so long as he has the rope twisted twice round another bole and lets it slip slowly] to a rope being secured in the wrong place, too high up the cut branch, so when it is cut it swings back and the lower end can smash someone in the face. It’s a matter of physics, most woodsmen do it with experience, and some of us run an estimated maths calculation on it as well, with regards to turning moments, but sometimes things can happen and it goes wrong. A miscalculation of a few inches can be the difference between having a free end passing perilously close or not. And we’ve all made mistakes learning, as one might imagine an arrogant young lordling doing, in assuming he knew it all. Actually I could see one trying to direct the pollarding of a tree using pure physics and maths and making a total botch of the calculations – because trees aren’t lab experiments, and they won’t behave like regular bodies in a closed system. If his arrogance gets a man injured, his guilt might lead to him getting to know the man’s pretty daughter better …

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I envy you, living so close to a woodland. Not so much seeing the trees come down. I love trees and it always breaks my heart when I see one being taken down. But it is very nice that your council are so green, and will try to maintain as much as possible which is natural in the woodland.

          Not a big fan of math (the US version of “maths”), so that part leaves me fairly cold. However, I do like the idea of the young lord thinking math and physics beats years of hard-won experience. Nice to know the one you have in mind has a sense of guilt and that it might in the end get him a wonderful life-mate!

          =^..^=

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