Here's the next installment in Mark's European travels...
After a few train changes in Redding and Guildford, I arrived at the station in Haselmere and not long thereafter Ben Law pulled up to collect me. In the midst of his usual hectic schedule, he'd thankfully made time to get me, saving me what would've been a damp and dark 3-4 mile walk to his home in Lodsworth. We wound through the narrow country lanes and were at his house in the woods within twenty minutes.
We spent the evening catching up about our respective projects and lives. For those who aren't familiar with him, Ben Law is as close to a forestry superstar as one may expect to come. Having now published four books and been virtually immortalized by the British television show 'Grand Designs' which documented the start to finish construction of his roundwood timber frame, volunteer-built, straw bale house, he's helped to repopularize traditional woodland management and crafts amongst an audience that had likely been more or less oblivious. Living in west Sussex on 8 acres of chestnut coppice (and managing about 100) in West Sussex - about an hour southwest of London - Ben has created an impressive homestead and thriving business int he middle of the woods. I spent 8 months apprenticing with him during the winter of 2002-3 and the experience was one that changed my life forever.
Between managing nearly 100 acres of woods, marketing value-added wood products, mentoring two hard working apprentices, fatherhood and maintaining a growing roundwood timber frame construction business it's hard to imagine where Ben finds time for just about anything. That said, he always makes time for quality meals and we enjoyed a dinner of local steak and garden grown potatoes and greens with his teenage son Rowan.
After the meal, we watched Ben's most recent TV appearance - a segment on NBC's (USA) Nightline news magazine program. This short piece explored the British plight to control the rampant gray squirrel population in the UK, introduced from the States well over a century ago. The grey squirrel is one of Ben's most pernicious pests in the coppice, peeling the bark off young living coppice poles and eating the cambium beneath. While this typically doesn't kill the pole, it damages the wood and renders it virtually useless for most of his products.
The Nightline segment explored the efforts to control the pest which has been displacing the native red squirrel, featuring a patriotic speech by Prince Charles, a fine restaurant with gray squirrel on the menu and finally, Ben and his well trained 'lurcher' (dog) Oily, taking an NBC newsman into the woods, armed with air rifles, with the goal of bringing down a shared meal. Ben has trained Oily to locate squirrels and chase them up a tree, then keeping a close eye on them in the canopy until Ben can follow up and bring them down. It's quite a sight to behold. And of course, they don't waste the animal upon death, instead squirrel has become a common meat source for Ben and his apprentices throughout the year. It's actually a fine meat, not unlike rabbit in texture - alas, they really only amount to a single serving. Nevertheless, it's a great example of how we might turn a management problem into an active yield.
Wednesday morning we set off for their current timber frame building project about 40 minutes away. Located at a family farm seeking to expand their operation to offer accommodation to visitors and guests, the substantial structure was probably about 25'x60' or so in size. Ben explained that they've really honed their process since first building his house over eight years ago. Now with a trained crew of 4-6 builders, they just about maintain a steady year-round building program and have built a reputation for completing their projects on time and under budget - a feat for just about any building company. With a strong emphasis on local, natural materials, they attempt to source their timbers on-site or within the local community. They also source siding (typically oak) and shingling (this time western red cedar) in the surrounding area and have them locally milled.
Often at least some part of the building's walls are built using highly insulative straw bales and when we arrived the crew was about to resume work after a lunch break, applying the finish coat of lime onto the interior bale walls. These roundwood building techniques have now become almost formulaic, utilizing a framing style known as a 'cruck frame'. The cruck frame is essentially an A-frame built using heavy timbers and is believed to be one of the earliest forms of building construction in the UK. Because the triangular form of the A-frame is held rigidly in place, two or more of these heavy wooden frames can support the ridgepole and thus perform all of the structural functions the building requires. Often historically, builders sought out curved timbers to form the crucks, sawing them in two so they were 'bookmatched'. This created a more organic shape and higher edges along the walls, providing more head room for occupants. Timber frames later evolved to include jowl posts that create vertical wall surfaces so as not to compromise functional space within the structure as one might expect from an A-shaped frame. For those interested in the subject, two of Ben's books - The Woodland House and the recently released Roundwood Timber Framing both explore the building process and techniques. Also, if you do a search for 'Ben Law Grand Designs' you should come upon the 50 minute television program that documents the construction of his home.
While catching up with the builders and examining the buildings progress, I took a few minutes to call Rebecca Oaks, a coppice worker in central England who recently co-authored a book of coppice management and craft. Our time limited by my phone's expiring pre-paid minutes, Rebecca explained her experience with coppice in her area. Working largely with hazel and ash, a good part of her work has been focused on the recognized conservation benefits of coppice. Organizations like Natural England and the National Trust actually provide funding for folks to cut coppice stands so as to create habitat for wildlife, some of them endangered invertebrates like the frittilary butterfly. Because coppice management has been a part of the countryside for so long, ecosystems have evolved to thrive at vary stages of regrowth. Maintaining a mosaic of various stages of woody regrowth thereby supports myriad herbaceous plants, invertebrates and other wildlife.
In some cases, this grant funding simply supports the cutting of the coppice - the materials are left in the woody to decay with no consideration to the products they could be used to create. Often, deer nibble away at the young regrowth, stunting the regrowth and stressing the stools. While this strategy may be effective in providing habitat for the short term, it becomes clear that it's not a sustainable long term solution. Because this management is absolutely reliant on grant funding to sustain the coppice, the relationship seems tenuous in the long term - especially as we see a global trend towards shrinking budgets and ecologically-minded expenditures. Additionally, removing the craft from the system, erodes the ability for coppice workers to build an interested and engaged clientele who would otherwise help to support coppice management. Over time, it was the products and markets that actually created the impetus for and sustained the management of coppice. If we remove the very reason coppice came to be a relevant form of management from modern systems, is it possible to imagine it's perpetuation in an uncertain economic future?
Rebecca pointed out the challenges of these inconsistencies in policy and has been addressing this tension in her work. Her book gives a good overview of the benefits of coppice, some of the existing management systems and species managed in the UK (hazel, ash, chestnut namely) and looks at a number of ways people can add value to these materials. Unfortunately our conversation was cut short but I felt grateful to her for sharing her time and thoughts so freely and look forward to speaking with her in the not-too-distant future.
Soon Ben and I took to the road and headed back to Lodsworth for the afternoon. I took some time to explore the woods I'd come to know rather well during my past visits and measure some of the stand characteristics and regrowth. I went to explore the three cants most recently cut during each of the past three years. Much of the woodland Ben inherited almost 20 years ago was neglected and 'overstood' - or derelict. This means that some of the stools had died and the density subsequently declined - this in turn leads to a reduction in pole quality as they start to branch out more actively to fill in the available space. It takes some work to restore the coppice to what it once must've been.
The chestnut stands on Ben's land (called 'Prickly Nut Wood' - a reference to the spiny husks that bear the chestnuts) were planted out about 160 years ago and were managed actively until sometime around the second World War. Probably having been cut once more between then and modern times, many of the poles are 6-8" in diameter and about 40-50' tall. Many of the stools have been cut higher than one typically would for coppice - 1-2' off the ground - and they have become habitat for a spectacular array of moss and lichen species. National conservation organizations have recognized this, naming his site a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' which means that he must continue to manage them by cutting at their current height. This is less than ideal from a management perspective as stools cut low to the ground tend to encourage straighter growth, lacking the 'pistol-grip' formed base found on stems growing from a higher stool.
Much of the regrowth I found was coming on quite strong. The chestnut put on a solid 6-7' of growth in the first season and once tired and overtaxed stools were showing considerable vigor. The best stocked cants featured stools at about 6-7' spacings which appears to be a particularly ideal interval for most moderate length rotations (6 to 25 years or so). For shorter rotations, it's possible to go for an even closer spacing - willow withies are typically planted somewhere between 1-2' from each other but are harvested every year.
In many of Ben's stands, he'd done some significant thinning of the standard trees to open up more light for the coppice regrowth and maintain a more even structure. This generally amounts to about 6 or so standard trees per acre (a standard tree is a tree grown for timber within the coppice. It's characterized by an uncut, single stem). Not all of the stands recently cut were chestnut. The cant cut 2 winters ago features a polyculture mix of hazel, ash and chestnut coppice with oak standard overstory. The regrowth here proved strong though the stocking density was a bit low and could use some filling in so as to optimize productivity. To protect the regrowth from the pressures of deer browse, Ben erected a five strand temporary electric deer fence about 7' high around the perimeter. While it took a day or two to install the solar charged fence, it provides peace of mind and helps protect the vulnerable young regrowth. After about 3 years, the plan is to remove the fence wire, erecting it around the next stand, but keeping the rot-resistant chestnut poles in place so it can be fenced off again after the next cut.
As far as numbers go, I collected growth figures on several stands at varying ages on his property.
Stand 1 - about 17 year old chestnut regrowth - 4-7 stems per stool, 6-7' spacing between stools, ~ 40' high, individual poles averaging between 4-5.5" dbh (diameter at breast height). The lies on a 15-20% east facing slope with clay-loam soils. The canopy was dense with about 96% canopy cover.
Stand 2 - 2 year regrowth. Between 10-20 stems per stool on average, 5.5-6' stool spacing, 10-11' high stems. Individual stems between .8-1.0" dbh. The stand lies on a northwest facing slope at about 20% grade.
Stand 3 - 4 year regrowth - 8-13 stems/stool, 4-7' spacing between stools, 1.5-2.3" dbh. Northeast facing slope at about 30% grade.
I finished up my day visiting stand 3 from above which is the same cant we'd cut when I was there as an apprentice 8 years ago. Ben has since cut this stand again after four years so its become highly productive after restoring the restoration cut we did in 2003 when the stems were about 18 years old, 6-8" dbh and 40-50' high. I joined Dave the apprentice, snedding up the cut poles with a billhook (removing the side branches and tops and grading the useful/non-useful poles). In the meantime, the other apprentice Mark kept busy cutting the rest of the standing regrowth. These poles were to be used for several purposes - the most pressing need was for baling stakes to pin straw bales together in their building work. Dave and I had a good conversation about his experience int he woods and goals for life beyond Prickly Nut Wood. After an hour or so, it was time to call it a day.
We spent the evening together, sharing a meal and conversation while they concurrently put together a seed order for the coming spring garden. We were in Bed at a reasonable hour with Ben agreeing to take me to the railway station in Haselmere in the morning to catch my train to London where I'd soon be off for Limoges, France.
On our way to Haselmere the following day, we took a moment to stop off at a nearby woodland we'd planted out with hazel when I was there in 2003. We had to scale a few fences to get there, traversing through a newly installed vineyard on the estate, enclosed in an impressive 8' deer fence. We encountered the property manager on the way who enquired as to who we were and what we were up to. Once he found out, he eagerly asked if we could tell him what we thought of the wood and what we'd suggest to do. He also mentioned they'd put pigs in with the hazel to fatten them up for a bit. As we approached the enclosed pig pen, we both were awestruck with the damage they'd done. Reducing the entire understory to a thick, deeply, barren muddy mess, it was absolutely evident that the lack of any 'management' here whatsoever, had led to a total destruction of the ground flora and soil structure. The results couldn't have been worse and in the long term may compromise the health of the hazel regrowth. Pigs in and of themselves don't have to be destructive, but when penned in and left to root around for an extended length of time, they can do incredible damage that may take years to rebound. That was definitely the case in this stand. We explored what we could of the stand and set off. In another 20 minutes we said our goodbyes and I made my way to London. I'll forever carry a deep respect and appreciation for Ben. He's a remarkable man - eager to experiment and innovate, with a long-term vision, a deep love for the woods and a lifestyle that supports his ethics. I continue to carry the inspiration that filled me when I first left Prickly Nut Wood and have integrated the lessons and lifestyle I experienced there into my own vision of a life built around the woods.