Sunday, 14 May 2017

England’s Working Forests & Woodlands:
The Difference Between Coppiced and Pollarded Trees

Many of England’s surviving forests and woodlands have been heavily worked throughout historic times, as revealed by the way trees were cut.

Coppicing and pollarding are two techniques of woodland management, begun by Neolithic farmers, used throughout history, and now being revived through woodland conservation efforts.

Definition of Forest in England
A forest in England is not just a collection of trees. Historically, it was a Medieval legal term whose definition had nothing to do with the flora but everything to do with fauna! A Forest was a designated area for deer kept by the king or another lord of the manor for feasts and gifts. Moreover, it incorporated much more area than the deer’s habitat, including associated villages, grasslands, and infrastructure such as roads and ponds. Each designated Forest had its own special laws and an administrative body to uphold them.

The idea of designated Forests was apparently introduced by the Normans after 1066. The Domesday Book (1086) first records the existence of Forests, and in the early 13th century 143 were known, but the Magna Carta of 1216 forbade further Forest creation (Rackham 1986:131). A legal Forest may or may not have included woods (deer can inhabit moors, heath or marshes), and of course many woodlands existed outside legal Forests. Whether woods were within a Forest or not, commoners had rights to exploit them for firewood, for wood to make tools and artefacts, and to graze animals. Forest Law survives somewhat in New Forest, Epping Forest and the Forest of Dean, but serves the villagers rather than the Crown or landowners (Rackham 1986:146).

The Enclosure Act of 1777 spelled the end of many Forests, but the modern conservation movement did not start until the late 19th century in order to save Epping Forest from the depredations that nearly destroyed nearby Hainault forest in the 1850s (Rackham 1986:139). However, modern conservation efforts have had equivocal results (see the Hainault Forest website below).

Coppiced Woods
New branches of coppiced trees
Where commoners had rights to exploit woodlands — whether in a Forest or not — they often continued a practice known from Neolithic times: that of coppicing trees such as hazel, oak or alder in order to regularly harvest the regrowth every five to six years. Coppicing involves cutting a tree at or below ground and allowing new shoots to grow from the ‘stool’ (stump) for several years before harvesting branches of the desired circumference. Branches can be culled individually or all harvested at once. Coppicing has been revived in post-war Britain as a woodland management technique.

Coppicing, however, does not mix well with grazing animals, since new shoots are immediately eaten. One strategy to keep animals away from coppiced woods was to enclose the woods with a fence or rampart. When this happened in a legal Forest, it is called a compartmented Forest (Rackham 1980). Woods in which grazing was allowed are known as ‘wood-pasture’; Forests that entail wood-pastures are, by Rackham’s definition, uncompartmented Forests.

Wood-Pasture and Pollarding
To protect trees from grazing animals yet still exploit their wood through regular harvesting, the trees were ‘pollarded’. Instead of being cut near the ground like coppicing, the trees were cut between 2-5m off the ground, so new shoots grew above animal head-height. Epping Forest, an uncompartmented Forest east of London, has been exploited as ‘wood-pasture’, attested by the grand pollarded beech trees still standing there.

Two beech trees pollarded above head height
Pollarding is also known from Neolithic times through the discovery of wood rods used in trackways, but the first mention in historical documents dates from the early to mid-10th century (Rackham 1980:135). The designation of legal Forests did not disrupt this ancient practice but incorporated it into commoners’ rights. In Epping Forest, the wood-pasture system continued until 1860 and pollarding until 1878 on a twelve to thirteen year cycle (Rackham 1980:187, 323).
Where to See Pollarded and Coppiced Woods
The Epping Forest Act of 1878 succeeded Forest Law, and a charity The Friends of Epping Forest was formed in 1968 “to represent the varied interests of all sections of the public who appreciate and use Epping Forest,” as stated on the charity’s website. The Friends host many guided walks during the year, including an annual day-long walk the full length of the Forest in September to celebrate the 1878 Act. Loughton & District Historic Society also offers on-line information for six self-guided walks, based on the book by Chris and Caroline Pond, by which many pollarded beeches in the former wood-pasture can be seen in Epping Forest.

Modern coppicing is taking place in Northmoor Hill Nature Reserve adjacent to the Denham aerodrome in Berkshire, a short trip northwest of London [Ordnance Survey map location TQ 034 891]. Here ‘drawing’ is practiced — the culling of individual branches rather than the more usual custom of cutting all new shoots at once.


Pond, Chris & Caroline (2002) Walks in Loughton’s Forest. Loughton: Loughton & District Historical Society. Reprinted in 2006.

Rackham, Oliver (1980) Ancient woodland: its history, vegetation and uses in England. London: Edward Arnold.

Rackham, Oliver (1986) A history of the countryside. London: Phoenix Press.