Trying Out Willow Coppicing
This week I had the incredible opportunity to learn a bit about willow coppicing. I'd previously taken a four-week willow weaving course, and have used willow and other forms of natural weaving materials both in my own practice, as well as hosting events incorporating willow. During my course, we used farmed willow, specifically grown for use in weaving, all cut, soaked and ready to work with, so it was really incredible to see the material growing out in the wild, work with it, and also to take part in the longer-term management of a local woodland.
We were working in the Carmunnock Coppice, which is only about 15 minutes from my house, but in an area I'd never heard of or been to before. Glasgow City Council has an extensive pamphlet about the land, including a breakdown of about 15 different species of willow that is grown there, but the area is largely unmanaged. The woman who was leading the activity said that there was very little information available about why it was planted and how it was meant to be managed, but they've got permission from the council to do some coppicing and woodland management of the space, and so there I was.
It was an incredible early Spring day when we set out. Delicate yellow hazel catkins stood out against the bright blue sky, as we explored the different areas of the coppice. Certain types of trees, like willow and hazel, grow best when coppiced. This means cutting back new growth to create space and promote more new growth. Willow grows especially quickly, and branches can be coppiced every year, making it an incredibly sustainable material. It grows well in wet areas which other trees might not grow as well in.
I had thought that coppicing meant cutting back a few twigs here and there, but we got right to work cutting down entire trees. Coppiced branches grow back incredibly straight, which is great for weaving - why I was primarily interested in the willow. These small branches were easy to identify because of their bright colours. They're also incredibly flexible, and as they're small, they can be cut using secateurs, also referred to as pruning shears. I'd used secateurs before in my willow weaving course. They're quite sharp, but have small blades, so are easy to get into tight spaces and cut small branches.
We used folding pocket saws to cut down the larger branches. These were almost like big pocket knifes, which we used to saw back and forth until we made our way through the trunk. For stability, we did this with one knee on the ground, and always cutting away from ourselves. A second person held the branch higher up to keep it from moving (or falling down). Sometimes I used my other hand to hold the branch higher up as well (out of range of the saw), and sometimes I used both hands to cut as it was hard work.
We had an interesting discussion about safety gloves. The leader said that while doing her risk assessment with the council, they had noted that gloves could be worn on the hand holding the tool to aid in grip, but weren't necessary in the hand holding the branch, as if the blade was going to cut you, a wee glove wasn't going to stop it. We also discussed how sometimes gloves just get in the way, making it harder to work and actually more dangerous, and that it's actually safer to focus on safe tool use.
Once the branches were cut down, we dragged them to an open space (trunk first, branches last) to break them down into more manageable pieces. The coppice is quite unhealthy, and many of the trees are infected with canker. This is a fungus that badly affects them. Because of this, we had to remove all the willow that we had coppiced from the site. But carrying out three big trees and putting them into cars is quite a task.
We used loppers to break down medium branches into smaller sizes. Loppers are sort of like big scissors with long handles and small but very strong blades. Branches that were too thick for the loppers to cut through could be cut down to size using the saws.
Long, thick branches could be smoothed down with a billhook, also called a pruning knife, which is a curved blade which you use to cut off the stubs left from other branches. We then had to pack up all of the cut-down sticks into bundles, tied them with tarps or ropes, and then haul them to the car (which was a difficult task, especially crossing wee burns with bundles of willow blocking your vision).
It was a great day, and I learnt a lot about willow. I even made up a wee platter for my scone and tea using some of the fresh branches, which I got to enjoy in the presence of the trees. But I think the larger learning that I came away with was the idea of woodland management. They said that the woodland was probably planted around the millennium as a celebration, which is a nice idea. It's a huge space with loads of trees, and so must have been great expense and effort to create. But here we are, 24 years later, and it's turned into an overgrown and unhealthy woodland, with no one to manage it. There were nine people there, we spent four hours, and we coppiced three trees. There must be thousands of trees in the woodland. It's a huge task, and a huge responsibility to manage such a space.
It seems quite counterintuitive. Here we are, a bunch of people who love and want to celebrate nature, setting out to chop down trees. But when the trees are properly coppiced, they grow back even quicker. The additional light that is able to reach the floor of the woodland helps other species grow better, and the management of the woodland means that trees can maintain better health and thrive.
I came home with two bundles of freshly cut willow rods, perfect for weaving, so I'm setting them out to dry for a few weeks, and then they can be woven into a basket. It was a great experience, a really good opportunity to try out some different tools and put them into practical use, as well as to learn more about one of our incredible and abundant natural materials.
Read about two ways that I incorporated the willow plant into my High Holiday celebrations this year here.