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Coppice and Loppers
Walk through any forest anywhere in the English countryside and you will see signs of coppicing, visit any country show and you will see coppice workers making hedges and brooms and the dictionary defines coppice as an area of small trees . So it’s time to define what exactly a log worker does and highlight the work they do in preserving our historic village.
Brian Raines lives and works in the small village of Michelmersh, near Romsey in Hampshire and is a full-time log worker and after spending a few hours in his company walking around the 50 odd acres he part owns and a part manages, I decided he was completely nuts and, like many who practice this ancient art, a genius in his field.
Brian, a former Royal Marine, re-mortgaged his house in order to buy 28 acres of wasteland and then turn it into an ancient woodland refuge full of wildlife and old and endangered crafts. I, like many others, often enjoy the delights of Hampshire’s new forest, but I didn’t realize that this area is also part of a historic old forest. I’ll let Brian explain.
“Hampshire is one of the most heavily wooded counties in Britain, yet while much attention is paid to the New Forest, Hampshire’s much more ancient woodland has been overlooked.” He explained.
“Stretching from the Wiltshire border in the west, across Sussex to the east, the Old Forest was the hunting ground of the ancient Saxon kings who once ruled England from Winchester. Hampshire’s Old Forest, while largely forgotten, consists of a patchwork of -dense patchwork of ancient hazel and bluebell woodlands which stretches across the center of our county, providing habitat for herds of roe deer and other forest dwellers, including a small number of wild boar . Significantly this forest remains central to Britain’s logging industry to this day.”
Brian explained that wild boars are known by copiers as ‘sounders’ as they are rarely seen but often heard. As we walked through his land of meadows, woods and lakes, Brian showed me the connection between the fruits of nature and the many pagan holidays and practices that are still reflected in today’s Christian traditions. The use of fruit and berries, and these old traditions, are too basic in their way to be pressed into a family trait, but they were all fascinating, and his knowledge of these rituals was an amazing insight into life and ancient beliefs. As an example he pointed to the use and symbolism of the pepper, with its redness, and the white grains of mistletoe, but neither can be repeated here.
“The logging industry is undoubtedly Britain’s oldest occupation and dates back many thousands of years, before the construction of Stonehenge.” Brian continued. “Meaning includes cutting down trees, such as hazel, to provide a harvest of rods and poles used to make fences, as well as strips for the hay trade. Other products include pins and fasteners used by traditional fence layers , waders used by River Protectors to prevent erosion along river banks and material for river fencing. Hazel is also a useful source of firewood and can be used to make charcoal.”
Brian went on to explain that the area around Kings Somborne, just a few miles from his small farm, boasts more acres of coppice hazelnut woodland than anywhere else in the country and is home to a number of coppice foresters and hurdlers who work a lonely. lifestyle deep in the forest.
“Cuppicing is an environmentally friendly and sustainable method of forest management in that once the rolling pulp is cut to the ground, it quickly sends out shoots that grow into upright canes that are harvested every seven years or so.”
“The hazel stubble industry grew with the demand for hampers sought by shepherds on the Hampshire downs and the treeless expanse of Salisbury Plain. While today the sheep industry is in steep decline, it is important to remember that British wool was highly prized by the Romans and that in the Middle Ages it was the profit from wool that financed the building of our great cathedrals. Even the Royal Navy has a wool connection, in that it came to protect wool exports to Europe, also the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to this day it rests in the House of Commons on the sack of wool, which symbolizes the nation’s wealth. Ironically, it was the sheep that sparked the industrial revolution when steam power was first used to mechanize the spinning wheel.”
“The eventual decline of the wool industry also saw a collapse in the hazelnut industry and since the First World War many forests have been abandoned and left to grow wild.”
“Today, the management of Cungishte forests has a special benefit for wildlife by providing natural habitat for rare forest butterflies, birds such as nightingales and animals such as dormouse.” Once he got going, it was hard to keep up with Brian and the information he was relaying about something he had adored since early childhood. “Releasing light to the forest floor also prevents woodland flowers from being shaded. In this respect, in cyclic forests, the forest floor is wet in the spring with a dense and rich sea of snowdrops, daffodils, primroses, wood anemones, red champignons and bluebells. Filling is mainly a winter activity, as hazel is best harvested when the sap no longer grows and the trees have lost their leaves. The work is physically demanding and a way of safe to keep in shape. Woodworking is lonely. Pursuit and a secluded existence not to everyone’s liking. In this way, the woodcutter spends the day with the robin and the wren, returning home at dusk, when the woodcock takes flight.”
We came to an area, which Brian has turned into a meadow, and at the bottom of the slope a large lake where some wildfowl are waiting. He explained that the hazel has a life cycle similar to that of humans in that it will live for 70 years or more before it begins to rot and particles begin to fall. “However, if it is covered again, it will spring up with new life and grow for another 70 years. In this way, generations of coppice workers have literally blessed the old-growth Hampshire hazel with the life of eternal, with lots of twisted hazel droppings. ancient and the remains of trees that have literally grown for thousands of years.”
“Unfortunately, much of Hampshire’s old growth forest is today in a critical state of neglect and decline. Left unmanaged, the magic of bluebell time has been lost and the song of the nightingale, a memory of the past. “
“As an alternative lifestyle, working in the forest can be extremely rewarding and a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, however most foresters have a dual career to see them through the summer months Traditionally, foresters were also shepherds, in that during the winter months they cut timber, then with the arrival of spring came the lambing and shearing of the sheep”.
My education about rituals and seasonal rituals didn’t end there and Brian continued to explain everything he had learned. Facts such as the legacy of this industry were that children of the Age of Aquarius were born. They would be conceived during Beltane (May Day) at the height of the ringing time and then born nine months later during the sign of Aquarius, when an abundant supply of ewes’ milk would be available to protect from high child mortality rates.
To say it was a fascinating insight into our village’s heritage would be an understatement. I spent a wonderful few hours with a man who is protecting and reviving some of our country heritage and who admits to being a bit arrogant, a saying that comes from the hazelnuts themselves.
If you want to know more then go to www.hampshirecoppice.org.uk
© David Massom April 9
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