Chingford Features

How coppicing protects Epping Forest’s trees

A conservation volunteering session on Chingford Plain leads Kelly Bewers to learn about how the practice of coppicing protects the ancient woods and grasslands of Epping Forest

Silver birch canopy after coppicing, Credit: Kelly Bewers

I started my volunteering session bright and early at the recently renovated Epping Forest Visitor Centre, next to the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge.

The visitor centre, which is home to fascinating exhibitions on the history of the forest, looks out to Chingford Plain. It’s also a view that Henry VIII famously appreciated on the morning of Anne Boleyn’s execution, as he rode out to hunt.

On arrival I’m greeted by the infectious energy of conservation officer, Robyn, who explained that we would be coppicing a small glade of silver birch trees near Cuckoo Brook.

Coppicing is an ancient method of lopping wood. Historically this was done primarily to harvest wood for fuel and carefully cutting the tree near the base ensures healthy regrowth. Today coppicing is an important part of maintaining the biodiversity of the woodlands and grasslands of this specially protected area.

Removing some of the silver birches would make space in the canopy to let light through and re-establish areas of ancient heathland, ensuring that many species of flora and fauna can continue to thrive and support biodiversity across the wider ecosystem.

Coppiced branches creating a natural habitat, Credit: Kelly Bewers

Without the light that coppicing provides, the yellow meadow ants, whose homes are often mistaken for grassy tufts or mole-hills, are unable to survive. Without them, birds miss out on important food sources and in turn wildflower seeds are not dispersed and pollinated.

We set up ‘camp’ under a young oak tree, spreading a tarp before getting to work. Safety is paramount and Robyn kitted us out with gloves, hard hats and high-visibility jackets, before explaining how to use the loppers and hand saws.

Over a pleasant lunch break she also provided mince pies (controversial in January, I know, but warmly appreciated by all).We took a small area of the glade each and I enjoyed the sense of being part of a group, whilst also having time to focus on our own tasks and enjoy the landscape; finding rabbit holes, spotting the brilliant red of rose hips, noticing the many shades of green moss, and listening to the raven.

With the logs and branches we coppiced, Robyn showed us how to pile the wood up to create safe habitats to encourage insects and wildlife. Laying the smaller branches down first, with the larger logs on top, facing south, woodlice and invertebrates can find a home in the dark, damp lower levels and newts can perch on the larger logs at the top to warm up in the sun. I very much enjoyed the idea that we might be creating tiny lizard sun loungers through our hard work!

Epping Forest Heritage Trust run various conservation volunteer opportunities, you can find out more here

Epping Forest Visitor Centre and access to Chingford Plain is a seven minute walk from Chingford Station