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Wildlife Garden blog

3 Posts tagged with the coppicing tag

As autumn approaches and the new academic year begins so we lose Thomas Fieldsend, or Tommy as we know him, who enters the final year of his studies for a BSc in Animal Conservation & Biodiversity at Hadlow College. In common with many students, Tommy came to volunteer with us for work experience while studying for the first two years of his degree course. He covered a wide variety of practical and survey work as (hopefully) the images below will show! We will greatly miss his input, and his company. Here he describes his time in the Wildlife Garden:


"As a young boy growing up outside of London, a trip to the Museum was a rare treat. So, as I began the first day of my two-year work placement here in November 2011, I couldn’t help but wonder what my younger self would have made of it all. I’m sure he would have been excited; I know my 22 year old self was! I was about to become initiated into the world of the ‘Wildlife Garden Volunteer’, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. As it turns out, the only thing I ever came to expect in the Garden was the unexpected.


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November 2011 in the Wildlife Garden



Although a ‘can do’ attitude may be considered a prerequisite for a Wildlife Garden Volunteer, an ‘I’ll give it a go’ attitude is probably more beneficial, because when your day’s work might include tree felling, sheep corralling, or calculating the Garden’s amphibian population to the nearest hundred, just ‘giving it a go’ often becomes your best course of action.


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Amphibian survey April 2013


So I was very pleased - and somewhat baffled - when I realised that somewhere along the line I had actually become proficient at performing many of the tasks I had once regarded as exercises in damage limitation.


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Tommy and Alex learning to navigate while reducing reeds and great willowherb on the moorhen island

Not only that: I realised I had acquired the vocabulary of the Wildlife Garden natives as well as their skills. I found myself using words such as ‘coppicing’, ‘pedunculate’, and ‘pinnate’, without realising I had even learnt them. I had become, unbeknownst to me, a wildlife gardener!


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Newly coppiced hazel


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Hedge planting with Alex and Naomi


This came as quite a shock, as when I started in the Garden I was a first year Animal Conservation student at Hadlow College who was of the firm belief that he was an 'animal person', not a 'plant person'; that animals and the environment they inhabit could be treated as somehow discrete from one another, even in the context of conservation.


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Tommy inspires another young person: making insect hotels during our Spring Wildlife event earlier this year


In actuality, most of the work undertaken in the Wildlife Garden consists of facilitating natural ecosystem functioning through habitat management; in this sense, the Garden can be considered an example of effective conservation in a microcosm. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the importance of approaching habitat management and wildlife conservation holistically is the single most valuable lesson I learnt during my time as a Wildlife Garden Volunteer. But whatever I learnt along the way, I know this much: I had a lot of fun, and I won’t be forgetting the time I was part of the Wildlife Garden Team any time soon!


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Tommy, Nadia and Alex at the Brighter Kensington and Chelsea Scheme collecting an award in November 2012

Let me finish by thanking Caroline, Larissa, Naomi, and the whole Wildlife Garden Team for all their help and kindness during my time as a volunteer. Special thanks must go to Alex Lynch for the comic relief."


Hopefully we'll hear or see more of Tommy Fieldsend ...


For the past few days we have been coppicing and pollarding some of our hazel, alder and field maple, using the cut poles as binders and stakes for our woven fence repairs. Woven fences border the meadow and other areas where sheep-proof fences are necessary.


The woven fences are also reminders of one of our volunteers, John Chabrillat, who sadly died in November. John, originally from France, had lived in England for around 40 years and still retained an endearingly strong French accent. In retirement John worked as a conservation volunteer for several organizations including the Surrey Wildlife Trust and Ealing Council park rangers. He had been a volunteer in the Wildlife Garden since autumn 1997. John specialized in woodland management.


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John Chabrillat working on a woven fence


Always arriving in the garden promptly at 9.30 am on his appointed day, John often brought his own tools - such as bill hook or hatchet - cleverly wrapped up in newspaper to avoid any suspicion on the train. I was reminded of his hachet-carrying habit by Roger of the Surrey Wildlife Trust where John often worked in Nower Wood nature reserve


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John preparing coppiced stems for his woven fence



John shared his skills in coppicing, pollarding and hedge-laying and was always looking to perfect his own techniques by attending the coppicing workshops held here for Museum Members and volunteers.


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John learning how to ‘bodge’ during a woodland workshop


He taught us how to build woven fences using hazel and ash. Any surplus wood would be neatly sawn or chopped up and used for log piles created in his inimitable style. 


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One of John’s log piles – ideal habitats for toads, newts, fungi and many invertebrates


John worked on a variety of other tasks throughout the year including weekend sheep care. He was full of interesting facts and funny anecdotes and arranged reciprocal volunteer outings between Nower Wood and the Museum. He grew vegetables in his back garden and in summer months would present us with gifts of tasty home-grown tomatoes.


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John making a woven willow barrier


We have missed John since he ‘retired’ from volunteering nearly 2 years ago and, now we know he will not be returning, it seems fitting in this season of woodland work to remember John - a true woodsman -  and to describe the art of coppicing in his words, as they appeared in an article for the Wildlife Garden page of the Museum’s Membership magazine, Nature First in Spring 2002.


Coppicing by John Chabrillat, conservation volunteer:

"Although coppicing is generally associated with the open countryside, it also finds its place - albeit small - in the Wildlife Garden. Coppicing consists of cutting trees, preferably saplings, to ground level, and then allowing the stumps (or stools) to grow back for up to 12 to 15 years. This resulting growth is a straight piece of timber, ideal for weaving into fencing or hurdles, tool handles, or in medieval and Tudor days, wattles for wattle and daub houses. Hazel and sweet chestnut are still the main coppice trees in southern England, and sometimes English oaks are allowed to grow to maturity for heavy timber - this is called coppice with standards.


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Workshop leader, Rob Graham demonstrating coppicing in the Wildlife Garden


Coppiced woodland produces a better structure of growth than would occur naturally. Many more plants will grow and it provides a more attractive environment for birds and insects, including butterflies, as has been proven in conservation coppicing. It has been said that when man developed coppicing, it was the only time he improved nature.


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Coppiced woodland benefits spring flowers such as primroses (above) and bluebells and stitchwort (below)


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The practice may have been introduced in this country by the Romans. It is still widely practiced in France and Italy for firewood and charcoal production. It was certainly practiced in Norman times here, as ‘coppice’ is an Anglo-Norman word derived from the old French copez (to cut). In England it had become the most common way of woodland management by the end of the 13th century. Before the use of coal, it provided a renewable source of timber and firewood, which helped to maintain a constant supply of fuel for the iron industry without endangering the survival of woodland.


In the Wildlife Garden, hazel and ash are coppiced to provide supple and smooth stakes for ‘dead’ hedges, which make good stock-proof fences to control our summer sheep."


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One of John’s woven fences visible behind the sheep he loved to watch


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Goodbye and thank you John


As a thick layer of snow covered the Wildlife Garden this week we took a pause from practical tasks to avoid disturbing life hidden below the snow and, instead, took the time to reflect on a year in the life of the Wildlife Garden from the perspective of one of our volunteers, Nicky.


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The view across the main pond from the reed bed taken on Monday by Visit Planner Mark Humphries


"What does volunteering to work in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden involve and why do it? I have been a volunteer here for about eight years and I am part of a dedicated team that looks after the garden so I hope I can give you a good answer to that question...

The year starts with the coppicing and pollarding of trees during the cold of January, and creating a woven sheep-proof fence with the coppiced poles and stakes as preparation for the arrival of the sheep later in the summer (more about coppicing next week). Pruning, planting, weeding all occupy our time before the garden opens to the public on 1 April each year, with the aim of creating habitats that show the potential for wildlife conservation in an inner city.


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Nicky pollarding willow near the chalk pond


I always look forward to spring, with the opportunity it gives to watch the new growth start to emerge. The blooms of the first primroses always make me feel happy, as does seeing the movement of the moorhens through the undergrowth on their way to the ponds.


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Primroses - the first flower of the year in the Wildlife Garden


The many public events - including Spring Wildlife in April, the Bat Festival in June, Open Garden Squares Weekend, Big Nature Day, and all the way through to our Hedgerow Harvest autumn event - keep us all very busy. For these events many of the Museum’s scientists join volunteers and Wildlife Garden staff to set up stalls and displays, and to entertain and enthrall the visitors.

We also welcome the participation of and help from several outside groups such as the Bat Conservation Trust, RSPB and Hedgehog Street. The many activities, which include leaf rubbing, seed identification and plant sales - and let's not forget the teas with delicious home-made cakes! - are enjoyed by our visitors and it is very rewarding to be able to show them the fruits of all our efforts during the first half of the year.


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A scene from the annual Bat Festival - held in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust.


One of my favourite activities is to help with the Seed Identification workshop held in the Wildlife Garden’s shed, which is hidden toward the back amongst the trees. Children and adults peer in at the door and, seeing the six microscopes set up, wonder if they should come in. With a little coaxing the visitors enter, peer into the eyepieces and, “I can’t see anything!” is the usual response.

I disarm them of their bags or ruck sacks. Children's lollypops are propped up in a glass jar and toy dinosaurs toy are put down on the table for a sleep. Then, once the new guests are sitting correctly, we can begin.


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A keen young scientist-in-the-making identifying seeds and fruits with Nicky


With microscopes focused, one hand on the seed tray and tweezers in the other, the response is now, “Wow, are these all seeds?” I explain that plants can be identified just by looking at the seeds and fruits, and soon they are busy picking out each specimen and matching it to the plant using the identification sheet supplied. For many visitors it is the first time they have looked down a microscope and done something scientific.

It requires a lot of patience but I feel really pleased when visitors want to take home their seeds and fruits and identification sheet, but especially when some now want to have a microscope of their own. A whole new world awaits them!


Outside these events I have the opportunity to attend a variety of workshops for volunteers (more about these another time), carry out summer jobs such as weeding, and help with species recording. Plant recording though the seasons is something I really enjoy: I usually team up with another volunteer and, with plant recording sheet, hand lens and a field guide in hand, we soon get our eyes in and recognise some of the more familiar native plants.


For the more difficult plants we work though the keys in the field guide to aid identification. Plants such as the duckweeds at first glance can look the same, but closer examination reveals minute detail and we must decide if it is least duckweed, common duckweed or even ivy-leaved duckweed."


Nicky’s volunteering year will continue next month.