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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coppiced woodland benefits spring flowers such as primroses (above) and bluebells and stitchwort (below)
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."
One of John’s woven fences visible behind the sheep he loved to watch
Goodbye and thank you John