Coppicing Hazel – the how, the why, the where

Lamb’s Tails (as country children call them), the pale-yellow catkins of the hazel, are a familiar sight at this time of year.  A traditional component of our hedgerows, they are perhaps seen in more glory when growing unchecked along roadside verges where they can achieve a much greater height.  There, up to 15 metres tall in favoured conditions, the soft golden shimmer of hundreds of catkins really is one of the earliest harbingers of spring.

Lamb’s tails: their pollen is released by the wind

Catkins begin to form early in the winter, small, stubby and dull in colour where they wait until, quite suddenly, they are as we see them now.  The transition always goes unnoticed.  Even less noticed are the female flowers – for catkins are male.  Whereas the majority of plants are self-fertile, Hazel, Corylus avellana, is one of a number that carry both male and female flowers.  Wind-pollinated, the breeze carries the pollen from the male to the female to fertilise.  However, the pollen has to reach a different plant for it to be successful.  The tiny, female flowers can be discovered by careful searching along the branches a few days after the catkins have fully formed.

The short, stubby embryo catkins form in early winter
The minute, female flowers take a bit of finding…

For gardeners, hazel is one of the most traditional and useful of plants and it is worth growing one or two in an odd corner if you have the room.  There they will quickly create a multi-stemmed shrub.  Visually, as a garden plant, when left to its own devices, it is of limited value (wildlife love it, of course).  However, by coppicing the plant there will be a regular supply of poles for runner beans to climb and the twiggy top-growth is the perfect support for garden peas, mange-tout and the headily-scented sweet peas.  They are also useful for supporting taller herbaceous plants, saving them from collapse and look so much more attractive than canes and string or wire netting.  It’s far quicker to do, too!

A good crop of runner bean poles

So, what is coppicing and how do you do it?  Well, for a start, it’s a dead easy and very uncomplicated form of pruning!  All that has to be done is to cut with secateurs or garden loppers the stems to a few inches above ground level during the winter.  If you do this over three years by removing only a third of the stems each year you will have stems of varying heights and diameters without losing any screening effect.  Although coppicing may seem a drastic form of pruning they quickly regrow and it also prolongs the life of the plant considerably. 

Coppiced hazel can make a good summer screen in the garden

Many years ago, coppicing of hazel (and, sometimes, ash and field maple too) was standard practice in many of our woodlands.  These days it is still carried out as a conservation tool to encourage the breeding of our now endangered dormouse and other wildlife.  Hazel is the food plant of many moths and the autumn supply of nuts are great favourites with jays, squirrels and wood mice – and, of course, humans. In the photo below of long-neglected woodland, the hazel is naturally regenerating as coppice as the old and heavy branches collapse onto the forest floor.

Neglected storm-damaged hazel naturally regenerating as coppice

Hazel can be useful, along with willow, to create living structures such as pergolas, arches, fencing and tunnels.  They all involve regular pruning in much the same way as coppicing although in most instances the number of upright growths is reduced to one or two.  The prunings make excellent kindling for wood burners and, if you’re feeling really creative, rustic furniture.  Why not have a go?  From just one native species we can have fun projects that are ideal for people of all ages.  It can be used as an educational tool too: nature study and conservation, rural history and artistry make it the perfect resource for lockdown and home learning.

This living hazel tunnel makes a fine garden feature and is also good for wildlife
An imaginative and practical way of using hazel branches

Finding Blue John

Recently I spent a long weekend in the Peak District – not really long enough to explore properly despite it being Britain’s smallest national park.  However, there was time to explore the small town of Bakewell, home of the famous and very tasty Bakewell Tart as well as a drive through the Chatsworth Estate.  The ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire had to be ignored on this occasion but lunch at their farm shop was well worth breaking the journey for. For photographs and a description of these places see my earlier post by clicking on the link The Peak District’s Soft Centre.  Finally reaching the area known as the High Peak (despite the name there are no mountains in the Peak District) a roadside sign pointing in the direction of Blue John led through glorious countryside.

Chatsworth (1) watermark

Chatsworth House

Blue John Mine (2) watermark

View from the Blue John mine

Blue John is a fluorite semi-precious mineral that in its raw state appears quite dull.  After drying, preparing and polishing it takes on a number of colours ranging from purplish-blue through to yellow.  Despite numerous tests and analyses the origins of the colour has not been discovered.  Blue John is also a rare stone for although similar minerals have been found elsewhere in the world there are only two known places where its unique quality can be found – and those are both in the same hillside in the Peak District.

Blue John Mine (3) watermark

Blue John in its raw state

1280px-Cliff_Blue_Vein_Bowl_-_Castleton_Visitor_Centre

    Blue John after processing – the bowl is in the Castleton (Peak District) Visitor Centre.         Copyright: Pasicles via Wikipedia

Visiting the Blue John mine is not for the faint-hearted or the short-of-breath for that matter: there are two hundred and fifty steps to descend and then, of course, you have to climb back up them to reach the surface once more.  Don’t complain, ‘though, or you may have to descend by rope as the early miners once did.  Fortunately, I only looked down it to see the visitors below.

Blue John Mine (11) watermark

The descent into the mine

Blue John Mine (4) watermark

The alternative way into the mine – being lowered by rope!

Inside the mine there are low tunnels to pass through contrasting with vast caverns with roof heights of 200 feet or more, either created by ancient rivers or by the miners themselves.  Each cavern has its own unique characteristic although it is difficult to catch it on camera.  The one below is named Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room, a huge circular space formed by a whirlpool and so named after the dinner Lord M gave his miners there.  The thought of the cooks and food being lowered deep into the mine gives a new angle to the term ‘outdoor catering’!

Blue John Mine (5) watermark

Blue John Mine (14) watermark

Lord Mulgrave’s Dining Room

The Waterfall Cavern is colourful with the stalactite formations along one side appearing to be frozen water.  Elsewhere there are numerous fossils where marine animals have been ‘captured’ for posterity.

Blue John Mine (8) watermark

‘The Frozen Waterfall’

Blue John Mine (22) waterfall

Fossils embedded into the mine walls

Throughout the mine the colours and texture of the rock formations are extraordinary and constantly changing.  In one cavern it is easy to ‘see’ the rocky and meandering bed of the prehistoric river that formed it, the difference being that it is way, way above one’s head.  In another, a giant, triangular rock has fallen to balance on its point.

Blue John Mine (16) watermark

The overhead ‘riverbed’

Blue John Mine (12) watermark

Huge and precariously balanced

The tours, which are led by miners, for Blue John is still mined here during the winter months, last about an hour.  At the end of the tour all there is left is to climb the two hundred and fifty steps back to the surface…

Blue John Mine (19) watermark

The long climb back to the surface

 

For further details of the history of the Blue John Mine and visiting hours visit their website here.

To give overseas visitors a better idea of its location, the Peak District National Park is approx. 3.5 hours by car, north from London; by public transport allow 6-7 hours.  There are plenty of hotels, traditional pubs and self-catering cottages available for overnight stays.