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

Conceived on Exmoor?

There used to be a standing joke between my mother and I that I must have been conceived on Exmoor as it has such a magnetic hold on me.  My parents had honeymooned there, staying at Ye Olde Cottage Inne at Barbrook in the mid-1940s – the fact that I was born in the early 50s and had an older sibling we conveniently overlooked.

Mum & H wedding photo watermark

Wedding Day

When I first came across Exmoor, in the summer of ‘68, I thought I had stumbled into a paradise, if not unknown to others, certainly unknown to members of my family.   “Stumbled” is an accurate description. My intention had been to cycle further west into Cornwall before returning south to Exeter for the train journey home.  Poor map reading skills took me instead to the North Devon Coast at Westward Ho!.   During my final term at school we had studied the novel Lorna Doone and now seeing Doone Valley, Exmoor marked on the map it seemed logical to visit despite it being way off to the east.

Badgworthy Water watermark

Badgworthy Water, Doone Valley

Brought up in the Chiltern Hills, I was used to a hidden landscape of narrow lanes, high beech hedges and dense and extensive beech woodlands.  Rarely, was there an unbroken view of far-distant places and, almost as rarely, large expanses of sky and cloud.  Cycling across Exmoor with its open, rolling landscape ablaze with heather and gorse and views across the sea to the Welsh coast was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Sometimes the lanes would pass between high banked hedgerows or descend into well-wooded coombes reminding me of home.  I came across a farm where I pitched my tent intending to stay two days before leaving for Exeter.

Nr Fingest 2 watermark

A Chiltern lane winds its way through dense woodland

 

River Barle watermark

The open views of Exmoor

Helping on the farm, two days turned into weeks and then into months by which time I had moved into the farmhouse and embraced Exmoor life.  I occasionally telephoned my parents, or sent a postcard, always being evasive about where I was staying and only telling them I was working on a farm and being well cared for.  With the benefit of maturity, I sometimes wonder how they coped with their sixteen-year old son, on his first lone holiday, disappearing for so long in an era of no mobile phones or credit cards for them to track my progress.  They only succeeded in finding me after I foolishly reversed the telephone call charge and soon after arrived on the doorstep to drag me away, kicking and screaming.  It was time to get “a proper job” but Exmoor and the farm had completely changed my outlook on life as well as the direction it would ultimately take.  After twenty years of “a proper job” I finally escaped to agricultural college and a life of outdoor work.

Brendon Barton 1968 (4a) watermark

Brendon Barton 1968

Pruning watermark

At agricultural college 1994

I had been surprised and a little disappointed when I first discovered my parents also knew Exmoor.  Despite not having been conceived there, my attachment to Exmoor has never waivered and more than fifty years later I regularly return.  Upon entering the moor the same emotion of discovery, as if seeing it for the first time, remains.  Many of the old friends that I made in those early years and their unique way of life that I was privileged to be part of, albeit in a small way, have gone but the landscape remains remarkably unchanged.  The heather and gorse are still a carpet of purple and gold, the sea (at least, on a fine, sunny day) still blue.

Countisbury (15) watermark

Countisbury Common, where the moor falls into the sea

Very recently, through researching my family history, I have found that an earlier cousin, at a similar age to myself, had also discovered Exmoor.  He too had never settled in school and life on Exmoor changed him.  He also chose to write about his time on the moor, something else we have in common. Although I was surprised to learn of his life and his book, this time I am delighted!

002

PostscriptJust a few years before she died at the age of 93, I spent a few days on Exmoor with my mother and took her to revisit the honeymoon hotel.  Long widowed, the day must have been a mix of emotions.

Honeymoon Hotel watermark

At Ye Olde Cottage Inne, renamed The Bridge Inn