Volunteers have recently been learning the art of coppicing – in Old Copse – a traditional woodland management technique that was practised extensively until about one hundred and fifty years ago at Ashridge.
Areas of woodlands, or ‘coupes’, are harvested on a rotation of up to thirty years. Most coppice woodlands are now classified as neglected or stored coppice, which means that they have not been cut for a number of rotations.
Coppicing exploits the capacity of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, which is called a copse, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level, known as a stool. New growth emerges and after a number of years, the coppiced tree is harvested and the cycle begins anew.
Sweet chestnut from coppiced woodlands is ideal for traditional fencing as it is naturally inclined to split down the grain. Chestnut timber is similar to oak but is more lightweight and easier to work. It has a straight grain when young but this spirals in older trees. In south east England sweet chestnut is coppiced to produce poles. For fencing it gives a rustic appearance and is rich in the natural preservative tannin, making it extremely durable, stable and resistant to rot.
To protect the new growths from predation by the deer which run wild, dead hedges are now employed.
Before the Bridgewaters arrived in 1604 the deer ran wild and were hunted by the Crown, but the Park was enclosed sometime in the 1600’s with a “palisade” of timber on an earth bank to contain the red and fallow deer, kept for their venison. The fence required a considerable amount of timber from the Estate being some five miles in length, and cleft beech poles were probably used at that time. At some point it was realised that cleft sweet chestnut was a better proposition so the tree was introduced and grown in Old Copse. The trees would have been regularly coppiced probably every ten years to obtain the straight long poles some six feet in length for the fencing.
To construct the palisade the chestnut poles would be cut down and transported to the fence-line where they would be prepared. Thin poles would be cleft with an axe and larger timbers would be split with wedges. The cleft poles would have been driven into the soil bank side by side. Before the 1800’s nails were cut from wrought iron and were therefore expensive, so the palings would probably have been free standing and only later would post and rails have been introduced – labour was cheap and readily available in those days.
The Estate installed a metal fence in 1880 parts of which can still be seen along the boundary at Little Gaddesden Green.
Old Copse was an enclosed area on the Aldbury common from which the commoners were excluded, although they were probably allowed “pannage” for their pigs in the Autumn when the nuts were ready for harvesting. They were probably also allowed the brushwood residue from the prepared poles for their fires and bread ovens – firewood was highly prized by the cottagers and nothing went to waste.