Woodland Diary: Sycamore coppicing

Holly blue

This was the first workday for the Friends of One Tree Hill (FrOTH). We coppiced 10 sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) trees and cut back the bramble (Rubus frusticosus) which is so dominant on the site. In the case of sycamore we were felling trees of some thirty-feet or more in height that were competing with the sessile oak trees (Quercus patrea). These oaks are regenerating on the slope of the south-facing hill and are slow growers compared to the highly successful sycamore. We felled the trees also to allow light in and let the herb layer regenerate. This is a technique which helps insects and butterflies in particular. PlantLife reports that by 2002 97% of British broadleaf woodland had become high forest. In 1951 that figure was at 51%. This means that most of our woodland is dark and overgrown generally because humans have stopped relying on woodland as a resource for firewood, furniture, grazing of livestock and so on. One of the great misconceptions about woodland is that felling a tree is somehow a bad thing when, on the contrary, wildlife flourishes when trees are cut down in moderation and sunlight can get in to bring life to the woodland floor.

One ancient tradition which has gone out of fashion is the art of coppicing. This is a process of cutting a tree down to its base, generally of hazel (Corylus avellana) or ash (Fraxinus excelsior), which means that the tree shoots new, straight growths. These poles were used for a variety of things, often as fencing. Sycamore is not a typical coppice tree, but the stumps we cut down to in One Tree Hill will shoot similar growths in the spring and summer. In the meantime the wood we have cut will be used either to make log piles for beetles and other bugs to inhabit, otherwise the material will be used to make handrails or deadhedges in the wood. The point of managing a wood in this way is to show that using the material, i.e. trees, is not a negative thing and can boost wildlife in the short term. The Pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) is one butterfly which saw a decline in numbers after the tradition of coppicing declined in the 20th century after we began to rely on gas to heat our homes and use wood imported from overseas. You can see that a tree has been coppiced if you spot thin shoots and the hairy green leaves of a hazel. This technique is renowned for its benefits for wildflowers such as wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which can burst into life when the coppice is cut. These are plants indicative of ancient woodland and seeing as One Tree Hill is located in the area which was once part of London’s Great North Wood, we are hoping that some plants, in certain areas, could reappear one day, not to mention the wildlife which feeds from them. Sydenham Hill & Dulwich Woods and Dulwich Upper Wood are two fragments of the Great North Wood which have ancient woodland flora growing there, and have done for thousands of years. Perhaps one day One Tree Hill can be in a similar vein of health.

13 thoughts on “Woodland Diary: Sycamore coppicing”

    1. Hi Daniel, i am to some extent in parallel with you- at least as regards interests- may even have seen you, as i go on many of the ATF events. I am based in East Finchley, and like your Great North Wood (I know it a bit as i was based in Dulwich area for 5 years), this area has many remnants of Ancient woodland scraps of the Middlesex forest,North Wood (kenwood now) Hornsey Park- which was early medieval woodpark for hunting, Finchley wood, Finchley common.
      We are lucky enough to still have Kenwood, Highgate Wood, Queen’s Wood, Cherry Tree Wood, and best of all Coldfall Wood, all within a mile or two of where i live. Between them they do have a scattering of veteran trees, lots of overstood hornbeam coppice,also hazel coppice, and generally are now being well managed and appreciated.
      Just a couple of days ago, on a modern housing estate bordering the North Circular Road (as it crosses Long Lane), I came across the remnants of what must have been quite an old and now overgrown hedge- field maple, cherry, hawthorn, elm (regenerated from base) etc, and concealed behind it literally right next to the A406 a pedunculate oak which definitely has some age. I would guess a minimum of 300 years. I need to go back and look properly (there was a woodpigeon on its nest and I didn’t like to distress it), work out whether it is pollarded, and whether i can discern more of its history from its branches/shape etc The plants around were secondary scrub- bramble etc, but heavily shaded so will be interesting to see in springtime.
      Anyway, trying to research a bit more, Icame across your blog and can see that i shall find it useful, and also feel i have someone i can ask things if I need to.
      Incidentally I co-own 4 acres of Ancient Woodland in Essex (well documented history back to anglo saxon times and beyond, part of 104 acre Chantry Wood, once part of much larger Bereswood), – my background is biology/ecology, but now retired spend a lot of time increasing my knowledge of ancient woodland.

      1. Hi Linda, thanks very much for your comment. Fascinating to hear about your knowledge of the Middlesex Forest. I am a big fan of Epping Forest but haven’t managed to spend too much time in North London’s Great North Wood equivalent. Hampstead Heath of course is a special place that only Richmond Park is comparable with south of the river. Please if you have any questions feel free to ask, not promising I can answer fully of course! All the best, Daniel

  1. I was interested in your experience of coppicing sycamore. An acre wood I look after
    in Staffs has had its sycamore coppiced around 70 years ago. Some stools are 5feet in diameter. I am hoping the golf course which owns the wood will agree to coppice the sycamores again to let more light in. The ground flora is bluebell and bramble, with some wood anemone which appeared only some 7 years ago, either animal dispersed or someone planted it! I assume it is ancient woodland that at some stage has been replanted as there is sessile oak and beech of around 100 years plus. Any ideas how wood could be dated? It appears on an 1817 map and was probably included in area known as Aldridge Common figured in map of 1769.

    1. Hi David, thanks for your comment.

      In London most of the sycamores seem to eventually fall to either squirrel damage from bark stripping or the black staining fungus which I can’t remember the name of just now. It only makes sense to keep coppicing them I think. But then I suppose they do offer good habitat in woods for deadwood invertebrates as standing deadwood.

      Unfortunately these sycamores have been misunderstood by another member of the group I volunteered there with – the idea wasn’t actually to kill the sycamores but to create a kind of sycamore coppice with oak standards type of landscape – and has cut them all the way back only two years later intending to kill them. Some of them have now died off. Sycamore is a very useful timber for small scale woodland work and is supposed to be the best for wooden spoons.

      After the coppicing we did notice that, as advised by woodland management handbooks, bluebells proliferated somewhat when more light came in.

      Wood anemone is such a slow grower I don’t know how quickly it responds to coppicing, but bluebell in its second or third year will really increase. Dog violet as well.

      I find that golf courses can be very supportive, their members are often interested in wildlife. There’s a golf course near to me that abounds with birds of prey.


      1. Hi Daniel,
        Great to get your prompt reply re sycamore coppicing. I, too, have from time to time had differences of opinion among some conservation group members about the place of sycamore in woodland. My experience over 45 years of recording events in this 0.8-acre wood is that the aphids and other insects the sycamore leaves support is the reason for the survival of breeding willow warbler, blackcap and chiffchaff, even great spotted woodpeckers feeding young, in the wood. The standard oaks certainly do not support the same density of these insects, despite what is written about the oak. And as you mentioned, coppicing does benefit the bluebells, whose bulbs are found throughout but whose flowering is impeded
        by too much cover, including bramble. A few sycamores were removed in Jan 2000. I am hoping to persuade the golf course to remove a few more, but it’s all a question of money. I should think the timber would be mature enough for violin backs.
        I don’t often get the opportunity to talk to like-minded folk, which I had for many years when I was deputy keeper of nautural history at Birmingham museum until 21 years ago. And my experience of conservation groups has not been too inspiring. So thanks a lot for the opportunity to share some thoughts. I am not au fait at sending digital photos. I am still using an SLR camera and slide film. Hopefully I will be able to take a photo of said wood on my wife’s digital and get her to send you one. At the moment I am going through my logs of daily observations on the wood and the whole golf course (started in 1971), and for which I, wrote a long article (unpaid) in Pitchcare, a magazine for the golf industry, since the golf course want a feature on the wood for their newsletter. So if you give me your address I will send you a photo some time, and perhaps one of my poems inspired by the natural world.
        Best wishes


      2. Hi Daniel, I don’t kow if you might be interested in attachment. The book is woodland orientated (Cotswolds). David

  2. Hi David,

    Our habitats are in such dire condition generally that, like in the current political climate, people blame non-natives first rather than the impacts of native Homo sapiens! Sycamore has been in the UK for 450 or 900 years and so has more right to grow here than most of us, not that it’s a way of thinking to be encouraged. People do not differ in the way that tree species do.

    In London’s woods sycamore isn’t shading out or competing with much else anyway and I welcome it, it is after all creating the ancient woods of the future in many places. Also, not sure if you’ve seen any of the Scottish standard sycamores in the Highlands but they are truly a sight to behold, covered in lichens, frosted, even.

    That’s really interesting to hear that sycamore is so important for willow warbler and even great spots. After all, so many people say sycamore has little value for invertebrates.

    If you want to get in touch, scroll to the bottom of this page and send me a message: https://danieljamesgreenwood.com/about/


    1. In case you don’t know already, there is a good paper on sycamore.
      Just google:- The Ecology and Biodiversity of Sycamore.
      It confirms some of what I have already observed and much more.
      Have you estimated ages of sycamores? If so, what method, other than being able to count the annual rings, do you use? Rackham says divide circumference in cms by 1.25 cms for tree in woodland.
      But conflicting methods on-line. Can diameter of the stool be a rough estimate?


      1. Thanks David, I’ll check that out! The sycamores are likely 10-20 years at most. I’m not particularly good at deciphering the age of trees, and from what I know rings work differently from tree to tree, don’t they?


      2. I have read or heard somewhere (possibly Rackham) that a rough estimate of age for coppiced hornbeam can be obtained by taking the diameter across the coppice stool at the widest point…one linear foot being equivalent to roughly a century…but i have also heard this hypothesis being dismissed, so not sure whether applicable or not

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