Louise Bacon is a member of the East Anglian Coppice Network and a long-term volunteer with the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire where she oversees coppicing with regular volunteer work parties in Hardwick Wood. She’s something of an authority on a range of flora and fauna and her experience as a volunteer has led to useful insights into running and managing a volunteer group long-term. Although probably not unique, we thought her story really interesting, partly because it highlights the importance of volunteers to some parts of the industry, but also because of the way her enthusiasm for the woods and coppicing flows through her words.
Cleft Stick: Tell me something about your background and previous life.
Louise Bacon: I have been a conservation volunteer for the whole of my adult life, based in Derbyshire then at University in Norfolk and then Cambridgeshire ever since. This, alongside my life-long interest in natural history, meant that I developed an understanding of land and reserve management from a practical standpoint. My original career was as a research lab-scientist (I know far too much about the human immune system), but I changed tack fifteen years ago to become a biological data nerd when the Cambridgeshire Environmental Records Centre was set up by the Wildlife Trust. The strong interest in woodlands just sort of happened at some point. My nature-interest started with birds, dragonflies and butterflies; the more niche tastes (lichens, ants, snails and many other multi-legged scuttlers found under bark) arose from the tutelage and enthusiasm of Brian Evesham, CEO of the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants (WTBCN), through the training workshops that they run.
CS: What about Hardwick Wood itself – what makes it so special and worth all the time you devote to it?
LB: Hardwick Wood is ancient. It’s mentioned in Domesday, and in the Ely Coucher Book of 1251, as a coppice wood, with pretty much the same outline as it has now. It has also been well studied by that much-missed intellect, Oliver Rackham. It was one of the woods that he felt we knew most history about.
When we arrived in Cambridge in 1990, this was the first site we worked with the Cambridge Conservation Volunteers (CCV), with the then voluntary warden, Jean Benfield. It was a site we returned to several times a winter with the CCV. Jean asked me and my partner Vince Lea about replacing her as wardens in 2004 – she had been the first voluntary warden for the WTBCN when they took on management of the site in 1970. We accepted. As we already knew Oliver Rackham through the CCV and his regular appearance once a year at nearby Hayley Wood with us, we very soon got him round for a visit so that we could think about the management and how we should take things forward, with WT approval, of course. For anyone with a feeling of how woods fit into our culture, our history and the country’s ecology, a walk round your wood with Oliver was always a game-changer. Whatever your perspective, he always gave you many more things to think about.
The WTBCN took on management of the wood for the owner in 1970, and so it remained until 2008, when the Trust bought it. So then all our management requests became three-way rather than four-way conversations, it being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under woodland grant at the time, too. It is a SSSI for its flora, typical of the ash-maple-hazel woods of southern and western Cambridgeshire and neighbouring parts of Bedfordshire and Essex. Key special species are dog’s mercury, bluebell, anemones, early purple orchids, and of course, the oxlip, a Primula, which makes these scattered ancient woods important. It is probably THE key plant of the region. In the UK it is only found in the ancient woods on boulder clay in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire. Growing through the whole wood, the oxlip flowers at its best in the coppice 1-2 years after cutting, and as I write, it is coming in to flower, almost at its peak, pale lemon one-sided clusters of Primula flowers on a long stalk. The flowers produce a good display from late March to late May, when the ramsons and orchids take over from bluebell. A good place to find out more about oxlip is here… www.natureincambridgeshire.org.uk/volumes/nature-in-cambs-vol-35-1993.pdf#page=31
As much of the wood is not actively coppiced and has a significant 200-year old oak canopy, we also have a good diversity of invertebrates, including some excellent dead-wood species, newts in the ancient pond (all woods worked in the mediaeval period have one) and woodland birds such as tawny owl, nuthatch and marsh tit.
Many of the local WT voluntary wardens say that nearby Hayley Wood gives them the shivers or the creeps, and one or two local folk to Hardwick Wood have said they feel something in the wood. On one of the early days I was in the wood working alone, having been sceptical of their comments, I heard the distinctive sound of a 2-man cross-cut saw and definitely felt that I was not alone. I am certain that the woodsmen’s spirit was simply checking that the new custodians were up to scratch. I hope we are.
CS: What are/were your motivations for volunteering per se and why for the WTBCN?
LB: I guess it’s just something I have always done. It’s very sociable and rewarding, learning a craft, meeting folk. I ‘won’ a day in the Peak district as a teenager (from just south of the Peak) – half of the day was conservation volunteering. Then I went on a week-long BTCV holiday… and the rest is thirty-four years of history. Most of my time has been devoted to practical work through the CCV, but that organisation has a very long history of working on WT sites. So my affiliation was not particularly to the WT. They just indirectly provided the framework for us to take that practical work to the next level and having a bit of influence over what we do in terms of management.
CS: I know you sell products to coppice workers and hedge layers each winter and spring. Do you think the WT should be more commercial in its approach and take more product direct to market? Or is that too far away from core objectives?
LB: It has been a long journey with the Trust to where we are now. The first year that we discussed thinning the oaks in the coppice, on the advice of Oliver Rackham, they could see what we meant about the canopy being too dense, and agreed to get us a felling licence, but it was up to us to prove it was worthwhile. The owner was very possessive of ‘his oaks’.
That first year, 2006, we got a friend (a National Trust forester) to do the felling, and we arranged sale of various pieces after extracting by horse. We sold enough timber and products to pay for the horse and still hand some money over to the Trust. I don’t think our focus was specifically on coppice products but on everything we had available by coppicing and felling. After that, they were kinda convinced.
WTBCN now does thinning of the standards over coppice. It takes volunteers some practice making even basic products such as bean poles and pea-sticks effectively. The skill for hurdling, etc. is a different level which we have never attained. This means we focus on selling the raw material to local craftspeople to put to a creative use. That first couple of years we sold lumps to wood-turners and we had lots of firewood. Extraction permitting, they became our financial resource.
Using the 8-year-old coppice material is a different matter. Until 2018 we had produced bean poles and a few pea sticks but, as we had muntjac at low levels, but not bigger deer, much of the lower quality cut hazel brash was used to cover the cut stools – pretty effective browsing prevention. However, the muntjac population has increased and we now have to deer-fence. This means we can produce more products.
It has always been down to us to find outlets and organise the sales… some years it has seemed pretty hard work, sometimes we manage to sell products more easily. One significant advantage was the fact that we are keen allotmenters, and have many contacts across sites in Cambridge, so were able to target the city allotment sites for sales. Our main problem has always been getting stuff from the plot to the vehicle – a 500m trek. You can get quite a lot of stuff on a wheelbarrow! The fencing started about the same time that the East Anglian Coppice Network got its website together and Network members started helping each other fulfil orders not possible as singleton sites. Now we have sufficient product that the Trust (also now EACN members) can spare time to move products at the end of the season. Promotion via the Trust at their events, via their website or via their comms team engaging with things such as National Beanpole Week has not been easy – comms/fundraising staff rarely have a very strong interest in coppice products.
CS: It takes time and expertise to market product; where would the funding come from to widen the use and sale of coppice products from Trust woods?
LB: WTBCN did have a full-time, funded coppicing project in the early 1990s… probably just ahead of its time. It wasn’t successful. If that sort of project funding was available now, it may well be more effective. For now, it’s down to us to think of ways to sell. There are also VAT/Charity status implications for trusts – WTBCN has now followed many other trusts in having a separate ‘trading arm’ which means the financial mechanism behind increased sales can be legitimately put in place.
For years, nay decades, there has been a mindset of not having the knowledge of woodland work and output. Most of the cut stuff from coppice was just burnt if it wasn’t used to protect the stools – a terrible waste. However, the current staff within the Cambridgeshire reserves team have very good woodland knowledge, a lot of expertise themselves and a lot more enthusiasm for supporting keen woodland wardens. We did team up with the other volunteer wardens last winter to try and broaden the number of woods from which product was being made, but many of the volunteers think that the skill level in producing stakes, pea sticks, etc. is beyond them and their volunteers, and the time needed to prepare them for sale is daunting in itself, let alone actually going to the next level as we have done. I feel that we HAVE influenced the Trust’s staff towards coppice being more viable, but there is still a long journey ahead.
CS: Although I think what you do as volunteers is fantastic, I’ve experienced successful volunteer groups struggle in the past, when one or two key people aren’t able to continue their work for whatever reason. Do you have a plan for the future of the Hardwick Group after you’ve had enough?
LB: No, no plan at all. It would be the WT’s task to find new wardens when we decide to stop. Volunteer wardens are not under any obligation to have work parties, but we have a good group of folk from the CCV and from the local area who simply enjoy spending a day in the coppice plot. We try a limited amount to help the next generation by encouraging volunteers to bring their kids and bringing DofE and scout groups out too. But we do try NOT to have too many youngsters out – the noise levels seems to more than double if you get two, and more than double again if there are three!
CS: What lessons could others learn from you in attempting to set up a volunteer coppicing group?
LB: Know your volunteers. Don’t expect everyone to want to learn the same skills or have the same interest in developing aspects of coppicing. Some will just want to cut stuff and leave it in a pile, others get far more fulfilment out of making a saleable end product. We don’t use power tools when volunteers are out; many complain about the noise of 2-stroke engines, although the rise of decent battery kit will change that, I’m sure.
Make sure your volunteers have decent tools. Poor tools (eg. a hook that is not sharp) will mean a poor product, a more tired and less fulfilled volunteer. Make sure you have gloves available, and tea and cake or biscuits. Once or twice a season, a bonfire with a cook-in…. and never cajole them into something they don’t want to do. All volunteers volunteer to get something out of it, but their motivation can be very different – some just decide coppicing is not for them.
CS: What future do you see for the coppice in Hardwick Wood?
LB: As long as we can keep the browsing down, I expect the coppice coupes to carry on… the plots we work probably only had about 35 years out of coppice, after the Second World War, until the early 1970s. Now the number of canopy trees is lessened, more light means there is better growth of the hazel, maple and elm coppice. One problem in the last couple of years is the parts of the coppice area which had more ash in them… we have a thicket of grassy bramble with some blackthorn in this year’s coupe, where the ash has failed completely because of Chalara. This means we have had to consider some layering of the hazel to start filling in this space. We also have patches of elm, and whilst some are perfectly capable of growing well for eight years, some are not. Another issue may be our changing weather. The Cambs boulder clay coppice woods are there because they are wet. Now we do not get the rainfall through autumn or early winter, making working conditions pleasant but the composition of the flora changes, plus, if we do get rain, it is all in February, making the damage to paths and coppice significant at a time when extraction of product is underway.
CS: You are clearly motivated by the conservation of some very special species. Of all the species you get excited about, what’s the one that really does it for you when you come across it?
LB: I think I’m motivated by the conservation of a management principle which provides vital habitat for many special species, alongside keeping skills going by having a thriving volunteer network. But every year when the oxlips start to get their flower spikes above ground, whilst we are still busy sorting and moving coppice products, there is an inevitable excitement that we continue providing a habitat which suits them, as it has done for many centuries, pandemics or otherwise!