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Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland
On Natural Coppice Wood, of other Species than Oak


By Andrew Gilchrist, Urie, Stonehaven.
[Premium—Five Sovereigns.]

At the present day, notwithstanding that more attention is being paid, alike by proprietor and forester, to the science and practice of arboriculture than has ever been, there is still room for further improvements in the economic management of plantations, ere they become as remunerative as might be reasonably expected, considering the skill and intelligence that is being brought to bear upon them.

A more extended and judicious system of conserving and rearing natural coppice wood in plantations, is, we think, one of the means whereby our Scottish woodlands may be brought to yield a better return for the land occupied. At present there is a great extent, probably, on an average, about a fourth part of the woodlands of Scotland, that yield little or no return per acre.

This is not so much owing to mismanagement as to local peculiarities, such as, for instance, a portion of an enclosure, after say twenty-five years growth, owing to something deficient in the soil, or peculiar in the situation, often yields a crop of three-fourths less value than the rest of the plantation. In cases of this kind, instead of allowing the whole extent of a plantation to grow to the age of full sized timber, it would often considerably increase the returns per acre to take two crops of coppice instead of one very inferior crop of aged timber. We might mention several examples of this kind that have come under our own observation when clearing plantations. For example, in clearing a 50 acre enclosure in the county of Forfar, the crop of which consisted for the most part of larches and Scots fir, we found about two acres of damp ground with a partial crop of birches. Apparently only about one-half of the trees had been planted at the time the plantation was formed; the others were about twenty years old, and had grown from seed. It was evident that during the last twenty years the planted birches had not been making so much progress in their growth as they had previously been doing; as a whole they were not so saleable, nor so sound as the younger trees were. The actual produce of these two acres was 25 tons of birch at 12s. per ton, equal to L.7 10s. per acre. The seedling trees were doubtless the most valuable. They were all quite sound and saleable, but not a few of the others were dry and slightly affected with rot, and it took a greater quantity of them to make a ton. A partial examination of these two kinds of birches was sufficient to convince any practical man that these two acres might have yielded more than the double of what they did. Had they been cut over after about twenty years growth, at that age they would have been quite as suitable for bobbin wood as they were at forty years. If they had been thus allowed to grow up as a natural coppice, the second crop would have been closer, and, doubtless, altogether much better than the first; but even though it had only been the same, it is not too much to say that under judicious management there might have been L.15 per acre for the forty years instead of only L.7 10s.

Another portion of damp ground in this same plantation (fully two acres in extent) had been left undrained and planted with larches, the actual value of which at the time of cutting was not more than L.12 per acre, while the realized value of the larches and Scots firs on the suitable soil was L.42 per acre, showing a loss of L.30 to the proprietor. Now, had this portion of damp ground been planted with birch and alders, and treated as natural coppice, the return per acre for the forty years would have been at least L.30.

On most estates there are several acres of woodland very similar to the above examples that might be most judiciously turned to a better account by converting them into a natural coppice. For instance, there are in some enclosures small portions of damp or boggy land on which trees such as the birch and alder have been planted and are allowed to grow for sixty or more years, simply because the trees on the dry soil are not cut down. It is an admitted fact by all practical men, that alder and birch grow most rapidly during the first twenty years of their growth, and that, in not a few instances, they begin to get dry and affected with rot after about thirty years' growth. Indeed, in cutting over old plantations, as well as in the periodical thinning, we have frequently cut down alders and birches that were comparatively worthless, simply because they were left too long. All this clearly shows that in many instances it would be more profitable to take two crops instead of one, even though there was no demand in the district but for firewood.

There are also many precipitous glens, by the sides of large and small streams, that are almost inaccessible, and where the expense of removing large sized and full grown timber is almost equal to its value. In such places a crop of coppice wood, consisting of sycamore or ash, would generally grow very rapidly, and could be worked and removed at a great deal less expense than full grown timber. Most of the counties of Scotland are intersected with numerous streams, some of which have their banks clothed with trees, but in many cases these are very stunted and unhealthy. Owing to the banks being narrow and steep, the trees are often liable to be partly submerged at the time of a spate. And the small extent of ground that is found to be available for planting is often not considered to be worth the expense of a protecting fence. Under these, and similar circumstances, natural coppice would be a much more remunerative crop than the trees that are generally grown on these places.

In the year 1859 we cleared a crop of natural coppice from the banks of the Nethen and one of its tributaries in the county of Lanark; this crop consisted for the most part of alder and birch, and was sold for the manufacture of gunpowder at 18s. per ton peeled. They had grown about twenty-five years, and the estimated yield per acre was about L.16. The greater part of this coppice was cut from narrow and steep banks that were not considered worth the cost of a protecting fence, and they had apparently never received any thinning, so that there had been no expense whatever connected with the growth of this crop. The ground occupied could scarcely be considered worth any rent; but supposing we value it at 5s. per acre, and allow 35s. for clearing the crop, there is still a clear profit of L.8. Now it is on these portions of peculiarly situated soils that are not properly suited for the rearing of full sized trees, and that, except for the growth of natural coppice, would be quite unproductive, that we consider would be well worth the expense of being planted with those trees that are best suited for growing as a coppice. Narrow banks and slopes of streams are often left implanted because the expense of thoroughly enclosing the small extent of ground would be greater than the profit to be derived from the crop. But, except when newly planted, or when the crop is cut over and the shoots young and tender, natural coppice (especially birch and alder) does not require great protection, and in many instances, both at the time of planting and at each periodical cutting, the fencing might be done at small cost, by arranging the prunings of trees or thorn hedges in a form of a dead hedge. A temporary protection of this kind will be found to last for a few years till the young growths are to a certain extent beyond the reach of serious damage from animals. There are other comparatively inexpensive methods of fencing, such as the turf dyke and ditch, that might afford a permanent protection; but they need not to be detailed here.

On various estates we have observed some deciduous plantations, especially when planted in the form of clumps and belts for shelter on exposed situations, and thinnish soils where the trees make little progress in their growth after they rise above the natural shelter of the district. We have frequently valued such trees, and found that on an average they were not worth more than 1s. 3d. per tree, or L.15, 2s. 6d. per acre, even after more than forty years' growth, while in the same district, with a similar soil, we have found an acre of coppice, twenty years old, to yield 20 tons at 14s. per ton, thus being a balance of L.13 per acre in favour of two crops of coppice, which conclusively proves that not a few of these ill-thriven plantations might be profitably converted into natural coppice.

We wish it to be distinctly understood that we are not recommending the planting of ground, or even the converting of plantations into a natural coppice where the soil is suited for the growth of larch, Scots, or spruce firs. Our remarks apply more to those portions of woodland that are naturally not capable of growing so profitably full sized timber as natural coppice. To carry out what we recommend, the essential materials are generally already partly in existence, and all that is needed is to adopt a judicious system of conservation.

Having thus shortly mentioned some of the situations where natural coppice may be profitably grown, we will now notice the trees that are the best suited for its production. The birch is unquestionably one of the most suitable trees. It thrives on a great variety of soils and situations, even on very damp, cold, bleak exposures; it grows faster than any other tree for the first twenty years of its growth, and numerous shoots spring freely from the stools after the trees are cut. In almost every district of Scotland there is always a good demand for birch, for the manufacture of gunpowder, clogs, and bobbin-wood, &c. In Glasgow the thinnings of birch sell well as wands, and rods for crate making, and the prunings always meet with a ready sale for besoms.

The alder is another tree well adapted for coppice wood, for which there is always a ready sale for purposes similar to the birch. It grows rapidly as a coppice, and sends out shoots freely from old stools, even though in very damp indifferent soil. It is not such a hardy and profitable tree as the birch for dry thin soils and exposed situations, but it is superior for marshy gulleys that cannot be properly drained. When coppice plantations are to be planted at first, or even in filling up blanks in older plantations, we would strongly recommend the planting of the silver alder, Alnus incana, in preference to the common variety, Alnus glutinosa, as the former grows much faster, and continues to thrive to a greater age. After being five or six years planted, it sends out large numbers of suckers, not only from the collar of the tree, but they also spring up at a distance of several feet from the stem; and these can all be turned to account, either by encouraging them to grow up as additional coppice shoots, or transplanting them when young. The alder is very suitable for planting as a coppice on the marshy banks of streams, as it grows freely, even though its roots on the one side are partly covered with water; nor does it seem to suffer so much from the effects of high floods as the ash, elm, and other trees do.

The sycamore is also a most useful tree for the production of natural coppice. It grows freely on almost any soil, if not too clamp, but though very impatient of stagnant water in the soil, it thrives rapidly on the drier banks of streams, even though part of the roots are almost constantly among the running water. After being cut over, shoots grow freely from the stools, and in many plantations young trees spring up and grow rapidly from fallen seeds. At present there is a growing demand for all sizes of plane tree, from two inches diameter upwards, chiefly for the manufacture of bobbins and rollers.

The Norway maple is also a profitable coppice tree, being very similar in its habits and uses to the sycamore.

The ash is beyond dispute one of the most profitable coppice trees in Scotland; it grows freely and rapidly from stools in dampish glens and sheltered situations, and is always in good demand at all sizes. When young it sells well as wands and rods for the manufacture of strong crates; its older growths meet with a ready sale for cart and barrow slots, and for handle-wood. In the county of Dumbarton we have cut down thinnings from a ten year old ash coppice with from three to six feet of the root cuts quite suitable for handle-wood, and sold these thinnings at 16s. per ton lying on the ground.

The elm is very similar to the ash, both in regard to its rate of growth, soils, and situations on which it thrives, and also as to the value of its thinnings, but it is slightly inferior in its value as a full grown crop, owing chiefly to the preference that is invariably given to the ash for making handles, but the elm is equally useful for turnery purposes, cart and barrow framing, &c. The Spanish chestnut on a loamy soil and sheltered situation is another useful coppice tree; shoots grow up rapidly from its stools, and sell well for wands, hoops, and crate wood; older growths sell well for turning purposes.

The horse chestnut, though it sends up shoots freely, is in Scotland not considered to be a very profitable coppice tree. Its wood being wanting in elasticity, the thinnings are unsaleable until they are size for strong crates, or for turners and firewood. The lime tree is also suitable as a coppice tree, but is much inferior to the ash and elm, both in regard to profit and the purposes to which its wood can be applied; still it always meets with a ready sale for turning purposes. The same remarks may be applied to the hornbeam, the only difference being that it grows on a poorer soil and its shoots are rather more elastic, consequently, its thinnings sell better as wands and rods.

The beech, compared with the foregoing trees, is at best somewhat tardy in sending up shoots from its stools, otherwise it is very similar to the hornbeam.

The wild cherry makes a good coppice tree; it grows freely on thin soils, and produces numerous shoots from its stools, and propagates itself from seeds. The shoots are tough, and quite saleable at all ages, for purposes similar to the birch.

The mountain ash is a first-class coppice tree for the production of wands and small crate wood; it is very hardy, and grows freely on very poor soils and exposed situations, and is very suitable for growing on rocky shelves of glens.

The hazel is also a hardy reproductive plant, very similar in almost every respect to the mountain ash. Both trees being mainly adapted for the production of the smaller class of coppice wood, and are consequently most suitable for being planted as intermediate stools among stronger growing plants, such as ash, elm, and sycamore. These trees are also the most profitable and vigorous growing plants that can be planted to produce a crop of underwood in hardwood plantations.

Several of the poplars, such as P. nigra, P. alba, P. tremula, grow vigorously as coppice wood, and the shoots are very saleable for the manufacture of hampers and crates. If the situation is somewhat sheltered, such as a hollow, dampish part of a plantation, they are by no means particular as to quality of soil, and are very profitable as a coppice, especially when grown in clumps by themselves. One of the largest proprietors in Kincardineshire has planted about a million of P. nigra at the foot of the Grampians, with the intention, we understand, of converting them into a coppice for the production of wood to be manufactured into pulp for paper-making. This is a new branch of industry that deserves to be carefully and impartially inquired into, and the results brought under the notice of landed proprietors before they are recommended to plant poplars indiscriminately on land that might be very profitably occupied with larch and Scots firs.

The above list comprises most of the trees that are usually grown as natural coppice in Scotland, and in regard to their suitableness for the various soils and situations they may be classed as follows:—

1st, For high lying and exposed situations, with a thin soil, the best trees are the birch, hazel, and mountain ash. The birches would constitute the main crop, and should be planted about eight feet apart, and the intermediate spaces made up with hazel and mountain ash to four feet over all.

2d, On similar situations but with a damp boggy soil, as also on all marshy undrained portions of land, the alder should be planted by itself.

3d, On less exposed parts, with a deeper and better quality of soil, the ash, sycamore, and hornbeam may be planted at nine feet apart as the main crop, and the ground filled up with mountain ash or hazel to about four and a half feet apart.

4th, Peat moss, if properly drained, may be profitably planted with the common ash, at tea feet apart as the permanent crop, with birch or mountain ash as nurses. But on imperfectly drained moss the birch and alder are the most profitable trees.

5th, Poplars, chestnuts, elm, and lime trees are best suited for good deep soils with a considerable shelter, such as the hollow parts of plantation ground; there they may be planted at ten feet apart, with the mountain ash and hazel between.

In forming coppice plantations some recommend the planting of larches as nurses, but after considerable experience and observation we are inclined to think that this is not a judicious practice, because the trees that are to constitute the crop of coppice are liable to be overdrawn, and this has a great tendency to prevent them from becoming so stout at the collar as they ought to be, and always are when grown by themselves.

In planting trees for a permanent crop of coppice wood, it is very desirable, as far as possible, to have each variety planted in a clump by itself; when this is done, it is generally found that the crop is more remunerative, and grows up more regularly.

When rearing young trees for the purpose of converting them into a coppice wood, the great aim should be to encourage them to become branchy and stout in the stem, with a good diameter at the base, which insures a large-sized healthy stool for the growth of the subsequent crops.

The hazel and mountain ash should be cut over as soon as they are seen to be sufficiently strong for being sold as wands or rods, which they will be after from six to ten years' growth, according to soil and situation; while the other sorts will generally take from twelve to eighteen years to attain a diameter of 4 to 6 inches at the base, which is the size they ought to be before they are cut over for the first time. At the first and at all subsequent cuttings, the stools should be made as low as possible, and have a surface so sufficiently smooth and convex as to entirely prevent water from standing on them.

After the first crop has been cut over, the shoots that spring from the stools should be thinned out when they have grown from two or three seasons, leaving from six to eight of the best on each stool; a preference should always be given to those shoots that spring out from the lower parts of the stool, as these generally send out individual roots into the soil, which greatly encourages the growth of the shoot, as well as the extension of the stools. The second thinning should be clone about six or eight years after this, and at this time all hazel and mountain ash shoots should be clean cut over, pruned, and taken up along with all the other thinnings that are found suitable for being sold as wands and rods. These are tied up into bundles of 100 each, and sold for the manufacture of crates and hampers. At this thinning, from two to three shoots will be found sufficient to leave on each stool, and in most cases it will generally be found that no further thinning will be necessary.

Except in the case of simply foreshortening any very strong side branch that inclines to spread out and overhang any of the no pruning in the rearing of natural coppice is necessary shoots.

Regarding the age at which natural coppice should be cut over,, no absolute rule can be laid down, as experience proves that it can only be fairly determined from an intimate acquaintance with local peculiarities, such as the size and kind of wood most in demand, varieties of trees that constitute the crop, nature of soil, and situation.

For example, we have found a crop consisting chiefly of ash, that, owing to the demand in the district for rods and crate wood, could be most profitably cut over at about 12 years of age; while, in the very same plantation, there were several clumps of alders and birch that would, in about eight years more, be well adapted for clog and turners' wood, for which there was also a good demand in the district. Consequently, we apportioned the plantation, and cut over the clump of ashes; and as the alders and birch were growing vigorously, we allowed them to remain till they were a suitable size. But this can only be done where a crop consists for the most part of one sort of trees. It would never do to carry this out with a few stools in a promiscuous plantation.

The crop should always be cut over as soon as a want of vigour is apparent in the annual growths, as it considerably impairs the vitality of the stools when the shoots are left till they get into a stunted state of growth.

In managing coppice woods, they should always be apportioned in accordance with the extent on the estate, and the sorts of trees on each portion treated and cut over successively. This systematic method of rearing is by far the most profitable, as it equalises the labour and cost of rearing as well as the return from the plantation; and besides it may, and often does to a certain extent, control the supply and demand in the district, which helps to maintain a regular price.

Regarding the cutting and disposal of natural coppice, little can be said here, as no absolute method can be laid down suitable for every district.

Large plantations are frequently divided into lots and sold by auction or by private tender. In the counties of Argyll, Dumbarton, and Stirling there are merchants who purchase both the thinnings and the entire crop by the acre or by the lot, and cut and carry the whole to the market at their own expense ; while others purchase the thinnings after they have been cut and assorted by the proprietor's men. On some estates the thinning and final clearing is cut, assorted, and sent direct to the market by the proprietor's men, or sold after being cut over. After noticing and comparing several instances where the work was done each way, we would recommend the system of allowing the purchaser to perform all the work, as it is generally the most profitable for the proprietor. No doubt there are some exceptional cases where a really energetic forester, with a thorough system of forest management, and perhaps a favourable market, can as economically manage the cutting and disposal as a wood merchant can; but as a rule, the latter have the advantage of efficient men who are in almost daily practice, and are consequently able to do the necessary work at less cost. And besides, the merchant not unfrequently lets the work by contract to practised men.

Whatever method is adopted, the strictest attention should be paid to have the wood carefully cut, so as to leave the stools smooth and slightly convexed; and as severe frosts are sometimes injurious to newly cut stools, the cutting over should not, if possible, be begun till the end of February, and finished (the plantation being thoroughly cleared of prunings and rubbish) by the middle of April. Immediately after this, if there are drains they should be cleaned, and the fences sufficiently repaired to keep out cattle.

It is of comparatively little importance to state the returns that may be expected from an acre of natural coppice, as no two districts are exactly similar in regard to soil, situation, and demand; consequently the realised value of an acre in the one district would be often fallacious in another. The profitable growth of coppice, like all other forest produce, is to a considerable extent controlled by circumstances; consequently many of the statements that are given of its value per acre have a tendency to mislead, owing to the crop that is valued being grown under exceptionally favourable circumstances or the reverse. For example, we have seen in the western district of Scotland a two-year old coppice fully as strong as one of four years' growth in one of the north-eastern counties. After considerable experience in the thinning of coppice, we think that, unless in districts that are unfavourably situated in regard to a market, the thinnings will generally be found to pay the cost of rearing. In such districts we have seen an acre of mixed coppice, after 20 years' growth, not yield more than L.8 per acre; while on a district more favourably situated, both in regard to soil and market, a similar crop has, at the same age, brought L.14 per acre. And, again, we have seen L.30 realised for a crop of ash 18 years old, and L.25 per acre for a 20 years' old crop of birch and alder, both in districts very favourably situated for the growth and disposal of coppice. But as these statements may be considered of comparatively little value, we think it better to state the current prices of coppice produce. In Glasgow, where there is the best and most regular demand, both for thinnings and for full-grown coppice, the prices for 5 to 7 feet gardeners' wands, 10s. to 14s. per 1200; 7 feet upwards foresters' wands, not strong enough for ribs, 21s. to 25s. per 1200; 9 feet long, inch through at that length, 30s. to 45s. per 1200; crate wood, 22s. 6d. to 25s. per ton. In Paisley, alder suitable for bobbin wood brings from 20s. to 24s. per ton; birch, from 22s. to 26s. per ton; sycamore, from 18s. to 20s. per ton; beech and hornbeam from 14s. to 18s. per ton.

In Aberdeen there is a fair demand for various sorts of coppice, at from 18s. to 20s. per ton. In Arbroath there is always a good demand for coppice, especially for birch and sycamore, at from 18s. to 25s. per ton; and the latter tree, when 7 inches through at any length, readily brings 9d. per lineal foot, lying in the plantation 40 miles from the manufactory.

At Edinburgh, birch and alder brings from 15s. to 20s. per ton; ash and elm from 14s. to 18s. per ton.

Alder and birch, when sold for powder making, has generally to be peeled; the bark of the alder is not saleable, but the birch bark sells at from 35s. to 50s. per ton, which in most cases more than pays the cost of cutting and peeling the trees.

It is customary in many places to grow some timber trees along with the coppice wood, but this is a great mistake, as they through time spread out and overhang the coppice, and ultimately cause the stools to become feeble and to die out. The number of trees per acre should be about ten, and at most not above twenty, and even this number should, by a regular and early system of foreshortening, be kept from becoming so wide-spread as to kill any of the stools.

Natural coppice is on some estates grown as underwood in hardwood plantations, but except in very favourably situated districts it does not generally pay. And when there is a full and rapid growing crop of trees on the ground, it is to a certain extent injurious to their growth, especially when thinning is neglected and the underwood allowed to grow up and contend with the trees for space. Some foresters do everything in their power to discourage the growth of underwood, and even go the length of affirming that it so seriously affects the growth of the timber crop that the better plan is to grub out the trees that are periodically thinned out, rather than leave them to send up coppice shoots ; and allege that the benefits to the timber crop by the removal of the stools more than pays the expense of grubbing. While not recommending the growth of underwood as a generally remunerative crop, we are inclined to doubt if it is not much more profitable to allow the stools to grow than to grub them out. Where there is a good market for the sale of wands and rods, such as, for example, in the counties of Stirling and Dumbarton, the trees should be kept much thinner on the ground, and the stools, if suitable, allowed to send up shoots, which, if cut clean over when size for wands, are a profitable crop, and are thus removed before they can to any extent become injurious to the timber trees.

Unless where the trees are specially thinned out for the growth of underwood, the coppice shoots are to a great extent under the control of the timber crop ; hence there is practically no necessity for going to expense of grubbing. No really practical man expects to have a profitable crop of underwood with a full crop of timber trees. But there are always exceptional cases where it is well to encourage its growth, such as open spaces that accidentally occur in hardwood plantations; and also not unfrequently in ornamental belts and clumps that are composed chiefly of old trees, standing at a considerable distance apart.

Natural coppice, when grown as underwood, should be thinned out after two years' growth, leaving about six shoots on each stool, and except in plantations where the trees are standing very wide apart, these shoots should be clean cut over after from six to eight years' growth. If a regular method of this kind is carried out the timber crop will not be greatly injured, and in districts where there is a good sale for coppice produce it will much more than pay the expense of growing it.


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