Getting Started 1 - a personal case study
by Rebecca Oaks
Contributed September 1997
I first encountered coppicing when I helped out at a Greenwood Fair in 1991. I was bowled over by the many varied and fascinating things that could be made from wood. I had just started a HND course at Myerscough College, in Recreational Land Management. The course did not specifically cover coppicing although we did do a sketchy unit on Woodland Management. The most important aspect of being at college was the opportunity to organise a year's placement with the Countryside Management Service in Arnside. The CMS has responsibility for management work in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB, which includes coppice management in some of their woods.
Then I arrived at the CMS I was distressed to find that the coppiced wood was all being burnt on massive bonfires by enthusiastic volunteers, it seemed a terrible waste and I set about investigating how the timber could be put to use. I booked myself on a coppice management course at Tim Wade's in Wales, taught by Bill Hogarth; it was the nearest of Bill's courses I could find as he was so booked up. We did besom making, oak bark peeling, hurdle making and a bit of charcoal. Another time I visited Walter Lloyd's site and was shown the rudiments of tent peg making, on one occasion I helped Mike Gardner who was sorting out hurdle wood. I found it difficult to impose myself on people who were trying to get on with a job, fully aware, as someone who had been self-employed as a gardener for years, that having novices along to 'help' can be more of a hindrance. So I was very grateful when anyone spared me the time.
I was more comfortable with paying my way on courses and did a pole lathe course with Paul Girling and Denise Durham, a coracle course with Olivia Elton Barret, another of Bill's coppice management courses (some time later) and got a lot out of it as I new more what questions to ask. These courses were mainly tasters, the real challenge of going home and "doing it" was a more lonely affair of trial and error. I got a contract to coppice an acre of woodland through a contact made at the CMS and my first order of hurdle wood for an iron age building project on Tyneside was negotiated over a pay phone at college during lunch break!
During my one year placement I set about a research project for my thesis on the economics of hazel coppice, which was very useful in encouraging me to research the history and current writing about coppicing and through the research I formulated a system for assessing the value of derelict coppice. I soon found that the reality of coppicing was less lucrative than suggested from the paper exercise.
When I finished college, in 1994, I was all ready to set up full time as a coppice worker and applied for the Business Opportunity Scheme, which at that time offered £50 a week for 6 months. It proved very useful to tide me over the first lean winter when my business plan said I would be making five 4ft. hurdles at £25 apiece in a day! I can still only make three now and that's working an intensive 8 hour day.
The woodland I was in was a fairly derelict hazel coppice. I soon realised that I would have to do charcoal burning to use up all the bent and chunky timber. So I cut open some oil drums, following instructions given me by Richard Edwards one semi-drunken night at the Haybridge Weekend in the Woods event, and had a go. I was soon running 8 barrels and kept this manic method of making charcoal up for 3 years until I decided to upgrade to a 7ft kiln this spring.
Now I am relatively established, although I still only gross £10,000 and net £4,000, my income coming from various sources; coppice wood sales, hurdles, firewood, charcoal, demonstrations, teaching and contract work (scrub clearance, fencing etc.) My advice to anyone wanting to become a coppice worker is to think long and hard about: