You Don’t Need the Whole Tree…

Medieval Europeans would have been flabbergasted by modern forestry practices. We cut down the entire tree, every time. People in the ancient world, Late Antiquity/ Dark Ages, and on until the early 1900s (in some places) tended to cut down whole trees on far fewer occasions. Instead they coppiced the trees, trimming the trunk down and letting it regrow. Or they pollarded, cutting off branches on a regular basis but not touching the lower trunk. They also took entire trees, but not as often as we do today.

A pollarded tree in southwest Poland.  Author photo.

Coppicing and pollarding depend on the kind of tree and the desired use of the wood. Both methods are very, very sustainable, and according to the English expert Oliver Rackham, some coppiced tree trunks (“stools”) are possibly well over two thousand years old. People have been using the techniques for at least five thousand years, so the numbers are impressive but not surprising. Both techniques keep the trees “young”, especially coppicing.

The goal is to get a large number of small branches. These can be used for firewood, for some furniture making, for basket making, charcoal burning, making wattle-and-daub for construction, and tool making. Plus coppiced oaks yield more bark for tanning. The trees can be cut every three-five years, depending on the species and local environment, and done over and over and over without killing the trees. Pollards were cut every eight to fifteen years. Pollarded trees gave some fruit, and shade. In some places, forests were pollarded and coppiced, in order to provide acorns for pig fodder (pollarded oaks) as well as wood for daily use.

The tree shown above was probably last pollarded thirty and more years ago. I would wager around 1989-1992, when people last still relied on very traditional survival techniques to augment communist communal farming. You can see how large some of the branches have grown. This would be a tree ripe for trimming back if you wanted wood for charcoal, or for making things like chair legs, and of course for firewood.

Pollarding and coppicing fell out of favor with scientific forestry experts in the late 1700s, and by the mid-1800s were considered backwards, wasteful, and evidence of ignorant, out-of-date agricultural methods. German-Prussian foresters in particular frowned on the practice, because they viewed forests as something to be managed for lumber. They ripped out deciduous trees, replacing them with fast-growing pine. In the process it eliminated all other uses for forests – firewood, nuts, mushrooms, berries, basketry, charcoal, glass-making, furniture-wood, tool-making… In 1848, when the revolution came, the new pine forests were often the first things to go, along with the Prussian foresters. Compared to managed low and medium forests, pine plantations are bio-diversity deserts. And they are susceptible to blights and pests, far more so than mixed forests.

The other thing pollarding, coppicing, and other forms of “renewable forestry” did was to ease tensions between wood users. There are many, many medieval law cases documented that focused on wood-rights, who could cut what, and what was the better use of resources. Miners and anyone in a fire-heavy industry (glass, smithing and metal refining, salt-making) needed lots and lots of wood, some as fuel and some as timber. Farmers needed fuel, fodder, and specific shapes of wood to use for tools. Who had the better claim to which wood?

We see messy, strange-looking trees in a coppiced or pollarded wood. Our ancestors would see proper management for long, varied use of the forest.

The next Merchant and Empire book includes a dispute over a forest. Man cannot live without either salt or wood. So which has priority – salt mining or maintaining a “smallwood,” Niederwald?

5 thoughts on “You Don’t Need the Whole Tree…

  1. It certainly makes carpentry a lot more challenging when your raw materials don’t come as planks and boards…

    You know I’m going to obsess about that for the next couple of days, right?
    (Nevertheless, great info! A new vista I was ignorant of just opened up to explore! )

  2. Our next door neighbour let her garden become totally overgrown and after her death the purchaser sent in a slash and burn team to clear it. One of the trees they took down was a self set ash maybe 12″ in diameter which they cut off at ground level. This proved a nice – if accidental – experiment in coppicing and six or seven years later there were half a dozen ash poles getting on for 20 foot high. At this point the owners decided they really didn’t want an ash there and the stump was ground out.

    In some of the local woods – fortunately almost all deciduous trees bar the odd yew – there are attempts being made to improve the environment by restarting coppicing, which probably stopped 100+ years ago when the labour went off to WW1. Cutting down full size trees and waiting for them to sprout seems to be working fine (though you have to keep the deer away) and, of course, they leave the old beech trees alone as this would kill them.

    And in response to Luke, I’ve a friend who once hired a special chain saw device to plank felled trees. You have to be prepared to wait until the resulting planks are air dried and need a decent sized planer/thicknesser to turn them into nice smooth planed boards but it’s then no more work than buying your timber rough sawn and the cost savings were huge. Air dried English oak is damned expensive and he only paid the landowner about £300 for a whole tree (the landowner was pleased to see someone take it away). This is not advised in London though as old trees often incorporate WW2 shrapnel, or even bits of crashed aircraft, and these always win over your bandsaw blade.

  3. Two terms and arbor approaches I’ll look up. Seen some old oaks with 5-8 inch long branches, where pollaeding would get useful lumber and firewood and encourage young growfh.

    Curious about something, and that’s chestnut. They can grow multiple trunks from a complex stump and root system. In addition to xoppice, were these periodically cut for lumber to encourage major new growth? Will need to investigate, since I have enough space for two chestnuts to begin growing in.

    • I haven’t gotten there in the chestnut tree book. In the early medieval period, they were just cut, if they were cut for timber, but that may have changed as time passed. They weren’t considered valuable as food trees until the later Middle Ages.

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