Case Study: Coppicing at the Wild Croft in northern Scotland - Al and Aurore Whitford
Al and Aurore Whitford have spent the last four years developing their 8-acre croft, Wild Croft (near Skarray on the far north coast of Scotland) into a self-sustaining system. They rely heavily on tree sub-products, a true woodland croft. The croft had some well-established trees (15–20-year-old) when they moved in.
Making the most of trees
To make the most of trees and to support their vision of increasing biodiversity and business viability, Al learned about coppicing. ‘The attraction is the diversity of coppicing: you can use the same area in multiple ways and stack the functions – wood, animal management, bushes - so that profitability can grow, he says’.
What is coppicing?
Coppicing is a woodland management technique where trees are repeatedly felled at the base (or stool), and allowed to regrow, in order to provide a sustainable supply of timber. This practice has a number of benefits over replanting, as the felled trees already have developed root systems, making regrowth quicker and less susceptible to browsing and shading. As Al puts it, ‘cut your trees to the ground, and they will resprout’.
Benefits of coppicing
The main benefit is that coppicing extends the tree’s life. ‘You are cutting it down and forcing it to regrow, and they will keep on going - some trees are thousands of years old!”
The practice is also great for maintaining a steady flow of products and managing trees with just a few pairs of hands on-site. Al continues ‘Coppicing allows you to have a regular harvest from the trees on the croft – it has a much shorter rotation than growing trees for wood, and it also keeps things the right size’.
What materials can coppiced wood provide?
Coppiced wood can be used in multiple ways. Currently Al and Aurore’s focus is on firewood, building materials, materials for basketry, and woodchip; used as mulch around trees or composted into a growing medium for their small on-farm nursey and vegetables (‘I like to produce the growing medium and not buy expensive compost’).
Coppicing also supports the croft’s diversification goals, so benefits can be ‘stacked’ in the same space.
Coppicing for farm management
From a farm management and diversifying perspective, coppicing can be a great tool. Al says, ‘I started looking at coppicing and methods to manage the trees. We wanted smaller diameter timber for different things, we wanted a lot of different products, but we also wanted to reduce some of the trees as they were shading out areas of the croft’.
Coppicing for biodiversity - let there be light!
The previous point is closely related to the biodiversity benefits coppicing brings. ‘If you manage an area of trees for coppicing, and you open the canopy, light comes through and the ground explodes. As you do this over several rotations you get different areas in your woodlands that are different ages and in different parts of the cycle, so you get different species associated with that. There are a lot of studies on the biodiversity impact, and it is a man-made way of managing it’.
Using unproductive areas
It can also be an opportunity to make the best use of areas where nothing else would grow comfortably or that could not be used for other purposes. Al says, ‘We have quite a lot of boggy, flat areas that we can’t drain, so we’re trying to plant species that will like it – willows and alder –wetland species’.
Looking for innovative management ideas, Al and Aurore have planted willows very close to each other (planted about a metre apart), and plan to cut them in a 4-5 year rotation for firewood. If it works, this acre of this land could ‘potentially grow a lot of firewood, and the tops could be used for chipping wood, so if this works it could be a quite productive area’.
What should you plant and what can you get?
According to Al, you can coppice ‘pretty much any broadleaf species in the UK’, with the exception of beech, so the main question to ask before planting is ‘what product I want from the coppiced tree?’.
He continues, ‘If you want a productive coppice with trees for certain purpose like firewood you will probably look into a fast-growing tree, so not oak because it’ll take 20-30 years to make it to the size you can cut it! Alder, willow and birch will grow quicker, for example’.
Willow and alder
Willow and alder are especially suited to the boggy conditions of Wild Croft. They make excellent woodchip for mulch and as a growing medium, as they compost quite quickly. ‘Anything less than two inches (5cm) doesn’t go into firewood, it goes into woodchip, which use it in loads of different ways’.
And on better ground, they are growing hybrid willows on expected 4–5-year rotations which should provide logs for the stove.
Hazel has been traditionally coppiced in England (though not so much in Scotland). It’s a durable, strong wood that grows fairly quickly, reaching two inches (5cm) at the base after just seven or eight years. This makes it suitable for coppicing rotations on 8–10-year cycles so that you can create eight areas and cut one each year, letting the rest regrow. It can be used for lots of different things: beam poles, garden support, hedging stakes, hurdles or fence panels.
Al also manages a fair amount of ash, which at the moment, being so far north, are not affected by ash dieback.
Though popular in England as a profitable and productive coppice tree, Al fears the growth rates might be slow and profit affected. ‘That doesn’t mean that you can’t grow it; we tried it on the croft but is only 10 inches tall! However, it is very durable timber and with climate change and things warming up maybe they will become more viable, so it’s worth a go’.
Using woodchip instead of compost in horticulture
Al and Aurore are experimenting with ramial chipped wood (RCW – chippings made from smaller branches) to use on their small on-farm nursey and vegetable garden. Al is hoping this will mean they can avoid buying expensive compost and ‘bring forest-like fertility and wood-like soils into our growing systems’.
Al loves the synergy RCW brings to horticulture. ‘We have put nearly four inches (10cm) of it in to create the bed in the first place, and then used less to maintain it’. He loves that it is from hedges and around fields, ‘so you don’t really loose that space either’.
A Scottish Network
Coppicing is seeing something of a resurgence in Scotland. Al is a member of Reforesting Scotland, and now leads a group with 1,000 members on Facebook and is affiliated to the National Coppice Federation. The goal is to “get coppicing back on the map”.
The Scottish Coppice Network had its first meeting in 2021 and has a hands-on practice at a site in Ullapool. Al says, ‘If people want to join, there is a lot of scope to bring coppicing to areas and include modern ideas; as well as using the traditional products so that we are not buying bamboo poles when you could be using hazel. I am quite excited about how the network could pan out with more support and a bit more conversation’. You can also find them on Facebook.
Final piece of advice? Buy a decent chipper!
Learn from Al and Aurore’s mistake...
‘We bought a cheap second-hand chipper and we really regretted it. We then did more research and bough a £1,800 Rock Machinery one. It wasn’t cheap, but not crazy expensive. We now share it with another crofter and it is really good. It is self-feeding, and we finally can produce a lot of woodchip without losing a lot of time!’
Find out more
Al recommends reading The Woodchip Handbook, written by Soil Association’s Head of Agroforestry Ben Raskin. ‘It has been really helpful to see the different ways that we can look at woodchip and bring it onto the croft’.
See What is Woodland Coppicing on National Trust’s website.
Find out more about our agroforestry resources for farmers.
Funding is being made available through the Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (KTIF), which is funded by the Scottish Government; and Scottish Forestry
In this section...
- Integrating forestry and farming
- Why plant trees on farms?
- Growing apple trees and barley together in a silvoarable system
- Farming with trees: water quality
- Making woodland work on the farm
- Agroforestry and crofting in Scotland
- Case Study: Agroforestry and woodland creation - Helen Howarth
- Case Study: Scottish Apples - reviving a lost heritage - Catherine Drummond-Herdman