Coppicing in Winter

Winter is a busy time for trugmakers. All the wood that makes up our basket frames must be harvested and processed when the trees are dormant.

My predecessor exclusively used willow for the trug frames, which grows abundantly along our local river banks and steams and bends well. Sadly, in recent years there has been an infestation of a black aphid that, like a bigger bully cousin of the rose aphid, drinks the sap of the willow’s growing tips. So numerous and gluttonous are these pests that many established willow trees have died. The tenacity of the riverside willow is well known so it has been a real shock to watch helplessly as these trees turn black with the aphid’s excrement stains and whither from the top down.

In consequence this valuable resource has been severely depleted for us (and for beekeepers, too: the tiny clusters of flowers that appear on the willows in early spring are an important food source for hungry post winter hives). All could be doom and gloom if not for the hazel. This fantastic tree has been used for all sorts of things since early times; from sheep hurdles to charcoal production. It steams and bends wonderfully and is a real pleasure to work with the drawknife.

Of equal pleasure is the sniffing out of good hazel stands for coppicing. Generally, they are found in the back corner of some rambling orchard or garden, half forgotten. Armed with a pruning saw and a height stick I pick out a few good straight rods. A good old, previously coppiced hazel is like gold to us as it produces long, straight poles in abundance. Straight and clear are the words of the day here.

Ideally, I guess I would cut the whole hazel back to its stump, or ‘stool’ to re-encourage that vigorous growth but one must be diplomatic here as I may be depriving the land owner of a few seasons nut harvest. The generosity of these landowners cannot be understated; they all welcome me on the property all seem happy to be part of what we are doing.

Willow is still on the menu, though! By summer and autumn as I go down to the river to swim or try for a trout my eyes are always peeled for clumps of willow unaffected as yet by the aphid bug so that come leaf fall there is this weird map in my head with small X’s here and there marking trugmaker’s gold. Returning in frost and chill with my handsaw I’ll cut a few without stressing the tree too much and carry them back to the workshop, to the froe and draw knife.

We are planting our own hazel copse for future use which is exciting, but I hope I don’t miss out on returning to these places around the district to cut a few rods and catch up with the landowners, who have all become friends.