Whitlingham Marsh – Hazel Coppicing and Hedge Planting

Friday 29th January 2016

A bit windy today and the important thing is that it didn’t rain. We were able to get through a lot of work as there was a good turnout of volunteers, thirteen in total.

Matt had brought us to Whitlingham Marsh again (location B on the Website – ‘where we work’ – map) and we had two different tasks for the day, hedge planting and Hazel coppicing. 

The hedge planting wasn’t a long job, so Chris took a team to complete this task, which they managed to finish by morning tea break, whilst the rest of us started on the coppicing and lighting a fire to burn all the brash.

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In bygone days hazel coppices played an important role in the rural economy by providing small diameter material for a wide range of products. While such woodlands remain a valuable part of the landscape, many are neglected and generally thought to be in need of management to ensure that they retain the biological interest for which they are highly regarded.

Hazel grows quickly and individual stools can produce a large number of small diameter stems that can be cut using simple hand tools. The shoots are supple, readily split, and can be easily twisted and woven by hand to make a range of products. During the past few centuries hazel was primarily used for wattles (‘wattle and daub’ plaster), sheep hurdles, sheep cages (to hold fodder), barrel hoops (for dry or solid goods), crate rods (for packaging of pottery), garden fencing, pea sticks, bean rods, thatching spars, hedge stakes and ethers, faggots (fuel for kilns and ovens), and fascines (bundles of rods for river control or revetments).

Last year we made our own hazel fascines or faggots to support the river banks on this site, the Marston Marsh site and the banks of a pond at Mulbarton Common. We cut and stored a large number of hazel poles (to add to those already stored from previous visits) which Matt said were going to be used on various local projects.

One very unusual occurrence happened as we were burning the brash. As I mentioned earlier, it was quite a windy day and although we were sheltered from the worst of the wind by all the trees around us, every now and again a strong gust of wind came blasting through the clearing.

Volunteers in action at the Norwich Fringe Project

On one of these occasions, which coincided at a time when flames were leaping from our fire, the wind blew smoke flames and sparks across a gap of about 10 – 12 meters and set light to an old willow tree that had been blown down several years ago. The trunk of this tree was in an advanced stage of decomposition and covered in dry moss, which caught fire.

We did not notice this at first but suddenly smoke was appearing from this old tree and the inside of the trunk was glowing red hot. With another gust of wind fire broke out and flames were dancing all over the old tree.  The hollowed-out tree trunk was creating large amounts of smoke and the rotting interior was well alight.  Water was quickly brought from a nearby dyke and the fire was extinguished. Or so we thought! There was obviously still a lot of heat in the old tree trunk.

After a short time and a few more gusts of wind, smoke started from the tree again. At this stage Matt decided to cut up the tree remains and to our surprise the interior of the trunk was still smoldering. Left alone in these windy conditions, flames would have erupted again, so all the affected parts of the tree were cut up and put on our fire and what was left of the tree made safe.

So, that was a first and a bit of excitement.  Just goes to show how careful you have to be when lighting a fire, especially the large ones we have when carrying out woodland management.

Written by Alan Rae, Norwich Fringe Project Volunteer