The Marching Coppice Woodlands of Flat French Farmland.

In rural France, particularly on the plateau landscapes, there are many field woodlands which are predominantly long retention coppice, Sweet Chestnut in the main, with standards, nurse trees or Mother Trees of Oak, Ash or mature Chestnuts (I will adopt the term ‘Mother Trees’ which for me best describes the increasingly realised significance of these large dominant trees helping to protect and nurture surrounding younger generations). These woods are as important to the local hunting syndicate as they are for local timber supply; hunting is a pastime generating significant income. Whilst privately owned the timber is usually sold in lots to firewood suppliers and as all French woodland owners have to submit a management plan by law, the trade is regulated to the benefit of the woodland’s biodiversity and the wider landscape.

These woods do not seem accessible to the public and you will find no way-marked trials, picnic benches or often even a gate to enter. But so long as the hunt is not in progress, which is impossible to miss with as much fluorescent material on show to rival the Rio carnival, these woodlands are usually open to the public at all times.

As with most forestscapes their size belies the fact that upon entering the wood, your horizon changes and you are welcomed into a new landscape, although one very much man made, it is clear this is not at any cost to biodiversity. Coppiced woodland is seen in the UK as a museum exhibit, it is something TV celebrities or journalists feel the need to explain as though they have just discovered the technique deep in a dusty library cellar, despite the fact it survives as a very much alive woodland management technique in the UK. Coppice is an amazing feat of tree physiology – to survive a fell to re grow and then double, triple, quadruple etc., Their stems providing an endless resource of sustainable timber. It is the most ancient form of silviculture and modern horticultural or arboricultural students understand the manipulation of epicormic growth (which coppice is a basic form of) early on in their studies.

The French government want to see these woodlands enter much more intensive management to satisfy increasing demand for wood biomass for energy. These woodlands (as defined plantations) should, according to research, cope well with this change into short rotation coppice, which will apparently not harm biodiversity dependent on these habitats either. But there could well be one major loss – the succession of the mother trees and this loss could have dramatic consequences for the health of these woodlands long term as we now know that much of their importance lies underground, but are also a vital resource of nutrients above ground for secies of fauna and flora.

Many of the Mother Trees are outgrown coppice remnants of a relatively even age. Linking this to the historically regular weather patterns of the plateau when great storms often flatten many of these Mother Trees at one time, the trees fall in an easterly direction due to the prevailing wind direction, creating a crescent, from above similar to a segment of spokes of a bicycle wheel. As traditional French silviculture tends to leave such trees lying in situ, (asides removing easy to reach timber for firewood), stems spout along along the length of the fallen Mother.

Due to the difficulty of felling naturally layered new growth, the mother tree continues. And as the fallen trees rot away these new shoots continue to grow and the Mother Tree moves eastwards, leaving a rich deposit of nutrients from which she can feed from (and feed the regularly coppiced youngsters in her charge also).

If we had access to satellite imagery from the last two centuries would we be able to create time lapse aerial photos of a woodland canopy showing the Mother trees as a front, semi circular waves marching eastwards similar to the pattern seen at the front of lapping waves on a shallow beach?

This would explain the widespread traditional knowledge that eastern boundaries to woodland in France require considerably more maintenance than western boundaries. If the leeward boundary was unmaintained these woodlands would start to march eastwards.

The movement of trees is usually confined to science fiction, but trees do walk in more ways than one with the assistance of climatic influence on the tree itself or more often the soil it is interacting with. Therefore as climate changes, (once in a lifetime storms becoming annual events) and woodlands, that many misconceive to be ancient but which are actually the result of historic human influence, behave increasingly erratically will it alter public perception of woodland and trees in general for good or ill?



Filed under Forests, Natural Heritage, Trees and Woodlands

4 responses to “The Marching Coppice Woodlands of Flat French Farmland.

  1. Fascinating to read about traditional knowledge in France referring to differences in Eastern to Western boundaries. I don’t think this knowledge exists in the UK, except in being conscious of prevailing wind direction. In relation to trees moving – trees also move via their genes (pollen and seed) of course, in some case many 100s of km in single generation.

  2. Thanks Gabriel, I think there are many more surviving local, traditional beliefs rooted in fact, still regularly used and acted upon in rural France than in the UK – I assumed at first this is because of a more transitional population in the UK, but this isn’t the case in reality and I think it is much more to do with an ongoing respect for ‘elders’ and a more family orientated society. it is certainly better preserved by a firmly embedded ‘bottom up’ approach and the management of budgets by the very localised ‘commune’ system. I wonder if Parish Council’s in the Uk had the power and budgetary control of County Councils whether such localised and historic knowledge would be as prevalent in the UK as it is here?

    I have an article pending for SOW about individual trees walking because of soil creep and have been fired up somewhat by some information sent to SOW (yet to be published – but great stuff), by Prof Claus Mattheck and the movement within a tree itself and the engineering processes involved. being a tree and root man I do not know much about seed dispersal and journeying genes, but would love to learn more – if you know a good source for this, let me know. The communication lines as well are absolutely fascinating, by Mychorizzal fungi, Isoprenoids etc., and if we can convey to the public and particularly to children the fact that trees are much more ‘alive’ then maybe this will encourage fun (but useful) research into trees – rather than the essential need to divert what little money is available into disease & other threatening issues.

  3. Pingback: The march of the mother trees |

  4. Hello

    I’ve noticed your blog in the sidebar of ‘Tree Year’.

    I was ‘following’ trees before that started – and am continuing – so I’ve offered to help link others who are doing the same.

    The details are on my blog, Loose and Leafy.

    I’m making a list of people who are noting the progress of a particular tree (or group of trees, the plants and fungi associated with an individual tree . . . or . . . the definition of ‘tree following’ is fluid!)

    If you would like to join in with this, let me know and I’ll add your blog to the list – with a link. Then, whenever you post about ‘your’ tree (either by leaving a note in the comments or by email) I’ll put an updated link there too.

    It’s all very informal and I’m still working out the best way to do it but do let me know if you would like to take part.

    Lucy Corrander

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