This blog is written by Jake - residential volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Swell Wood and Greylake. 

If you’ve been to Greylake recently, you might’ve noticed that we’ve been cutting back some of the willow.

The technique where select trees are cut back to their base (or stool) is known as coppicing and helps to create a diverse habitat for the benefit of wildlife. Look out for the newly coppiced passage of willow that extends away from the boardwalk between the Lookout and Treehouse hides. This newly created edge habitat should be a great area to spot the elusive water rail. They spend most of their time hiding in the cover of the reed and willow but also like to dart out into narrow passages of open water for a spot of feeding. 

Coppicing is also important at Greylake as it ensures that the reserve’s landscape doesn’t succeed to deciduous woodland (which would occur in absence of such management), resulting in the disappearance of an internationally important wetland habitat. Coppicing mimics the natural processes that trees have evolved over millennia to live with - such as being wind felled or knocked over by large animals like aurochs or beavers that are now missing from the landscape. The Museum of Somerset has a huge auroch skull found at Greylake on display, its size giving us an idea of how these massive animals would’ve been able to shape landscapes. Coppicing does not kill the willows, indeed it can even prolong their lives by slowing down the trees’ maturation. And growth after coppicing is rapid - the willows can reach heights of over 2 metres in the year after being cut to the stool. 

Recently coppiced willow stools in the foreground 

In the wildlife sanctuary area of the reserve not open to visitors (the fields that the hides look out over), those with binoculars and a keen eye might’ve spotted that we have also been cutting back the willow that grows along the drove, although with a different technique to coppicing. Pollarding is where the tree is cut back to the trunk (rather than down to the stool) and provides a number of benefits to wildlife. The cutting and consequent sprouting of new growth encourages pockets to form where water and then fungi colonise, leading to hollows forming which are important to insects and some nesting birds. Pollarding of these willows is also key to attracting breeding waders. The likes of lapwing won’t nest near to large trees, branches and leaves being the perfect perch and cover for hungry birds of prey in search of their next meal. 

Pollarding willow 

Coppicing and pollarding have a long human history that dates to Neolithic and Roman times respectively. The Sweet Track - an ancient causeway that was built in Somerset in 3807 BC to help people navigate the marshy ground - was partly built with coppiced lime trees. But people from these times were of course only accidental conservationists - they coppiced and pollarded trees as a means to source firewood, timber and fodder sustainably. It’s just a beautiful coincidence that this way of harvesting trees also benefits wildlife. If only more of our actions were so in harmony with the natural world. 

A willow pollard after being cut back 

Photos by Jake