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Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research

The identification of coppice management through pollen analysis

Executive Summary
ResearchersDr M. Waller (Principal Investigator): CEESR
Dr J. Bunting (Co-investigator): Department of Geography, University of Hull, Cottingham Road, Hull, HU6 7RX
Dr M. Grant (PDRA): CEESR
Funding Body/SourceLeverhulme Trust
DurationApril 2006 - March 2008
Project SummaryThis research is focused upon identifying and quantifying the effect that coppice management has upon pollen production and dispersal.

Coppicing is a process whereby a tree or shrub is cut at its base (which is then referred to as a 'stool') and allowed to grow new shoots ('regrowths'). Until recently it was a common practice across Europe, the regrowths being used for a range of purposes. British woodlands were usually divided into compartments, one or more of which was cut each year on a rotational basis. Depending on demand, compartments would have been cut on a 'cycle' of between 4-25 years. The practice was abandoned in many woods during the 20th century though it is considered to be highly desirable for biodiversity conservation and therefore, where possible, is being maintained or reinstated.

This form of woodland management is known to have been practiced prior to being historically recorded. Regrowths have been found on archaeological sites dating back 7,000 years. Such finds, however, give little indication as to the significance of coppicing at a landscape scale. Pollen analysis is a technique which allows us to understand how vegetation develops not only over such a spatial scale but also over long timescales (100-1000's years). Pollen grains are resistant to decay and accumulate over time in the sediment of water-bodies and peat. Pollen analysis involves the isolation, identification and counting of pollen from such sediments to construct 'pollen-stratigraphic records'. The basic assumption is that the amount of the pollen of different species in a sample is related to the abundance of that species in the vegetation of the area at given point in the past. Coppicing, by periodically removing flowering shoots, can be assumed to have had some effect upon the amount of pollen produced, and hence on the representation of coppiced species in a pollen-stratigraphic record.

Above left: Recently coppiced compartment at Chalkney Wood, Essex. Above right: taking a sediment sample from a small pond in Great Monks Wood, Essex

This project will examine pollen production, dispersal and deposition in modern coppiced woodlands and establish criteria which will allow coppicing to be recognised in pollen-stratigraphic records. There are four major objectives:

1) To quantify pollen production for select tree / shrub species through a coppice cycle and compare pollen production with plants which have not been subject to such management.

2) To examine patterns of pollen deposition on the woodland floor in coppiced compartments of different age.

3) To produce pollen-stratigraphic records which cover the last 100 years from ponds within woodlands which have a known history of coppicing, and therefore an independent record of changing practices. From this we will determine whether particular stages in the coppice cycle, and the cessation and re-instigation of cutting, can be recognised in the pollen record.

4) To establish principles that will allow coppicing to be identified in pollen-stratigraphic records.

Modern pollen-vegetation relationships are increasingly being studied to calibrate pollen-stratigraphic records. However, no studies have been specifically undertaken to investigate the effect coppicing has on pollen production, dispersal and deposition. The absence of a general understanding, and any consensus, on the effect of coppicing, has resulted in a tendency to ignore this practice when interpreting pollen-stratigraphic records. Pollen analysis is the major technique available to us to understand how landscapes develop over long timescales. In providing an objective basis for the recognition of coppicing, this project will increase the sophistication with which a substantive pre-existing database can be interpreted.

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