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Toulouse cross

syntinen_laulu in hp_britglish

Woodland management and magic

Ceredwensirius’s recent query on offering tea to a distinguished visiting wizard kept forking into so many threadlets it got hard to keep track. But one threadlet got on to the subject of coppiced and pollarded trees in Epping Forest, and I thought that the magical implications of traditional British woodland management techniques might be worth a thread to themselves.

Epping Forest is notable for a number of strikingly large pollard trees. Pollarding is a medieval technique of tree management, originally evolved to provide animal fodder. The young growth of broadleaved trees makes nourishing food for deer and cattle; the trees know this and put all their early energy into growing a trunk tall enough that these animals can’t reach their young branches which all sprout from its top. But along comes a medieval peasant looking for fodder for his oxen or flexible withies for basketry or hurdle-making; the branches of a young but well established tree are above his head too, but he can just reach them with his long billhook. So; he reaches up with it, lops off all the branches, and drags them off. But the tree doesn’t die; next year it puts out new growth, necessarily from the same place as the previous year’s. It’s out of reach of animals so the new growth flourishes. Two or three years later the peasant passes by again…. Over the years this treatment, applied regularly, creates a very distinctive kind of macro-bonsai shape; a very thick but relatively short trunk and short stubby main branches terminating in knobbly swollen ‘fists’ from which shoots have been repeatedly lopped, each with many thin new shoots sticking stiffly out from them. If you’ve never seen a pollard tree in RL, you’ve seen one in the HP films, because the Whomping Willow as shown there is a classic pollard willow - no willow ever grows like that naturally.

Which raises some interesting issues. Someone on the Hogwarts staff (Professor Sprout? Possibly assisted by Hagrid?) must have pollarded the willow every few years – an extremely dangerous task for an expert and very brave wizard tree surgeon, as being pollarded must enrage the tree to its limits. Why was such an onerous task deemed necessary? Is it possible that it takes regular pollarding to create a Whomping Willow? – i.e. that you take a naturally aggressive species of willow and continually build up its aggression (and also ensure the whippiness of its branches) by pruning it? This would explain why they are so rare and valuable, because the dedication and danger entailed in rearing one is clearly great.

Then there’s coppicing. This is a prehistoric method of managing woodland to continually produce useful timbers by cutting down trees for their timber but leaving the stump; new trunks sprout from the stump (known in forestry as a ‘stool’) which are typically nice and straight (after an initial kink where they sprouted from the stool). When they are full-grown, you cut them down and new trunks sprout again. Over generations of this process the stool gets bigger and bigger, growing outwards from the original stump. And the tree doesn’t die of old age, because each time it’s cut it starts again as several saplings. Thus the oldest known tree in the British isles isn’t a majestic oak or yew as you might expect, but a small-leaved lime: a species which you wouldn’t normally expect to live much beyond 100 years. It’s at Westonbirt National Arboretum and is reckoned to be at least 1000 but quite possibly as much as 2000 years old, and still young and healthy. It now has more than 60 trunks: in fact it is now a substantial grove or small wood in itself, and yet it’s all a single biological entity. There’s got to be scope for magical use of that, surely.


Is it possible that it takes regular pollarding to create a Whomping Willow? That makes sense - 'willowy' is not an adjective that usually suggests aggression, and the vast majority are 'weeping' (sometimes, but controversially, pollarded), so clearly they're not an aggressive tree as standard. Pollard them often, though, and obviously they're not going to like it. :)
I hadn't realised the implications of the pollarded Whomping Willow (and I regularly walk the dogs in Chigwell Row woods which has over 600 pollards in its few acres. Worth noting that most of Pauline Baynes' illustrations to the Narnia books show pollarded trees - they really are so common in English deciduous forests that we don't notice them.
Woodland ditch
Gosh, you're dead right about the Narnia illustrations - I had never registered that either.

Then again, I can't recall if JK ever said or implied that the Whomping Willow was a pollard; it may just have been the film-makers' assumption of what a big willow tree 'ought' to look like.
While reading the books (in advance of the film) I certainly pictured a very energetic full size weeping willow with those long whippy branches. But living in a place called Willow Mead, and having numerous local examples may have influenced me.
I love this post ♥

P.S. For anyone who's curious, the ancient lime at Westonbirt National Arboretum can be seen (in a rather smallish photo) here.
For me there's something definitely eerie about a whole wood being a single tree. When I first read about the Westonbirt lime it instantly made me think of Ursula Le Guin's story 'Vaster Than Empires and More Slow', in which a spaceship is sent on an exploratory mission to assess the suitability of a distant planet for colonisation. This planet turns out to be completely covered by dense forests, and not a single species of animal life. Very gradually it dawns on them that the entire forest cover is a single organism; and that it doesn't like them.
Most hazel trees are coppiced; the shoots were used - and sometimes still are - for making hurdles, which were used for sheepfolds, and sometimes for fences. They are rare now, but were still common in my childhood - the garden pond at my grandparents' home was fenced off from us by a couple of hurdles. There is a picture here.

These hurdles, or very similar ones, were also the "wattle" of wattle-and-daub houses; they made the basic framework, and then the daub provided both finish and insulation. Coat of whitewash, and there you were....
Yes, you could use hazel hurdles for all kinds of things. My father taught himself to make hurdles and lay hedges with hazel he had cut himself from the wood that surrounded our house, and which my brother now manages. (He has started to keep rare breed pigs in it; hairy ginger Tamworths and Oxford Sandy & Blacks, roaming free through the undergrowth, it's all very medieval.