Ben Law - Coppicing, Curved Stems and Squirrel Stew

Ben Law
Saturday, 29th March 2014

Ben Law shares his spring time jobs in the coppice at Prickly Nut Wood and how he manages grey squirrel numbers.

I am now cutting about 4 acres of derelict/overstood sweet chestnut coppice. Often when chestnut gets to 40+ years of age, there are many options such as post and rail and roundwood timber framing poles and although there are some of these products in this 'cant' (name for an area of coppice), this particular cant has so many curved and twisted poles, along with a poor stocking rate and a fair amount of wind thrown trees, it is more challenging than most to find markets for.

So when I was approached by the land artist, Chris Drury last year who was searching for curved logs (above) for a giant water serpent sculpture, I thought of this cant and after visiting it with Chris we began the process of cutting out 'snake curves', in fact 2,200 meters of snake curves for a project in Milton Keynes.

Having this one good order makes the economics of cutting this derelict cant viable and alongside the 'snake curves', I have found some framing poles, post and rail material, lath and shingle blanks as well as a good amount of fire and charcoal wood. As last year was such a good mast year, this is a good time to be cutting derelict coppice. As we work we are treading chestnuts into the ground, these will germinate and find they have space and light to grow. They will shoot up filling in the gaps and improving the stocking rate. In 4-5 years time, I will re-cut the trees I am cutting now for short rotation coppice products and when they shoot the following spring they will draw up the young trees that are germinating now and I will leave a far better cant than the one I inherited!

Woodland management to me is about working with the woods that have been shaped by previous woodsmen and then leaving them in a better condition for the next generation to inherit. This to me means leaving better quality timber or cants, increased bio-diversity and improved infrastructure (rides/ditches) etc. for the future.

As the arrival of spring draws ever closer, there are still plenty of winter management activities to carry out. Squirrel control becomes more pressing as once the leaves are on the trees, the ability to shoot them almost disappears and trapping becomes the only option. A recent survey carried out by the Royal Forestry Society concluded that, "Grey squirrels represent the greatest threat to broadleaf woodlands marginally ahead of tree diseases and well ahead of deer".

I began squirrel control at Prickly Nut Wood about 15 years ago, when an area of three year old sweet chestnut coppice was so ravaged by grey squirrels stripping the bark during summer to get to the sugars in the sap, that 50% of the poles were damaged to a level they would be unsellable as a product in the future. That level of damage is a threat to one's livelihood and the need to control the grey squirrel became very apparent.

Grey squirrels have no predators and have been allowed to breed and spread at an alarming rate. The Forestry Commission's offer of a shilling for a tail at the Post Office in the 1970's, was enticing to many a country lad, but these days we might struggle with that approach. For me it has been a process of learning the animal's habits and patterns. There are some benefits, grey squirrels bury nuts and rarely remember where they have planted them, and so they do unintentionally plant trees!

They can be right or left handed (pawed) and they are a good source of wild meat for the woodsman. I hunt squirrels during the winter by roding out drays (squirrel nests) with lofting poles to disencourage them and by using dogs trained to point and catch squirrels. For this I use lurchers.


Lurchers are fast and have a very well developed natural hunting gene within them. They come in many shapes and sizes and the smaller crosses are well suited to squirrel work where they will have to turn and twist on a sixpence and need to identify a squirrel in a tree by scent at the bottom of the tree. They have the pointing instinct of locking their eyes on the squirrel so as to allow me to then see the squirrel and dispatch it with a clean shot from my air rifle.

This type of winter control ensures the squirrel population is kept in balance and I have some meat for the table.

Ben runs various courses throughout the year, but his summer courses are filling up quickly. There is still a few places on the charcoall burning course on 19th April 2014.

Ben will be speaking at the Royal Forestry Society James Memorial conference on May 1st 2014.

Appearing beside many speakers, the conference will be exploring the future for all timber growers, bringing together industry leaders from growing, to processing to building.

The conference takes place at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire. For the full programme of events and to book tickets visit or email Emily Stilwell on emilys[at] 

RFS members receive 50% discount on conference tickets. Spaces are limited so book early.


Can you identify these trees? Win an updated edition of Ben's The Woodland Way

To enter, email your answer to [email protected].

Closing date Friday 9th May 2014.

Further resources

Ben Law's woodland world: January/February

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Check our our Green Shopping site for books by Ben Law:

A visit to Ben Law's woodland house

Ben reviews Coppicing and Coppice Crafts

The art of spoon carving