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Traditional skills revival in Westonbirt's woodlands

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Brian Williamson's work at the Festival of the Tree

A project using traditional skills to restore ancient woodland will start a new phase this autumn at Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, in Gloucestershire.

The new cycle is part of a long term coppice restoration and management plan for Silk Wood; the 147 hectare (363 acres) ancient woodland in the Forestry Commission managed arboretum in Gloucestershire.

The seven year cycle of work will use a traditional woodland management technique, known as coppicing, to restore dark, unmanaged areas in Silk Wood. The work will improve the habitat for wildlife and provide quality materials to support local and traditional woodland trades.

Led by locally based professional coppice workers, Brian Williamson and Ruth Goodfellow, the project will use traditional coppicing skills; the methods of which have remained largely unchanged over several centuries.

Records show the use of coppicing to manage the trees and shrubs of Silk Wood dates back to 1292.

The team will open up 24 hectares (60 acres) of predominantly hazel and oak trees. Visitors to the arboretum will be able to watch the work take place from the popular Native Tree Trail.

Simon Toomer, Arboretum Director, commented:

“The use of traditional methods to manage a large area of woodland visited by so many people makes this a nationally significant and unusual project. 

“It supports the return to popularity of using sustainable, traditional skills in forestry. The felled material is reused in local trade and the management provides habitats in which wildlife, such as the rare male Bechstein’s bat recently found at Westonbirt, can thrive.”

The coppicing will involve cutting the understory of hazel and then thinning the oaks in the canopy layer to let more light down to ground level. The amount of hazel will be increased by planting or layering where necessary.

Following the initial work, the coppiced area of Silk Wood will become regularly managed to produce materials for making traditional craft products, fences and garden accessories. The oak will be used for sawn timber, fire wood, or to make roof shingles and charcoal.

Traditionally, Silk Wood was coppiced to produce wood fuel and oak bark for leather tanneries. More recently, in the early 1900s, the hazel in Silk Wood was cut for thatching spars and for hurdles for farming.

Products produced by the coppice management are sold in the Westonbirt Plant Centre, or are available through


Image attached: Brian Williamson coppicing in Silk Wood. Credit to Charles Budd.

1. Westonbirt - the National Arboretum is part of the Forestry Commission estate and is renowned worldwide for its tree and shrub collection. Home to the National Japanese Maple (Acer) collection, the National Arboretum covers 243 hectares (600 acres) and contains 16,000 specimens. Visitor numbers are 350,000 a year, with a membership of 25,000. Westonbirt Arboretum was established in the 1850s by wealthy landowner Robert Holford, and later developed by his son George Holford.  Unlike many arboreta, Westonbirt is laid out according to aesthetic appeal rather than scientific or geographical criteria.

2. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible in England for protecting, expanding and promoting the sustainable management of woods and forests and increasing their value to society and the environment. Further information can be found at

3. Westonbirt – the National Arboretum is part of the Westonbirt Heritage Partnership, which consists of the Forestry Commission, Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum, Westonbirt School and the Holfords of Westonbirt Trust. The Partnership plans to reconnect the historic Westonbirt estate, conserve its unique heritage and inspire future visitors through the Westonbirt Project, supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund.

4. The Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum was formed in 1985. The charity’s objects are to support the National Arboretum in promoting public understanding of the crucial role of trees to the environment and society. It is funded by membership receipts from 25,000 members, other fundraising, and the use of the Great Oak Hall for events and activities.  


Katrina Podlewska, Communications Manager, Westonbirt  the National Arboretum, on 01666 881 207 or email: