A walk through the forest around a medieval settlement would have been more varied than it is today: here a light-flooded grove with a tangle of hazel, poplar or hornbeam, there an open area with rootstocks from which the first shoots are stretching skywards. Then again the park-like forest with a few large oaks, a herd of pigs digging in the ground below. There is only one thing you would look for in vain: the dense forest of straight trunks of the same age, as it characterizes our landscape today.
Since the Stone Age, mankind has made use of an amazing property of many deciduous trees. Oak, hornbeam, hazel, linden or poplar – they can all produce new shoots again and again, even if you cut them down to the rootstock. This helps them to survive falling rocks or deer browsing. But it also enables people to use it in a very special way. When the wood is about as thick as an arm, you cut it just above the ground, leave the roots in the ground and come back after a few years. Then shoots of the right thickness will have formed again, ready for the next harvest.
By repeatedly cutting this rash, light, multi-stemmed forests are created: coppice forests.
For many centuries, coppice farming was a dominant form of forest management. The “rotation period”, i.e. the interval between two wood harvests, is between 10 and 30 years for them. A manageable period compared to today’s high forest, in which trees are only harvested after 80, 100 or even more than 150 years.
The invention of sustainability
Coppice forests have been managed sustainably since the Middle Ages by dividing the common forest around the villages into as many plots of equal size or yield as there were years set for the rotation period. With a rotation period of 20 years, wood was only removed from one twentieth of the area each year. The landscape became a patchwork quilt of small patches of forest, each of which was “planted” every 20 years and then remained untouched for another 19 years. In this way, a continuous supply of firewood was ensured, without more wood being felled than was growing again in the same period of time. Some community forests in Franconia are still managed today according to regulations that have been in force since the 18th century.