Prime CoppicePrime Coppice is a 52 acre wood located in the beautiful Marshwood Vale in West Dorset. The wood is the last large remaining block of ancient woodland coppice of that size in the West Dorset Area, and is an integral part of this unique Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) landscape. The wood was named ‘Prime Coppice’ after its good quality hazel, ash and some oak coppice. The majority of the wood consists of mixed ash and hazel coppice with scattered oak and ash standards. A small stand of Norway spruce occupies the centre of the wood, there are also two small meadows and a cider orchard as part of the 52 acre block. There are 6 acres of ancient woodland pasture, which we are restoring with sensitive grazing and management. The wood has over 5 km of extensive rides and paths and has a public bridleway through the middle, all of which provide a network of arteries for the wildlife and for woodland access and management.

History of the wood

The wood was once a vibrant and thriving working woodland in the west Dorset landscape, hence the name Prime Coppice. Historically the wood was an excellent example of a community working woodland providing a wide range of livelihood and coppice products eg: employment, training, cider, firewood, charcoal, timber, hazel and ash hurdles, baskets and bean sticks etc. Historically the area adjacent to the wood was known as the kings moot where the local leaders would meet to discuss affairs and surrounding the woodland there is a rich history including the finding of a bronze age Viking axe head and the old Marshwood castle and deer park. The woodland and Marshwood vale where the wood sits is ringed by a series of 7 ancient hill forts including the famous Pilsdon Pen.

From the 1950s to 1980s there was active management of the rides and coppice, but since the 1980s there has been little management and the wood has become neglected, with the rides, paths and ditches falling into disrepair. Prime Coppice like many other small woods has suffered from a lack of active management, typified by severe over-browsing by deer leading to no or little under storey, a decline in biodiversity and economic and social values, plus very real threats from new diseases (chalara fraxinea) and climate change.

The woodland came into new ownership and management in June 2011 when Ruth and Kit Vaughan bought the land. Since taking on the wood we have cleared and widened the bridleway making the woodland more accessible for walkers and horse riders, and have opened up the wood to visitors attending courses and to volunteer groups. We have an agreed Forestry Commission management plan in place, and it is our ambition to return it to a well-managed working woodland that is a haven for wildlife and where people can come and learn new skills and spend time in nature.

Prime Coppice in the local landscape

The woodland is a very prominent living feature in the west Dorset landscape, right in the centre of the Marshwood Vale and in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It is a valuable biodiversity and amenity reserve in the wider landscape of small fields and scattered small woodlands. Prime forms one of the largest remaining areas of semi ancient oak, ash and hazel coppice in the south west. The wood is on a slight north slope in the Marshwood Vale, and has been unmanaged for approximately 30 years.

The semi ancient wood is of mixed hazel and ash coppice with oak standards and wetter parts forming typical “ Marshwood” species such as willow, alder, ash, spindle, dogwood and mixed thorn. It is a highly complex wood, with a major network (5km) of overgrown rides, 6km of ditches-banks and various woodland stands – ranging from dense hazel and ash coppice to high oak forest and a small 2 acre block of Norway Spruce (as a Plantation on Ancient Woodland site PAWS).

Biodiversity at Prime Coppice

Prime Coppice is a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) and it has a varied flora and fauna. In the spring there are beautiful spring flowers, bluebells, wild daffodils, wild garlic, orchids, anenomies, celandine, violets and others. There is a wide range of species of butterflies and dragonflies and moths. Birdwise there buzzards, owls, sparrow hawks and ravens frequently passing through. Smaller woodland birds like long tailed tits, mash tits, coal tits etc also make Prime Coppice their home. Given the lack of management in the wood over the last 30 years the habitat is not as good for birds as it could be. By cutting the rides, creating open spaces in the wood, coppicing and creating a wood that has different types of structure and age we will increase the range and populations of birds. There was once nightingale’s found in Prime Coppice, but these have not been heard for many years, but you never know with careful management restoring coppice habitats it might be possible to get them back.

Managing Prime Coppice

The woodland needs to be managed sensitively due to the biodiversity importance of the site, value to the landscape and the wetness of the wood. This means most of our work is by people power using only sensitive forms of extraction. Several hectares of hazel coppice that can be restored together with oak standards remain but are in rapid decline and in urgent need of management, which is now under way and complemented by grant support from the forestry commission.

Responding to a range of woodland threats and the severe lack of management offers new and exciting opportunities to restore the woodland, diversify its use and strengthen its role in the local landscape and community. Prime Coppice is an excellent site to share new knowledge and ideas relevant to bringing other small woodlands back into active management and in playing an active role in the local community and local economy.