Wytham Woods should really be called the Woods of Hazel in commemoration of Hazel, the daughter of Raymond and Hope ffennell, the owners of the Woods in the 1920s and 1930s. She died quite young and is commemorated by the marker stone along the Singing Way. The ffennells subsequently transferred the estate to the University. Wytham Woods are the woods of hazel in another sense. Hazel Corylus avellana is the most common understorey species in the ancient parts of the woods, as it was through many other woods in lowland Britain.
Hazel catkins and young stems growing up from the base of hazel stump.
The management plan for the Woods produced in 1949 had about 35 ha, mainly of hazel, down for coppice, noting that there was still a steady small demand for fencing and other materials from the local farms. Edlin (1949), in his book on woodland crafts, referred to hazel as ‘of the first importance in the story of our woodland crafts..’ Much of it went for hazel hurdles but other uses listed were for pea-sticks, brushwood faggots, salmon traps, thatching spars and pegs. Even so Edlin saw that many coppices were becoming neglected because there was no longer the markets for these products that there had been. The national pattern was followed at Wytham – the 1959 management plan no longer included any coppice. In recent years a small area has been cut at Wytham as a demonstration of past management practices, but for the most part hazel has been left to its own devices. The Forestry Commission (2019) estimated there are still about 87,000 ha of hazel in Britain.
Hurdles and brushwood bundles from hazel coppice
Even when not coppiced by humans hazel may self-coppice as stems fall over and regrow from the base. The stems can also become quite tall (5-10m) with stems 15-20 cm across. While we usually think that as part of the understorey that will be overtopped by other trees such as oak or ash, this may not always be the case. In the early post glacial period hazel seems to have been extremely abundant; there are high levels of hazel pollen recorded from deep in peat cores; and because hazel does not produce many catkins – “lambs tails” – if totally overshaded, this suggests hazel may have formed the main canopy. Some of the woods on the west coast of Scotland give a feel for what these might have been like. Central Scotland is also the only place where I have seen what seem to be low pollarded hazels.
Hazel growing apparently unmanaged as pure stands on the west coast of Scotland and in an unusually managed form – a low pollard – in the Trossachs.
Edlin noted that hazel is one of our few native trees to yield a really nutritious nut. Perhaps in the distant past our ancestors spread the nuts around, either deliberately or accidentally. Certainly in later times nutting was a popular pastime – ‘anutting we will go my boys, anutting we will go’ – though in places it acquired a reputation for wanton behaviour and damage (Jones, 2003; Mabey, 1996). Unfortunately, the grey squirrels get most of the nuts these days, taking them from the tree before they are fully ripe.
Line drawing of hazel leaves and nuts courtesy of Natural England.
And if you are still wondering what to do with a hazel wand, you could always try your hand at water-divining with it. I tried it once – I didn’t find any water (or gold) but the rods definitely twitched. So when the self-sown hazel at the bottom of our garden gets big enough to cut a stem from it, I will give it another go!
EDLIN, H. L. 1949. Woodland crafts in Britain, London, Batsford.
FORESTRY COMMISSION 2019. Forestry Statistics 2019. Edinburgh: Forestry Statistics.
JONES, M. 2003. Sheffield’s woodland heritage (third edition), Sheffield, Wildtrack Publishing.
MABEY, R. 1996. Flora Britannica, London, Sinclair-Stevenson.