Historically Great Groves was managed as hornbeam coppice with oak and ash standards. The oak and ash were periodically sold. Auctioneers' handbills for 1875, 1876 and 1877 offered almost 200 fine oak for sale. At the end of the last war the timber trees were stripped out of many of the woods in East Hertfordshire but those in Great Groves were left. When we bought the wood in 1994 it was packed with fine oak and ash.
Hornbeam is an excellent firewood and it was used both as domestic fuel and to fire the numerous malting kilns in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex. "Rangewood", the old name for coppice wood, was sold from Great Groves in the 19th century. During the 20th century small local maltings gradually closed down and the demand for hornbeam fell away. A the same time firewood was replaced by coal, then gas and electricity as domestic fuels and by the beginning of the last war firewood was completely out of favour. Hornbeam used to be cut on a 15 - 25 year cycle but when coppicing ceased the stems grew up to the canopy, casting an intense shade on the ground beneath. The stems competed for light and nutrients and eventually the weakest ones died leaving five or fewer on each stool. Thus hundreds of acres of neglected hornbeam coppice became a feature of East Hertfordshire.
When we bought Great Groves in 1994 coppicing was enjoying a brief period back in favour. We were encouraged to put the wood into a coppice cycle again and this we have done. Firewood is in demand once more from the new "country folk" who burn it in their open hearths and wood burning stoves. The problem is that firewood production is extremely labour intensive and nowadays the regenerating coppice shoots are attacked by deer especially muntjac. Coppicing is once again losing favour in the publicly owned woodlands.
Since 1995 the hornbeams in four of the compartments have been coppiced and we have sold hundreds of loads of firewood. This period of coppicing is now at an end. The actual cutting of the trees is only the beginning. Afterwards the logs have to be cut up, split and delivered and then as light pours in the whole area becomes covered in masses of bramble which we brushcut. Although many more hectars would benefit from coppicing we cannot carry out the necessary maintenance work in its wake.
The storm in November 2002 brought down at least 6 oak and ash and very large numbers of large branches from mature oak trees. We shall have plenty of fire wood for our own use for years to come.
In one compartment 0.4ha has been selectively felled to create a large open space. Brambles have inevitably sprung up but so have thousands of hornbeam seedlings and even about 20 oaks. It is the only part of Great Groves where oaks are regenerating and we suspect that jays may have planted the acorns. We have protected the oaks and well-spaced young hornbeams with tree shelters.
In 1995 we sold many of the ash throughout the wood and a number of oaks from two compartments. Grays plantation was forgotten about and never harvested after it was planted up in 1919. By 1994 it was difficult to walk through Grays because of all the collapsed pines and spruce and the cherries and rowans were suppressed. The oaks and ash were in good condition. Since 1995 we have cleared three areas; two of them we have planted up with hazel saplings and fenced these against deer. The third is a rough meadow to encourage bumble bees.
We have planted several hundred oaks and wild service trees in clearings in Grays and protected these with tree shelters. These are now at the end of 2002 growing well. We have brushcut the bramble several times in order to look after the young trees and to reach the nest boxes and bat boxes and grass is now taking over.
Our main priorities now are looking after 3 of the ponds in the wood in order to make them as attractive to dragonflies as possible, pruning and cleaning the young trees and brush cutting rides and access to planted trees, birdboxes and batboxes