Satoyama – Inspiration From Abroad

Satoyama are a landscape found in Japan, the word itself has a few different meanings, in one way it is used to describe managed woodlands close to farmland. Villagers would use coppiced wood in construction and as fuel for cooking and heating, they would also gather leaf litter to be used as fertiliser. The term can also be used to describe community forests, and also an agricultural landscape. The term has had me obsessed with mixed land use since the day I found out about it. To me “satoyama” brings to mind how farming used to happen all throughout our countryside.

Photo Credit: Justin Yoshida via ourworld.unu.edu

            I think the key to managing our countryside for both food and the environment is through mixed land use. I know that grazing is important for farming livestock, and that it is easier to specialise in one area of managing land for money, but there are too many benefits to people, farming and the environment for this idea to be ignored.

            A traditional satoyama in Japan is a landscape that has been farmed in the same way for centuries, used to grow rice, vegetables, fruits, nuts and even fish while allowing wildlife to adapt to the seasonal changes of the people who live there. It’s an area that embodies the nature worshipping and community minded practices and beliefs of Shintoism and Buddhism. A satoyama is alike to coppicing in Britain in that they both have species which have specialised to each environment. An example in Britain would be how butterflies are supported by the changing ground flora of a hazel coppice, in a satoyama this is even exceeded by a symbiotic relationship which has been formed with catfish, which feed on insects in the waters of rice paddies, keeping the crop free from would-be pests. The main benefit which we would see in our changing climate is the woodland. Helping to regulate temperature, managed woodlands of pine, oak, cypress, cedar and bamboo also help with regulating water, supplying wood for charcoal, tool handles, fuel and even logs which are propagated to grow shitake mushrooms. Now when we combine these things with wanting to promote biodiversity and sequester carbon in Britain, the possibilities are endless. In Britain, many farms once would have used their hedges not only as barriers for livestock, but for fuel and food, our orchards much for the same thing, not to mention the small coppices dotted around which now stand unused and derelict and not much use to anyone or anything.

The movement from depending on sustainable wood fuel and construction materials to oil has effected both the Japanese and British farming landscapes. With less of an emphasis on producing fuel, we have lost the other resources and products that come from our woodlands. Alongside fuel we produced sustainable and long lasting fencing, tools, tool handles, most likely tree hay, furniture and building materials. There is a comfort though, as trends move back towards hedge and coppice management, it is becoming easier to see the huge benefits of mixed farming and small scale forestry. Just last season I undertook a large hedge laying job, it wasn’t the longest in terms of meters, but they were big hedges and from that one job there was a considerable amount of firewood produced. There was also enough brash to produce 8 tonnes of chipped wood, which has been used to mulch a newly planted hedge, which in turn when it is mature enough will produce more food for wildlife, shelter for livestock and wood for fuel.

Just a portion of firewood from laying this section of hedge.

            As I’m yet to find a word that is comparable to satoyama, I’d probably refer to this type of land management just as mixed farming, but to include in that agroforestry, possibly even the modern term “permaculture.” The benefits I’ve mentioned so far have mostly been referring to conservation, but the financial benefits are also definitely there. A lot of farms I’ve worked at barely have any tree coverage, and are made up of fields with tired hedges but that is changing slowly as grants help with bringing hedges back into rotation and with planting trees. I’m hoping to write about the ridiculous amount of benefits healthy hedges have, but to briefly outline it, they benefit livestock, crops and wildlife, all of which add value to land, and its output. I’ve been working for a day a week at a local farm which is doing amazing things with regenerative farming and it has been easy to see what benefits the produce from a woodland and a coppice could bring. One benefit would be browsing, and it doesn’t even have to be done in a woodland, cutting tree hay for additional feed could be that safety net for some farms that suffer during drought, and can also be used for winter feed. Rows of pollard trees could be added along hedges or fences to create shade in the summer, or cut for feed on a regular cycle. If you no longer use wood for fuel, firewood and charcoal are both growing industries in Britain, and could offer work to people involved in coppicing and the sustainable products that come from it, and more jobs in the countryside is always a good thing.

Making fencing material in a small coppice in the corner of a field.

            The woodlands scattered around our farmland are a resource waiting to be used, and by being used will be much more beneficial to wildlife and people while helping us to get back to how our land was managed historically. By diversifying with modern knowledge we can make these old systems work even better than they did in the past, and who knows we might be less reliant on the current rise in fossil fuels, using less transport and lowering overheads on land management by using resources that are already there.

The Mythical Glove

A while ago, on one of the various groups created for coppice discussions on Facebook, I was asking around for an amazing type of glove I’d used but couldn’t find. After a comment I’d made about these gloves being “mythical” someone from the NCFed (National Coppice Federation – https://ncfed.org.uk/ ) asked me to write a “Tried and Tested” piece. The piece was for Cleft Stick, a very well put together, free online magazine made by skilled members of NCFed to keep us all up to date with what’s happening. Anyway, it was my first bit of writing accessible to the public so I thought I’d post it here…

When I first started coppicing and hedgelaying as paid work, I got myself all the basic kit, as I was just starting out I aimed for the cheapest I could find. Firstly I went with the commonly seen red gauntlets. I got on okay with them but they wore out quickly, it didn’t take long for the material to get slippery in the wet, and then having to beat them into submission when they’d dried and gone hard was getting tiresome. I think the only thing I liked about them was how easy they were to put on and take off, and in reality they didn’t stop many thorns from getting through.

            I tried a couple of different gauntlets and wasn’t satisfied, so I bit the bullet and decided to invest in some more pricey gloves. I tried some made by Cutter which were okay for coppice work, but lacked wrist protection for hedgelaying. I tried the Rostaing Ripeur 2 gloves which were the best at keeping out thorns, but that’s not all I was looking for, like the gauntlets they didn’t keep my hands warm in the winter and I didn’t get on well with their grip and flexibility. I really wanted something that was comfortable, grippy, kept my hands warm in Winter and fended off most thorns.

            I found my version of the perfect pair of gloves last season, I used them for months of hedging, and ended up finishing them off late into Spring. I’d only bought one pair, and ended up forgetting the name of them. I scoured different safety kit websites, online glove shops multiple times and tried to find old receipts looking for the name of them. I asked every other hedger I met about these gloves and was given some hope when I bumped into a friend at the Cheshire Ploughing and Hedging match. He’d been telling me about a batch of gloves he’d worked his way through, having been the best gloves he’d ever used. When he showed me his last pair, I saw that these were the exact gloves I’d been searching for. He’d had a box of them, but used them up and he also couldn’t remember the name of them. So I went online and started asking questions, asking around I could only describe them as “some kind of mythical glove” but after posting a video in which I’m wearing them, I was pointed towards the Polyco Granite 5 Beta gloves.

            They’re not marketed for anything to do with gardens or work with thorny plants, according to the manufacturer, they’re meant for warehouse work, waste disposal, emergency services and glazing manufacturers. They cost just under £30 although I remember them being a bit cheaper. They are made from high quality grain leather with a reinforced Kevlar liner and adhere to the highest level of cut resistance, but the trade-off is that they do let in the occasional thorn. These Polyco gloves are brilliant, they’re grippy and flexible although they do take a little bit of wearing in. I’ve used them for everything I do, the first pair I had saw a decent amount of coppice work. I used them with the chainsaw, axe and billhook, and although it’s not advised to use gloves with swinging tools, they worked great, almost like a second skin. When bundling hazel they were up to the job, flexible enough for tying knots and keeping my hands dry and warm throughout. When I’ve been hedging in the Polyco Granite 5 Betas, they’ve protected my hands from all but the most sinister thorns and have been grippy enough to pull even large stems out of the hedge in the wet. I also used them for gardening as they’re not cumbersome when scything, cutting back bramble or using machinery. I think what finished off my first pair, after almost a whole season of coppicing and hedging, was scraping up leaves and weeds from paving flags and stone when I didn’t have shovel or dustpan with me.

            You can’t tie your shoelaces wearing them, or scratch your nose, but they protect you from the majority of thorns, keep your hands warm and allow you to carry on working through most weather. The only way they have let me down this season is the stitching on the little finger went fairly quickly, but I have used them none stop. I’ll be trying out the more heavy duty version soon, the Polyco Granite 5 Delta gloves, basically the same gloves but with added layers of leather for extra protection.

If you’re interested in getting a pair of these gloves for yourself, feel free to use the link below, although I’m not sponsored to give any reviews, as an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and it would help me to continue to write and add content – https://amzn.to/3OdpQ0l

Thank you for reading!

There’s A First Time for Everything

I’ve never blogged before, and I’ve only ever written one public article about an amazing pair of gloves for “The Cleft Stick” which is a magazine for the National Coppice Federation. I’ve had a bit of an itch to start writing about the things I’ve learned while chasing after an outdoors craft, which turned into me chasing after many outdoor crafts and skills. Mostly I’m hoping to just chat about the things I like when it comes to tools, gardening, traditional crafts like hedge laying, charcoal making and coppice products. Then when I think up actual reasons to post, there’s one very good reason. When I was at school, and at college the first time around, I thought that working in the countryside was mostly for the people who were born there, or whose parents had passed the work on to them. As I’ve gotten further into hedge laying, I’ve realised from talking to landowners and farmers, that the old skills aren’t as exclusive as I thought, and they’re all in need of fresh recruits.

So as an introduction to the Mercian Woodsman blogs, I’d like to explain the name, as some people have thought it was a misspelling of American Woodsman, or they wonder where in the country I am. My interest in these crafts mostly comes from an interest in the past, the history of rural crafts, and that interest has mostly been in the “Dark Age” when the Anglo Saxons ruled. At that point Mercia was one of the Kingdoms of the British Isles, and it was the only Kingdom during that age that had any claim over where I’m from, which is South Cheshire. It’s important to clarify as Mercia, when it was at it’s largest stretched all the way down and included London.

I do also have an interest in Japanese tools, and some of their land management philosophies which I think might have a place in our countryside. As it stands, our countryside seems to be going through a big change, with farmers diversifying, landowners looking for ways to sequester carbon, and the farming industry struggling to produce food under the new strains that conservation and food awareness is putting on them. Just to clarify, I’d like everyone to be happy. I do think there are at least some solutions to these problems, and that is to look to both our own old traditions of land management, and traditions from abroad. Most of these traditions involve diverse land management, and using one aspect to help another, for example, I think charcoal, and bio char production from woodland and hedges could help in so many ways. But anyway, I’ll hopefully be talking about all of that, but more than likely tools will come into it.