Whether taking a few branches or a whole tree you’re having some effect on the ecosystem around that tree. It’s often possible to have a positive effect if you understand a few key principles:
First and foremost of course you should be aware of your legal position. In the UK (I know for definite) and most of Europe (as far as I’m aware) you need the landowners permission before you go cutting branches from trees or uprooting plants.
All organic material has some impact on the environment around it. It supports insect life, bird life, fungi, mammals. Before you remove anything (and this includes dead wood for fires) you should do your homework. As with any harvesting, take from areas of abundance and take only what you need. This principle was applied successfully for centuries when the woodland of this country was largely managed by coppicing.
Cutting a crowded-out birch sapling close to the ground
Coppicing takes advantage of the fact that many trees reshoot from the stump or roots if cut down. In fact all native British broadleaf trees will regrow when cut. You can obviously use this to your advantage: as long as you’re not cutting the only tree of this species for ten miles then there’s a fair chance your actions will leave the environment no worse off in the long run.
If you combine this with another forestry practice – thinning – and take from areas where trees are being crowded out by larger trees you are getting near the peak of good practice.
When taking a whole tree make sure you’re careful about not tearing bark. Ensure the cut is made as close to the ground as possible. Traditionally a coppice pole is cut at an angle to allow rainwater to run off but it’s a matter of debate whether this has many effects.
If using an axe take the time to finish off with a saw. This is really a case of leaving everything neat and tidy.
Take some time to familiarise yourself with tree anatomy. When pruning branches any cuts should be made to allow the tree to enclose the ‘wound’ with new bark and shut out any infection.
The picture above shows a branch collar. This is the ring of trunk bark that has grown around the point the branch exits the trunk. If the branch is removed cleanly at this collar, the trunk bark will simply continue to grow and enclose the wound.
If the branch is cut further out, say at line 1, or part of the collar is removed, this efficient growth can’t happen and the tree’s self-defense is compromised.
When cutting heavy branches be careful not to allow the branch to fall before you’ve finished the cut. This usually results in the trunk bark below the branch being ripped off when the branch falls. Instead, place cuts as shown in the picture. Cut 1 is made partway through the branch then cut 2 is started.
Once the cuts overlap, the weight of the branch and gravity will do their work and the branch will fall. Next, simply tidy up by cutting the stump off near the branch collar leaving the collar intact. Simple!
By sticking to a few basic rules and gaining an understanding of how trees work and the effect they have on ecosystems you can make sure you’re doing your best.