Why Hedgelaying Makes a Better Hedge

Hedgelaying now seems hopelessly quaint. It’s incredible to think that there would have been thousands of agricultural workers spending months and months painstakingly managing hedges with slashers and axes. The time it took is mind boggling. This sweet video from 1942 would have been completely unremarkable – I guess the landgirl would have seemed the most unusual thing about it!

Each area had its own style; in the video it’s Midland, with “binders” to support the cut stems, or “pleachers”, while they regrow. The local tradition where we live is much more rustic but clearly identifiable, as a Dorset hedge. Its development is easy to explain; it only needed to be proof against the lowland sheep which were such a familiar part of Hardy’s landscape.

Laying hedge, SE SomersetI have to say I love pretty much everything about hedgelaying. I learnt how to lay (or “layer”) hedges on a weekend course many years ago. It’s something you have to do if you would like to pick it up. The Conservation Volunteers produce an excellent practical handbook, too. My skill levels are pretty basic (!) – I don’t lay 100s of metres of hedge every year to practice and I don’t have an expert watching over me – but Dorset hedges are pretty simple.

Why do I like it so much? To start with there’s the connection with that rich rural tradition. Like planting local apple trees. It’s genuinely interesting and demanding work too. Even with a chainsaw (not available in 1940s Northamptonshire!) it’s taxing and rewarding labour. Last off it makes a much better hedge.

Why hedgelaying is usefulIn the days before barbed wire, hedges had to be stock proof – that was kind of the point. This photo shows another section of Hawthorn hedge I planted a few years ago. Stockproof it clearly isn’t. Lambs etc could cheerfully wander through it. Left unmanaged and you have a series of small trees, which is what many of the common hedge species (like Hawthorn and Blackthorn) want to be.*

Hedgelaying - DorsetThis couldn’t matter a row of beans in terms of our hedges – a barbed wire fence protects the garden from rampaging cows. It does matter for other reasons though. Hedgelaying makes for a much thicker, denser hedge with a really solid base. You can see that these young hawthorns, planted around 50cm apart in a standard staggered double row, already look as if they will form a much wider barrier because of the brash I’ve left on them and the way their stems are lying. Even in its current state it provides a much denser – if much reduced – barrier. It will whistle up in no time, incidentally.

We’re pretty exposed, so the new hedge will provide a more robust and more substantial windbreak. More than that, though, it will be excellent for wildlife. That’s not surprising. Enormous numbers of invertebrates feed on common native hedge plants. In Hawthorn’s case it’s apparently 149. Its early blossom is a boon for pollinators too, and its berries in autumn for small mammals and birds. These species in turn bring exciting predators. Some insects lay their eggs on hedge plants to overwinter. Pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies enjoy not just spring blossom but also summer flowering hedgerow shrubs like roses and honeysuckle. Managing these plants through laying and then trimming them, rather than flailing, keeps those resources intact.

Laid hedgeHedges can provide fabulous shelter and safe corridors for movement – “wildways”. Their value for this is enhanced considerably if they’re laid and allowed to breath a little. We’re lucky enough to have dormice running around in our mature hedges, and shrews and voles use hedgerows as permanent habitats. Toads and other amphibia and reptiles find their dense, damp cover helpful. Birds are attracted by the insects, berries and nuts that a dense hedge provides, but also benefit from the protection of larger, denser hedges. They’re a great substitute for the wood pasture or woodland edge habitat that’s so rich in biodiversity.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on the progress of our little hedge. It’s always slightly unnerving to see this kind of reduction but it’s something I won’t have to do again for up to a decade, and won’t take long to look mightily impressive. It’s only about 30m long, but should be a lovely and important addition to the garden. Here’s one I did a few years ago – pictures at the end of the blog.

*In modern times flailing the bottom and surrounds of hedges and using herbicide around them exaggerates this tendency. You end up with a series of plants which look like forks; a single stem supporting a few prongs. Not really a hedge at all. Eventually the forks give up the ghost completely.

Blacksmithing

I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

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Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .

 

 

 

Hedgerow Harvest

There’s never a really good time of year to flail a hedge, but it’s particularly galling to see so much hedge cutting going on at this time of year.

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It could be why the prodigious bounty of our native hedgerows tends to be over-looked, despite the fad for foraging. Sloes, hips, haws, elderberries and blackberries have all been excised from the hedges around us, which have been neatly cut as they are every year. It’s a real pain; armed with a variety of recipes we always look forward to raiding nature’s larder at this time of year.

Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) Eating berriesIn the past folk used to collect apples, berries and nuts from hedges as a free supplement to their diet, but for many birds and mammals this food source is rather more critical, of course. And flailing hedges like this doesn’t just impact on larger animals. It’s not surprising the Brown Hairstreak is such a rare butterfly; it lays its eggs on young Blackthorn plants. There’s no chance of them surviving an annual flailing; populations will be wiped out in a single year.

Current best practice is to cut in late winter to a height over 2m in a three year rotation. Like roadside verges, management regimes tend to be over zealous.

That’s not quite true – best practice is to lay a hedge, although that’s a time consuming manual business and is often not a practical answer. I’m a sucker for hedgelaying though, and lay all the hedges we have around our patch in Somerset. Follow the link to find out why.

Disappearing Hedgerows

Amazingly we are still losing our hedgerows, according to a report from the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE). “Amazingly” because I thought they were so well protected by legislation and because people understand how important they are, both historically and environmentally. The CPRE report restates the case again for hedgerows, and calls for more specific regulation and continuing funding to protect them. All power to them.

Forget their environmental value for a moment; like meadows, many hedges are ancient monuments. In Devon nearly a quarter of hedges are over 800 years old, and some are based on Bronze Age banks. They should enjoy the equivalent of Grade 1 listed building status. Unlike the period 1950 to 1975, when many were ripped out, the more recent problem has been neglect. According to the report, from 1998-2007 the km of “trees/shrubs/relict hedge (and fence)” has increased while the km of hedge has decreased by 6.1%. This is an important distinction. Unmanaged hedges turn into lines of trees and shrubs, which have less and less value and eventually disappear. Alternatively, single lines of plants are often mercilessly flailed, and end up looking like stumpy toothbrushes. These are no more hedges than the X Factor is opera.

Native hedgeWe’ve restored the hedges here, which had become very X Factor. My educated guess is that they date back to the Middle Ages, but they had recently suffered from being choked with dead elms and having been left to grow out. Their ditches were filled up and sheep and cows had wandered through them. We’ve cleared the ditches and laid most of them over the last few years, replanting the gaps with a British grown and appropriate mix of native hedgerow plants. Hedge laying is not only a brilliant way of creating a lovely thick hedge, with all the attendant benefits that brings, but it’s genuinely good fun to learn and can be a great art. One of the charities we support is the National Hedgelayers’ Association, which might seem an esoteric choice, but it reflects our reckoning of the importance of hedges in our landscape.
mixed native hedge
You wouldn’t believe the difference it has made. Newly laid hedges look like they’ll take years to recover, especially given the local style is pretty aggressive, but we now have the most beautiful thick hedges. I cut them carefully by hand too, which means the boon to wildlife is tremendous and that us humans get to see everything in flower. As the report points out, managed hedgerows are very important habitats for a variety of birds and mammals in particular, and even I – no great twitcher – can see the difference in the volume and species of birds we now have.