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.

Hooper’s Hedgerow History Hypothesis

Max Hooper has just died. He was a proper botanist, who became known because of his work on British hedges in the 60s. From the obituaries and his writing he seems to have been quite a character too.

Hooper's Rule

Like many I came across him because of “Hooper’s Rule”. This was his rule of thumb – for obvious reasons not definitive – for dating hedgerows. Walk along a 30 metre length of hedge and count the species in it. Multiply that number by 100 and you have a reasonable estimate for the age of the hedge.

There was also his work on the extent of the hedge loss in the UK. Hooper uncovered it by looking at RAF reconnaissance photos. 50 years ago we were losing over 10,000 miles a year. 10,000 miles! I didn’t think we had that many hedges – and how could we continue to be so casual about them?

I was staggered by Hooper’s Rule too. I started looking much more carefully at the hedges around our house in Somerset. All around us were early medieval hedges. Given the history of the┬ávillage this was entirely predictable, I suppose, but I was amazed. Amazed that I hadn’t stopped twice to think about these important ancient things. Amazed that their diversity and history went unnoticed, at best. I then realised the hay meadow next door was probably pre 15th century. It was suddenly obvious to me that we didn’t even begin to appreciate or understand what was underneath our noses.

Realizing this and the extent of the destruction to our environment still going on was an important part of my decision to leave the City. There were much more important things to do. I started a business promoting – among things – native British hedge plants. ┬áThank you for helping to convert me, Dr. Hooper.

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.


Hazel Dormouse
Hazel Dormouse
After registering our orchard in the PTES (People’s Trust for Endangered Species) scheme my ears pricked up this morning when I heard them on the radio talking about the 21st anniversary of their Dormouse monitoring programme. I’m not a Dormouse expert, but they are another species under acute long term threat from habitat loss. We have only one native species, the Hazel Dormouse, which I gather has been particularly vulnerable to hedgerow loss and the lack of managed woodland, particularly coppiced hazel. The PTES produce an excellent leaflet on creating the right sort of habitat for them, to which I’d commend you.This picture is from them too, courtesy of Rhys Owen-Roberts. Honestly, if something as cute as this is in trouble then we all are.