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.

Creepy Crawlies

MillipedeThe Amateur Entomologists’ Society Annual Exhibition and Trade Fair is a queer beast. My friends at Bird Guides suggested I toddle along, so on a rainy Saturday I headed off to Kempton Park – to my surprise heaving with punters. And what an eclectic mix of folk heading into the Fair; was I going to a Black Sabbath gig or the Last Night of the Proms?

UK ButterfliesTo start with the expected; it was nice to meet Richard Lewington, with whom I’m working on a secret project, and to see some of his extraordinary illustrations. Pete Eeles and friends from UK Butterflies (left) were selling some lovely framed butterfly photos and cards for Butterfly Conservation; their website is a cracking resource – do check it out. Another local seed supplier on board too, I hope, from the Weald.

ButterfliesThereafter, things started to get a bit weird. I didn’t know people still collected insects, stuck them on pins and mounted them on beautiful trays in beautiful display cabinets – all of which were available for sale. I thought this went out about the same time the Proms were coming in, and I have to say it struck me as very peculiar to see it still happening. Stamps might look better like this than in their natural habitat, but butterflies or moths?

Meanwhile the Black Sabbath crowd were gathered around other, rather different stalls. The spiders seemed to cost between £30 and £50, so I guess these guys weren’t buying them to rip their heads off and eat. They were buying them, though, and all the related kit. If not spiders, then all sorts of other things – stick insects, mantises, millipedes – anything you can imagine in an Indiana Jones movie. This not so little chap on the left is a sweetly named Chilean Rose tarantula, a “very docile, calm and mild mannered spider”, which is likely to be your special friend for over twenty years. Relatively cheap and safer than many alternatives, I guess, so long as they don’t get flushed down the loo. The Chilean Rose has already featured prominently in a lurid nightmare, when it wasn’t desperately mild mannered.

MantisSo the Amateur Entomologists’ Society seems to be a rather Catholic church. Perhaps that’s why it’s different to the Royal Entomological Society or the The British Entomological and Natural History Society. I’m sure I’ll find out what the differences really are, but for the moment, sorry chaps (and you do seem to be mostly chaps), for an outsider this is a cheap opportunity to embed a classic scene from Life of Brian.