A Little Hedgelaying
Regular readers wlll know how keen I am on hedgelaying. It's one of those bits of rural management much misunderstood by some, particularly nowadays. Like cutting a meadow there are those who think it's just destructive, whereas in fact it's completely the opposite. Hedges - like meadows - need well-informed management. Without it two of our richest habitats will disappear. With it, on the other hand, they will flourish for many hundreds of years. It's no wonder that PTES (the People's Trust For Endangered Species) are running a campaign for better hedgerow management.
The state of the hedges around here - such that are left - is pretty typical of what I see around the country. Some are allowed to grow out into lines of trees or even deliberately destroyed, but more generally they're degraded and even destroyed by poor cutting. It's not just that poor management destroys all the fruit, berries, nuts and blossom from a hedge; it has a detrimental long term impact too.
My social media feeds are regularly filled with examples of hedges which have been really massacred. Locally though the problem is less obvious.
For starters, the hedges here are flailed every year - not in the three year rotation Natural England recommends. Why not? No-one can explain it to me. If they were cut annually but incrementally that would be a modest improvement - i.e. to allow a little of the previous season's growth to remain. The idea is to take a very aggressive cut every few years - again in sections - and start the process off again.
But they're not cut like this. The contractors cut them to the same height, sometimes only just over 1m, year after year. This causes plants to terminate in tortured fists.
After a while regrowth stops. Plants just give up. Sometimes you end up with a row of what looks like toothbrushes or, if the hedge is wider, over time it will lose its density and base. Any new growth is going to be on the outside edges of the hedge, which then grows out in a loose leggy way before it meets the flail.
The hedge hollows out; it becomes useless, both in its original function and as a resource for wildlife. Ultimately the hedge plants disappear and non-structural and short lived species like snowberry and bramble are all that's left - sometimes not even that, as this photo shows.
This is the inside of the hedge along our lane - I use the word "hedge" loosely. It has lost most of its value - for carbon sequestration and flood control, as a barrier and windbreak, and as a safe corridor and rich habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
So I thought sorting out our section of it could be 2022/2023's hedgelaying project.
I've always laid a few metres of hedge every year since learning how to two decades ago (seemingly fewer and fewer metres, as it's such a good workout!) so this 25m section was perfect for an old bloke. We must have about a kilometre of hedge around the house now, some old, some new, so it's a good length to be tackling from this point of view too.
Hazel is incredibly easy and rewarding to work with, so it wasn't as knackering as it might have been - the worst thing was clearing out the hedgeline before I started, and then I also had to coppice a couple of big mangled hawthorns as well as some Hazel. Hazel doesn't just send new stems up from the pleachers; it also roots where laid stems touch the ground. I had extra motivation too, as I discover we have what look like dormice nests in a couple of boxes we put up next to it.
There was a bit of dogwood along with the hazel, but that was about it once I'd got rid of all the dead blackthorn and hawthorn, congested hazel and bramble, and massively reduced the biggest Clematis vitalba I have ever seen. You can see how much brash I had to cut out. I chucked it out along the fence, which once we've tidied up we'll leave as a dead hedge.
I lay in a kind of Dorset style, so pretty rustic, but this is going to be an absolutely stonking hedge; broad and dense. There's a section which is a bit too broad, to be honest! I'll post photos over the next few years to show you how it all develops. I can promise you, regrowth will be rapid and impressive!
Although it didn't really need it, I've now gapped it up with a few extra plants - as much to add some diversity back in as anything else. I've had some Common buckthorn, Dog rose, Field maple and hawthorn left over from our hedge plant stock, so used a few of these. There are very few trees in the hedgelines hereabouts so I've planted a couple of Wild cherries too, with the intention of letting them grow out. I'll see what comes up in the newly exposed strip I've cleared next to the renovated hedge, but I could plant some woodland bulbs along here in the autumn. I'm thinking Ramsons and bluebells.
I'm already looking forward to seeing catkins where they've never been allowed to flower before, and hazel nuts. My hedge won't win any prizes, but I'm very pleased with my efforts. I think the dormice will be too.