Hurrah for hedges!
Hedgerows are an ancient form of field boundary which traditionally served the purpose of keeping stock in whilst providing them with shelter from the elements. Left to their own devices, hedges would grow and become similar to a line of trees. They would be bare and gappy at the base and would no longer fulfil their original purpose as a barrier. Before this occurs, they should be laid, or coppiced (this involves cutting the hedge all the way to the ground), in order to fill the gaps and promote re-growth, allowing them to grow stronger and also to last indefinitely – some coppice stools are believed to be over one thousand years old. This is a traditional form of hedge management and has been used for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.
After the Second World War, hedgelaying declined as a result of loss of labour. The introduction of machines, rather than people, to cut hedges, also solidified the need for the country to become more efficient. Many hedges were removed to make larger fields, and those hedge plants that were left soon developed into full on trees.
It is thanks to three hedge layers in 1978 – Mr Fred Whitefoot, Mr Clive Matthew, and the late Miss Valerie Greaves that valuable hedgerow management skills are still known today. Together they thought up and set up the National Hedgelaying Society, encouraging people to learn the skills of hedgelaying and document them so that they could be passed on to others. Competitions were used to bring keen hedgelayers together and to help promote the importance of good hedgerow maintenance. To date, a national competition is held every year and people from all over the country attend, from all walks of life - including professionals, part timers and newbees. Tim and Jacob enter each year - you can read more here.
A well managed hedgerow should be thick and bushy, and should act as a dense barrier to sheep and cattle and a shelter for wildlife. There are many different styles of hedgelaying across the UK, each unique to an area in the country, and these have been developed over many years to cope with the climate of the area, different farming practices and the type of trees and shrubs that grow in the hedge.
Image source: NHLS
Hedge laying involves cutting nearly all the way through the base of the hedge’s stems and laying them at an angle of 30 to 40 degrees. The stems are tucked tightly together and strengthened with vertical stakes and horizontal binders, and stumps are cut close to the ground to encourage growth from as low as possible. The outcome is a stronger hedge which not only continues as a living barrier, but also produces sturdier re-growth from the already established root system – and its thorny exterior protects itself from grazing stock. Hedge laying has great conservation and wildlife value as well as being aesthetically pleasing, and only has to take place every 15 to 30 years.
There are two main styles which get used in Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire, mainly for their practical uses in keeping livestock in and creating thick bushy hedges. One of these styles is Midland, which has no brash on one side, and the other is South of England which has brash both sides. Midland is common in central England where it is used in situations where there is pasture on one side (brash side) and arable land the other (no brash side). South of England is, as the name suggests, mainly used in the South East of England where sheep and other livestock graze on both sides.
Hedge laying is seasonal and keeps us busy from September through to April. No hedge work can be done during the summer months as wildlife, such as nesting birds, would be disturbed.
If you have always wanted to try your hand at hedgelaying, then contact Simon Damant who is the park ranger at Wimpole Hall National Trust Estate in Cambridgeshire. Simon runs two increasingly popular and fantastic courses a year and welcomes people of all levels, interests and backgrounds. Follow this link for more information.
There is also a wealth of information on the National Hedgelayers Society website. Follow this link
In the coming weeks we will put a blog up about the tools used when hedgelaying and a round up to our hedgelaying season, it's been a busy one!