There’s a nice article about British hedges (which quotes from Hedge Britannia, as well as the classic Hedges, by Pollard, Moore and Hooper) at woodlands.co.uk – you can link to it here.
Category Archives: Hedgelaying
One of the most damaging post-war developments in hedgerow preservation was the increase in mechanised cutting of hedges, in particular using the flail. Here is a picture of a blackthorn hedge that has recently been flailed (picture by Donato Cinicolo). The damage is obvious.
Traditionally hedges were either trimmed or laid by hand. This was laborious work, but it was done with care and attention to the individual plants. Flail cutting means that hedge trees are repeatedly cut at the same point, this causes them to become gnarled and unhealthy, and can lead to a decline in the quality of the hedge (with resultant loss of biodiversity in the local environment). It also leads to a loss of mature hedgerow trees (as the older hedgerow trees die out and insufficient younger specimens are allowed to grow to maturity).
One can understand the problems farmers face in a more intensive farming environment – hedgelaying is the most effective way to maintain a hedge but is considerably more expensive than machine cutting.
There have been some improvements in the guidelines farmers follow when cutting hedges. The Tree Council suggest tagging trees to be allowed to grow to maturity, there are guidelines on how often a hedge should be cut and so on. However the most effective way of protecting our hedges would be to change the way that subsidies for hedgelaying are administered.
Currently there are two government schemes encouraging good environmental practice to which farmers can belong. The schemes are called Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS). Subsidies for hedgelaying are only available to HLS members, a scheme that is restricted to certain landscapes and areas, such as heathland, moorland, coastal land, wetland, and small woodlands, especially where these exist on or adjacent to Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
It would cost money to extend hedgelaying subsidies to members of the more common scheme, the ELS, but it would be a simple and effective way to direct help to hedgerows in all areas, and to foster the art of hedgelaying*.
These are difficult economic times, but if as a nation we are going to place obligations on farmers as stewards of the land, it is only reasonable that we sometimes share the costs involved. Hedgelaying is not a cheap or easy process, but it makes a huge difference to our environment.
*This idea was suggested to me by Robin Dale of the National Hedgelaying Society.
Interesting the things you stumble across on the internet. I’ve just been finding out about the Isle of Wight hedgelaying group via their nice website, which includes the explanation on this page of the local style of hedgelaying, which I’ve not come across before. Apparently it is rarely used these days, but still interesting to read about it.
Donato Cinicolo, a hedgelayer who gave me loads of help on the book, lent me these pictures of different hedgelaying styles to use , though in the end we are using some different ones. I like these though, there is something comical about the little hedges with individual signs. They are from a National Hedgelaying exhibition.
The varying ways that hedges are laid is surprisingly interesting as the local variations often reflect differences in the local terrain and agriculture, and there are details like the fact that hedgelaying styles in foxhunting areas always have the stakes cut sloping into the hedge (so horses don’t get their hooves snagged). Then you have the hedges of Cornwall and Devon which could be a whole book in themselves – generally in that part of the world, hedges are stone-covered banks, which might or might not have hedge shrubs planted along the top – there is loads of information at the Cornish Hedges website. At some point I’ll put up more detail on the different styles.
Anyhow, here are the pictures:
There’s an interesting online vote at MyFarm about how to manage a hedgerow on the Wimpole Estate, and in particular whether to coppice it, lay it or mow it – there’s also a video of Simon, the Wimpole Forester, talking through each option.
As a traditionalist I’d hope they lay it and remember to leave in some hedgerow trees – but there are good arguments for coppicing also, while mowing is often necessitated by cost considerations, but can do the most damage, especially if it is done carelessly.
In Cornwall, a “hedge” is a stone-faced earth bank, with or without vegetation. It is the bank itself that is referred to as the hedge rather than the plants, although many do have a low, dense row of shrubs, which may or may not be laid.
The base of the banks was sometimes formed from debris excavated from local tin mines. Making and repairing a Cornish hedge is a very particular craft, akin to building a dry stone wall, as it involves the assembling of the stones into a stable form.
The Cornish Hedges website has a huge amount of information on these hedges, their history and how to care for them:
The hedgerows of Normandy were serious barriers to Allied troops following the D-Day landings in 1944 . In the Cotentin area, there was intense German resistance in difficult terrain of small fields and orchards. This conflict became known as the “hedgerows war” or the “battle of the bocage” (the French name for hedgerow).
The ancient hedgerows were up to five metres high, having been neglected during the years of occupation. Dense barriers of hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and brambles were interspersed with apple and pear trees, grown for calvados, pommel and local ciders. These created perfect defensive fortifications. Ground troops could not see through the bocage to see if a tank or self-propelled gun was waiting for them, and the Germans cut small holes in order to see attackers coming and set up ambushes.
Tanks were unable to penetrate the dense hedgerows – driving into one was reportedly like driving a car into a brick wall. American troops experimented with flamethrowers and commandos with explosive devices, both with limited success. Eventually they improvised cutting attachments by fixing blades to their tank wheels in order to slash through the bocage and head on to the easier terrain beyond.