Category Archives: Hedgelaying

Hedges – a good practice guide

The English Hedgerow Trust has a useful Good Practice Guide on their website here. It has advice on best ways to trim a hedge, how to rejuvenate gappy hedges or hedges that have been damaged by clumsy flail cutting.

One particular bit of good advicefor those maintaining rural hedgerows is to mark some saplings with fluorescent tape and to allow these to grow into hedgerow trees. While many operators of mechanical cutting devices are careful to avoid mature trees, there is a dearth of younger trees being allowed to grow to maturity in our hedgerows and simple practices like this can help to remedy the situation.

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Why you shouldn’t cut a hedge in the wrong season

The hedgelaying season lasts from October to March – outside of these months there is a danger of disturbing nesting birds and trampling new plant growth, so the Wildlife & Countryside Act, farming schemes and EU regulations restrict the period in which hedges should be laid.

The same advice applies to cutting garden hedges if they may contain nesting birds. There’s a bit more detail on this in this article.

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How to lay a pleacher

I like this series of pictures (from the Cotley Hunt hedgelaying competition) because it gives a clear idea of how pleaching (or plashing) works.

The first step is to use the axe and then the billhook, to chop part of the way through the base of the trunk. The trick here is to cut precisely, just far enough into the tree to allow it to be laid horizontally, but to leave the bark, some cambium (the layer immediately beneath the bark) and a little sapwood (the living cells that surround the heartwood) so that the horizontal part of the tree will survive the process.

Then the tree is gently pushed down to the hedge:

The tree remains attached at the base and thus is able to stay alive.

Now the tree can be bound into the hedge – this is a Devon style hedge so crooked stakes will be used, with no horizontal heathering.

This is a good view of how the base of the tree is cut:

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Ancient Hedges

At the hedgelaying competition someone asked me when the first hedges were made in history.

It’s hard to give a definitive answer to this – there is evidence of British field patterns that go back at least to the Bronze Age (for instance Zennor in Penwith), though these are as likely to be separated by banks as by hedges (in Cornwall, a “hedge” can be a stone-faced bank without any plants on it).

Some hedges are “assart hedges” meaning they date back to the original forest clearance and contain species that don’t generally grow outside of woodland. The age of such hedges varies, but the clearance of the wildwood goes back even further than the Bronze Age, to the neolithic period, about 6000 years ago.

My suggestion in the book is that the first hedges were neolithic – they had advanced woodcraft skills in this period as can be seen in the woven wood screens they used for buildings (“wattle and daub”) and other structures. This means they knew how to coppice wood, to cut trees back in order to use the flexible new growth that results. So at the very least they would probably have made “dead hedges” out of wood.

But dead hedges tend to turn into live ones as some types of wood reroot and other new plants grow in the protection of the barrier. And live hedges are much more effective than dead ones, so it seems probable that live, coppiced hedges would have been cultivated in this period. The skills of coppicing and weaving wood are close to the “pleaching” process used in hedgelaying, so they may well have laid hedges too.

(We do know that by the Roman period hedgelaying was in use in Northern Europe as Julius Caesar describes the Nervii tribe using their laid hedges as military defences against his army).

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Cotley Hunt Hedgelaying Competition

I spent part of yesterday at the Cotley Hunt Hedgelaying Competition.

It was lovely weather, the primroses were growing in the hedgebanks, and there were baby lambs in the fields. I got briefly lost in winding lanes on the way down from Crewkerne. The lanes are narrow, and often sunk between banks on both sides, suggesting this is “ancient countryside” and that the fields predate the enclosures.

The hedgelayers were on the Forde Abbey estate (just over the Somerset border into Dorset), working on three lengths of hedge. They were making Devon style hedges, on top of steep banks with ditches, which was great for me as it’s not a style I’ve seen first-hand before. Below are a few quick pictures of the event – I will put up more soon as there are some interesting series showing the process of plashing and so on.

Thanks to Mary Perry and Roger Parris, as well as to all the hedgelayers.(Apologies in advance if I have any names wrong).

Stuart Drew laying a pleacher

Stuart again, working on the same tree

Roger Vickery working with the billhook

Tina Bath clearing undergrowth in preparation

Various competitors and spectators

Hedgerow trees

This gives a good view of the bank the hedge is laid on top of.

Felix sharpening a stake (or crook)

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