The ancient art of hedgelaying

Chris Baker learns the ancient art of hedgelaying and discovers why hedges are so vital for wildlife – and for our view of the countryside

11th October 2012
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My six yards is a dozen or so wispy looking blackthorn bushes, some small holly trees, an enormous old oak and a rabbit hole. How to make a hedge from that? Fellow competitors occasionally stop to remind me there isn’t much to work with, often with more than a hint of schadenfreude.
My hedge is to be laid in the Devon style, the blackthorn and holly cut so their stems can be bent almost horizontally, forming a dense cap of living foliage on the top of an old earth and stone bank. The oak tree, aloof from the industry about to begin, has been there long enough to have seen it all before. The rabbits? I can only hope they like their new hedge more than the judges.
The novices, nine of us, each with our own six yards, are on one side of the bank, the intermediates on the other. In an adjoining part of the field are the professionals, among them national and supreme champions in one or other of the regional hedging styles. But it’s too late to worry about being in the wrong company, because with a double blast of a hunting horn, the Devon Rural Skills Trust’s annual hedging competition is under way.

Clearing the dead wood
First to come out is the old dead wood and the blackthorn and holly that won’t be needed. There’s not too much on my stretch, but enough to keep me busy. Then to the tricky business of steeping, the Devon term for laying a hedge; in other parts of the country it’s called plashing or pleaching.
The technique is deceptively simple: cut the stem about three-quarters of the way through, by splitting it downwards with a billhook or an axe, and carefully lay the unsevered and still living plant on top of the bank.
But it is all too easy to make a mistake. Go too far and you cut through the stem, not quite far enough and your stem begins to split upwards, a mishap with the delightful name of a hake’s mouth, although linguistic felicity is lost on the patrolling judges.
My problems really begin here. With nothing on the top of the bank, I can only steep bushes growing from the side, laying them diagonally upwards, before bending them again to form the distinctive cap of a Devon hedge. Finally the steepers – those cut and bent blackthorn and holly bushes – need to be secured with wooden crooks to the top of the bank. The crooks hold everything together for the first few years, as the growing bushes tangle into one another and begin to do the job for themselves.
Four-and-a-half hours later and I am able to stand back and admire my handiwork. Not too bad, probably about as good as I could have hoped, although another species, hazel for instance, would have been better. The cutting is passable, my hake’s mouths successfully camouflaged, the crooks secure. What the judges will make of it? I have no idea.
With all of us finishing, the whole bank is now topped by a double roll of steeped trees, looking like two long sausages, with a gap in the centre just wide enough to walk down – for all the world a Devon hedge.

Ancient hedgelayers
Mike Bassett, who farms the competition site, at Higher Badworthy, on the southern fringes of Dartmoor near the village of South Brent, said: “It’s lovely to see a traditionally laid hedge. For everyday farming it probably wouldn’t be cost effective, but if you are a traditionalist, it’s nice to see. And this looks fantastic. Obviously there were some professionals, so it was always going to look good.”
Work over and I finally have time to look around the valley, at the patchwork of hedged and stone-walled fields, open moorland infiltrating on three sides, and occasional tor-topped hills, jutting above the scene like proud and silent sentries. An hour’s walk from here, at Shaugh Moor, a Bronze Age site has given up the waterlogged remains of hawthorn and rose, showing all the signs of having been cut as a hedge. Similar discoveries at Bar Hill, in Dumbartonshire, and Farmoor, in Oxfordshire, suggest hedgerows were being constructed in Roman Britain.
Allusions crop-up in Anglo-Saxon charters, while hedges also feature in medieval poetry and on early maps. By 1600, almost every parish in England had at least one hedge; in the west it is probable the landscape was already fully hedged by this time, and many of these can still be seen today. Our oldest surviving hedge is thought to be Judith’s Hedge, in what was Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire), reputed to be 900 years old and planted by a niece of William the Conqueror.
With that kind of timeline, it is not surprising hedging has differentiated into countless regional styles. In Cornwall, a hedge is a stone bank, topped by plants such as gorse that can withstand Atlantic gales. There are a mystifying number of styles in Wales, dictated by environment, available species and the hedge’s purpose. The evocatively named flying hedge of Glamorgan is strikingly similar to the Devon style. Cumberland, Derbyshire, Dorset, the Isle of Wight, Somerset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Wiltshire, to name a few, all have their own styles, often morphing with a neighbour’s into yet another type where counties meet.
But by far the most common type of hedge is the Midland style, extending in a thick band through the centre of England, from the south coast to County Durham. Here, still living plants, usually hawthorn, are laid at about 45 degrees, staked, and topped with a delicate weave of hazel, forming the same stock-proof barrier as in Devon, but without the bank. It is the style that dominates in those counties most affected by the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw fields and common land enclosed by law, and the style is reckoned to be the most difficult to learn.

Brutally dismembered
Enclosure was probably the zenith of hedge laying, at least in recent centuries, and from that surge in hedging comes our mind-picture of the countryside, of small fields bordered by hedges, green in spring and summer, leafless and spare in winter.
It is an image that has been brutally dismembered since the Second World War. More than 125,000 miles of hedge (some estimates are as high as 200,000 miles) have been lost to development or farming since 1945, by far the largest share to modern agriculture.
Imagine that as the loss of 125,000 miles of nature reserve. More than 600 species of plant, 1,500 of insects, 20 mammals, and 65 species of birds, many of them declining farmland species with few other places to shelter or nest, have been recorded living or feeding in hedgerows. Hedges survive today largely as a refuge for wildlife and is the main reason they continue to be laid.
Sandy Backus, chairman of the Devon Rural Skills Trust, said: “The wildlife in a raddled old hedge with everything falling out is non-existent, so every time you lay a hedge you are creating a better environment for wildlife.”
And after inspecting our efforts, he said: “The hedge looks fantastic and the farmer is delighted. I was particularly impressed by the novices, who did a really good job, which is great because our aim is to encourage more people to do this, and to keep doing this.”
So why not try laying a hedge yourself this winter? There are plenty of courses around the country. The judges didn’t give my hedge any prizes, although I did get my cutting money and the hedge itself will probably last its anticipated 10- to 15-year lifespan. That big oak should be good for another 200 to 300 years; my six yards a small wildlife sanctuary for the next decade or so. And it just might pass the professional’s test: a spring lamb won’t be getting through it in a hurry.


Hedgerow wildlife

1 Yellowhammer

This farmland bird feeds at the base of hedges and also uses them as shelter, and as song posts.
The yellowhammer population has declined by more than half in the last 25 years.

2 White-letter hairstreak

A large number of colonies of this butterfly disappeared when elm disease struck its food plant. Small elms in sheltered hedgerows are helping maintain populations.

3 Brown hairstreak

Females of this butterfly species prefer young blackthorn to lay their eggs, a feature common in a laid hedge but often absent in one that has been mechanically trimmed.

4 Insects

Hedges provide hibernation sites for many insects, either on the ground for many beetles or, in the case of ladybirds, in the foliage higher up.

5 Small eggar

A once common moth whose numbers have plummeted, mainly due to the loss of hedgerows, its favourite habitat. Larvae can be seen in conspicuous silken webs, often on hazel or blackthorn.

6 Bats

Species such as the barbastelle use hedgerows as feeding corridors, as do barn owls, for whom hedges provide a useful larder.

7 Bumblebee

Often uses holes in hedge banks made by mammals to hibernate, while the variety of plants ensures a supply of nectar at different times of the year.

8 Linnet

Another common bird of hedges and field edges. Numbers have more than halved since 1970.

9 Grey partridge

Our only native partridge, which feeds in fields and field margins, has declined by more than 80 percent since 1997, possibly because of a shortage of suitable nesting sites in hedge bottoms.

10 Hedgehog

As the name suggests, hedgehogs rely on hedges to nest and to feed on beetles and other insects, especially in areas dominated by arable farming. Hedgehogs have declined by 20 percent since 2000.

11 Dormouse

Dormice, which generally spend all their time above ground in trees or scrub, have declined greatly in recent years. The loss of hedges has isolated populations and led to local extinctions.

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