Hedgelaying on the Golden Cap Estate

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The traditional art of hedgelaying is widely used on the Golden Cap estate as a wildlife-friendly form of hedgerow management. Here, our ranger Jon Sibthorp explains exactly what it is, why we embrace it and how we're teaching others this traditional skill.

Why do we do it?

Hedgelaying is a traditional method of maintaining a stock-proof barrier of vegetation around a field or enclosure in order to keep animals in or out, depending on the circumstances. It involves cutting the base of the stems of young trees using a billhook, axe or chainsaw and bending the tree, interweaving it with its neighbours in order to create what effectively becomes a 'living fence'.

The West Country way

There are many different regional styles which cater for factors such as type of stock (cattle or sheep, which dictates the height, width and strength of the hedge) and whether the hedge is on a bank. Here we lay in the West Country/ Devon style which means our hedges are laid low, mainly on earth banks, and the laid hedge is pinned in place with wooden pegs cut out of the hedge.

Making a comeback

Before the advent of modern stock fencing and barbed wire, hedge-laying was widely employed as the main method of maintaining a field boundary around a farm or estate. It entered a period of steady decline following the Second World War because the invention of tractor-powered hedge cutters and flails and the widespread availability of relatively cheap fencing materials rendered the old hedgelayers' craft apparently obsolete.

However more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in hedgelaying. It has been found that hedges do not really respond well to long-term management through flailing and the end result is a hedge that gets quite gappy and open at the base with a knurl of vegetation at the point of cutting. From a conservation perspective, a dense hedge is much better for wildlife, providing shelter for nesting birds and acting as a wildlife corridor for small mammals.

Hedgelaying holidays

Restoration of old hedges through laying is now a recognised form of hedgerow management and modern agri-environment schemes will now include payments to help pay for hedge restoration work. This means that the hedgelayers' craft is no longer redundant.

Here at Golden Cap we have three working holidays per winter dedicated to training volunteers in the art of hedgelaying thus doing our bit to pass on the knowledge of this traditional rural skill.