Hedging your bets
If you look out across the countryside, you’ll likely see a patchwork of fields of varying sizes, shapes, and colours. However the bit that separates one field from the other is as important, if not more so, than that’s in the fields. Here Ranger Gareth talks through the skill and art of hedgelaying.
The root of the problem
Hedgerows are likely to have started in earnest during the enclosures, when open fields and common land were bought and joined to create a single, larger farm. Hedges were designed to allow farmers to keep their livestock close, rather than having to herd them back from out in the wilds. Increased demand and technological advances have seen hedge condition decline across the country; as bigger machinery needs more space, a lot of hedges have been ripped out. Also, the introduction of stock net fencing has meant that famers can contain livestock easier and quicker than caring for a hedge, and tractor mounted flails mean that can be easily cut back and controlled.
By billhook or by crook
In order to lay a hedge first you need some tools. Whereas traditionally all that was used was a billhook (an often curved metal blade), and an axe, these days we often use bowsaws, loppers, and occasionally chainsaws. Once you have your tools you can begin to look at your hedge; the saying goes that sap doesn’t flow downhill so you need to lay the pleachers (as the cut stems are called, also steepers or liggers depending on where you are in the country) uphill.
In order to lay a pleacher you make an angled cut on the opposite side to the direction of laying, thinning out the stem. Care has to be taken not to cut too shallow as there is the risk of snapping when attempting to bend the stem over. However, if you cut too deeply, you risk damaging the part that actively undergoes growth and repair (or worse still cutting through the stem entirely!).
A load of old bullocks
Here at Attingham we follow the Midland Bullock style of hedgelaying, so called because it needs to keep cattle at bay. Because of this the pleachers are laid at an angle of around 35-45 degrees to stop cattle trampling their way over it. Any excess growth or brash is left on the pleachers on the side of the hedge the cattle are in. This provides an additional barrier and stops the cattle eating the new growth.
Stakes are placed at regular intervals along the hedge while laying. This provides a prop to rest the pleachers on but they also allow the pleachers to be woven into place, providing extra strength and stability.
Once all the pleachers have been laid, it is time to tie it all together. Twelve foot long hazel strands are woven together along the top of the hedge in a process called binding.
This has the practical purpose of preventing any pleachers from popping out either by livestock or wind, and has the aesthetic result of a neat and tidy finished hedge. At this point all the excess cuttings are removed and burnt and the hedge is left to regenerate and regrow to eventually be re-laid in the future.
No two hedges the same
Just as accents and customs change when you travel through the country, so too does hedgelaying, the primary driver behind this is what you are attempting to keep in (or out) of your fields. In Wales, the need to keep sheep in meant that hedges were laid lower to the ground and were often left bushier and thicker at the bottom to stop sheep pushing their way through. In Devon, hedges are laid almost flat to the floor, the stock proof part comes in that they are laid on earth banks around four feet high. In Cornwall there are very few “true” hedges; as the salt spray stunts plant growth, a stone-faced earth bank is made from which living material grows out of.
Just as the hedges vary by region, so too do the billhooks used. While most follow a similar pattern, there are some unique few, such as the Stafford and Yorkshire billhooks which have a second, straight blade on the back, which can be used to cut points into stakes or trim the tops if they’re too long. Although some ideas are around as to why different regions have different lengths of steepness of curves, either due to a specific hedging need or just the blacksmith’s particular “signature”, it is likely that the truth is lost to history. We can now just appreciate the variety of a key tool in hedgelaying, and find which works best for us.
Not just a pretty fence
Hedgelaying doesn’t just have a practical farming benefit, they are also extremely important for wildlife of all types. Over 100 species are known to be significantly associated with hedges, from lichens, birds, insects, mammals, and amphibians. Hedgerows act as wildlife corridors, connecting different habitats to each other while providing safety and also a home. The various berries and fruits from different plants are a big source of food for some species, which in turn become food for others. Insects eating the leaves become food for smaller birds or bats, which are then eaten by birds of prey.
By hedgelaying around Attingham, not only are we keeping a traditional skill alive, but are contributing directly towards the care of our local wildlife.