All you ever wanted to know about hedge laying
I suppose in modern day Britain, less and less work can be truly defined as seasonal. Certainly little that the Ranger team do is utterly dependent on the time of year, but hedge laying is something we can only do in winter, when the sap is not running through the stems.
Hedgerows in the landscape
In Borrowdale, just as the valley road comes out of the constriction of the 'Jaws' before Rosthwaite, take a look at the fields on either side of the road. On the left (east) you’ll see monotone acres of green fields, divided up by fences, but barely distinguishable one from the other. Look to the other side however and you’ll find a patchwork mosaic of fields, seemingly small and compartmentalised, all divided up by hedgerows. The fields either side are actually about the same size, yet the contrast between the two is vivid.
So hedgerows have a massive visual and aesthetic effect on the landscape, but they are also great conservation features providing corridors of shelter and food for all sorts of birds and small mammals. In some parts of the country they are even used to manage stock, but I’m yet to meet a Cumbrian farmer who would solely trust a hedge to divide his sheep, particularly the more “ratchy” Herdwicks.
A long time ago a colleague asked me why we lay a hedge – and at that time my only response was, “because we do” and that is never a good basis for doing something. When we lay a hedge we are essentially regenerating the trees, allowing continuity in the hedgerow. In this way we can keep that hedge working for much longer than its natural lifetime. Without this regeneration the hedge will mature and start to die. Gaps will appear, becoming larger and larger, until you are left with just a few gnarly old individual trees. You can see examples of these gapped-out hedges throughout Cumbria.
" I've been laying hedges for 22 years and it's a really rewarding part of my job to see traditional field patterns restored by healthy, wildlife rich hedgerows"
Pleaches and Liggers
Rowan Atkinson could write a whole comedy sketch around those two words.
The pleach is the semi-cut part of the stem that allows the branch to bend and lay. It is important to get the correct depth to the cut, You have to thin it out enough to allow the stem to lay, but you have to leave enough wood to allow sap to draw up through the stem to keep the tree alive and to encourage new growth.
The laid stems (‘liggers’ to us in the trade) will give good thickness in the bottom of the hedge, but also sprout new upward branches in a very short space of time.
You would think that the liggers are the most important part of a layed hedge. Not so, the coppice stool left on the original tree, from which the ligger ligs, is the most important bit. It is essential that new strong stems spring from the coppice stump, because when the hedge is next laid, all the old liggers will be cut out, and the process re-started from the original tree. In that way we always work with the youngest, strongest stems, regenerating the plants and allowing continuity of growth way beyond the trees natural age.
“I'm – putting on my top hat, tying up my white tie, brushing off my tails.” Now that’s style! But I digress…
This bit might be considered controversial.
It wouldn’t surprise me if every county has its own different style of hedge laying. Our local one is called ‘West Cumberland’ and it’s fair to say it is not to everybody’s taste. This strips the trees out to single shorn stems which are then laid flat to the ground.
Essentially for a few months the hedge disappears, but because you get incredible amounts of light into the liggers, and even more importantly into the coppice stool, you get fantastic regrowth. I’ve seen massive regeneration in hedges laid in this manner and they are relatively easy to re-lay next time. But you do disrupt the nature corridor; the bottom of the hedge does not have the same density, and until it re-grows there is no landscape value.
Text books prefer the ‘Midlands’ style where the liggers are laid to a 45 degree angle, posts are driven in a line down the middle of the hedge, and the top woven with hazel or willow strands. This makes for a denser overall hedge, with no disruption to either the nature corridor or the landscape. But there are problems with regrowth in terms of the light getting into the coppice stools, so regeneration is not fantastic. And to be honest it’s pretty fussy for the results it gives, and the work required on a re-lay to get back to the coppice stools isn't worth thinking about.
So we go for something between these two styles, laying at a lesser angle, weaving the tops in together, pegging where we need. This seems to work well for us here. The nature corridor is maintained, the landscape value is only slightly and temporarily diminished, the regrowth on both liggers and coppice stools is good, and it also enables a degree of efficiency.
So now you’re all experts, you can come and join us on our next particularly awkward hedgerow, working in the mud and the cold and the wet…