The art of hedgelaying

Rangers learning the craft of hedgelaying

If you travel through the Wray Valley, between Ambleside and Hawkshead, you’ll notice a patchwork of hedges around a network of intricate fields.

As a National Trust ranger, I work closely with our tenant farmers to look after the estimated 14km of hedges across this unique valley.

Mapping hedges at Loanthwaite, Ambleside
Mapping hedges at Loanthwaite, Ambleside
Mapping hedges at Loanthwaite, Ambleside

A traditional technique

These hedges require ‘laying’ every 10-20 years. Hedgelaying involves partially cutting the tree stem to leave just a small section of wood attached and then bending the stem and securing it at an angle so the tree grows sideways to form a hedge. This traditional management technique keeps the hedges thick and bushy meaning they can effectively shelter grazing sheep and cattle. They are also an important wildlife haven as they provide an excellent passageway for bats, birds and small mammals to move safely from place to place out of the sight of predators. We’ve laid 955m of hedge this winter; a task enjoyed by rangers, local volunteers and contractors alike.

Rangers learning the craft of hedgelaying
Rangers learning the craft of hedgelaying
Rangers learning the craft of hedgelaying

Restoring hedgerows from times gone by

Many hedges in the Hawkshead valley were lost in the mid-20th century due to mechanised hedgecutting, wire fences, bigger field systems and loss of farm labour. In an attempt to remedy this, hedges have been replanted over the last 25 years through agricultural grants and donations with many now ready for their first ‘lay’ – look out for this work in the winter months when it’ll be happening across the valley. We’ve identified a further 8km (approx.) of hedgerows which could be reinstated and we will prioritise patches which link up wildlife habitats – we hope to do much of this work in years to come.

The finished hedge at High Wray, Ambleside
The finished hedge at High Wray, Ambleside
The finished hedge at High Wray, Ambleside

We are also looking at the best way to manage our hedges to support the widest range of wildlife possible whilst maintaining the traditional skill of hedgelaying. Although it is good to keep hedges trimmed regularly, we know that a variety of heights and shapes support more species of birds.

A bullfinch enjoying the winter sunshine
Bullfinch
A bullfinch enjoying the winter sunshine

For example bullfinches and turtle doves prefer 4m tall hedges whereas linnets and yellowhammers prefer 2-3m tall hedges. We also know that vital food sources such as berries and flowers flourish on second year re-growth so leaving hedges for up to three years before trimming again will help hugely with our declining bird species. And through careful maintenance of our hedgerows, we hope they’ll be here for many years to come. 

Clair Payne, Ranger (Hawkshead and Claife)