Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Hedgelaying at Millgate Fields

At the weekend I, and a few other members of FoCM, went on the two day hedgelaying course at Millgate Fields, Didsbury.
The course was organised and run by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV). The course tutor was Katie Lowry of BTCV. This was the second such course that BTCV have run this year and they are running another one next weekend. Attendees on these courses will receive a National Certificate of Further Education (NCFE) in Hedgelaying.
Hedgerows serve as field boundaries and have been a feature of the British countryside for centuries and, possibly, millennia. A BTCV leaflet, ‘Why lay hedges’, supplied to students on the course, states that: “Hedges were formed in one of three main ways. They were sometimes remnants of cleared woodland, left as a dividing strip. Natural regeneration also produced hedges, either at times of low agricultural activity such as during the Black Death, or when they were protected from grazing animals by dead hedges.
The other way was by actual planting.”
The leaflet also states that, “Hedge planting peaked between 1750 and 1850 when hedges were planted at an average rate of 2,000 miles a year.” These latter statistics refer to the Enclosure Movement whereby rich landowners, seized control of vast tracts of lowland England. Special Acts of Parliament required landowners to ‘enclose’ the land in specific parishes within hedges. Only the rich could afford to do this and hence they ended up owning most of the land in the parish.
After the Second World War many thousands of miles of hedgerow were lost due to agricultural expansion. Although the deliberate destruction of hedges tends to be discouraged now, they are still being lost through neglect or ‘modern’ methods of management such as mechanical flail trimming. Hedges managed in this way tend to deteriorate because: “...eventually the bottom and inner branches die back leading to gaps at the base and in the middle of the hedge. Within 20 years the hedge can cease to be stock-proof and will support less wildlife.”
This brings us to one of the key aspects of hedges which are as vitally important wildlife habitats. Many of our native mammals (hedgehogs, mice, voles, shrews etc.) live in hedges. Also many of our resident birds (dunnock, wren, goldfinch etc.) breed and/or feed in hedges and they are also vital sources of food for many migrants (whitethroats, fieldfares, redwings etc.). Even certain reptiles and amphibians can be found in the vicinity of hedges, especially those near ponds and ditches. In addition hedges are rich in invertebrates. Generally speaking, the older the hedge the more tree and shrub species it will tend to contain and the more native plant species will be associated with it.
Hedgelaying was a traditional craft carried out by farm labourers during the winter months. Many regional styles developed and even hedgelaying tools, such as billhooks, tended to exist in distinct regional forms. Such traditionally managed hedges were thick, healthy and stock-proof.
The hedge that we worked on in Didsbury separates a field containing cattle from a public footpath. It consists mainly of hawthorn shrubs probably planted in the last 10 years or so. My impression was that these shrubs were somewhat older than would normally be the case and the stems correspondingly thicker. Each shrub was trimmed of excess brush from the nearside of the hedge and separated from its neighbours using loppers, bow- saws and pole- saws. Then, using a billhook, a diagonal cut was made in each stem about 10 cm above ground level. The cut left a ‘hinge’ of wood which allowed the stem (the ‘pleacher’) to be laid down on top of the adjacent pleacher. Laid pleachers were held in place and secured by means of vertical stakes hammered into the ground alongside them. We followed the ‘Lancashire and Westmoreland’ style in which a thick hedge is created by laying the pleachers down the centre of the hedge over the stools, at an angle of 45 degrees or more. The stakes were placed in a double staggered row either side of the hedge.
Although this seems like drastic treatment, as long as the hinge contains some sapwood, bast and cambium the pleacher will live. In subsequent years shoots will develop below the cuts and thicken the hedge from the base. The photographs show unlaid and laid portions of the Millgate Fields hedge.
I have to say that I found this task to be extremely hard work. Thick hawthorn stems are like iron and the billhook has to be kept very sharp if it is to make an impression. Nevertheless, I think that I learned a lot and I am grateful to BTCV for running a very interesting course.

Dave Bishop, February 2009


1. ‘How to lay hedges’ - Course hand out, BTCV 2000

2. ‘Why lay hedges?’ – Course hand out, BTCV 2000

3. ‘Other regional hedgelaying styles etc.’ – BTCV course hand out

4. http://www.woodland-trust.org.uk/campaigns/briefingsmore/hedges.htm

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