Illustration by Emily Robertson
Words by Fergus Collins
Across England and Wales, Canal & River Trust manages 2,000 miles of canalside hedgerow. And with so much foot and cycle traffic along some busy stretches of towpath, waterside vegetation needs to be managed sensitively for towpath users without losing its wildlife value.
The Trust has many hedgelaying projects underway around the country at the moment – volunteers are replanting long sections of hedge along the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal, creating an important wildlife corridor through this relatively treeless part of the Somerset Levels. On the Kennet & Avon Canal, local teams are working to improve 1.6 miles of hedgerow between Devizes and Bradford on Avon, to help dormice and numerous bat species that thrive along the canal.
With so many helping hands re-planting and maintaining our towpath hedgerows over the winter months, what better time to delve into the history of hedgelaying and to examine the myriad styles that have developed throughout England and Wales. Countryfile magazine editor Fergus Collins has your guide…
The history of hedgelaying
People talk dreamily about the patchwork of fields that make up our landscapes – it’s part of the fabric of our national identity. The stitches of this green and pleasant quilt are the hedgerows, perhaps up to 400,000 miles of them, creating living boundaries wherever the land is accommodating enough for them to grow.
Hedges have been used for thousands of years but became particularly prevalent some 500-200 years ago as landowners seized large tracts of common land after the enclosure acts and planted hedges to delineate ownership and keep livestock in (or out). Hedge creation – hedgelaying – was a highly skilled job involving creating a sturdy fence from living trees and shrubs. But while these living boundaries disenfranchised many tenants (and grievances linger even today), they provided food and homes for vast numbers of birds, insects and mammals especially dormice – as well as fodder and shelter for livestock.
But as our farmed landscape has industrialised over the past century, hundreds of thousands of miles of hedges have been lost or degraded. Larger farm machinery requires larger fields and so hedges were grubbed out. Barbed wire was seen as a cheaper alternative to a living hedge and the remaining hedges are still cut or flailed brutally, often more than once a year, and the hedgerow trees lose vitality.
The Long Forest Project: A hedge revival along the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal
The good news is that the value of hedgerows has been recognised, and not just by wildlife organisations. Hedgerows have been found to help with field drainage through their root systems and, by creating windbreaks, prevent soil erosion. In Wales, the Heritage Lottery has been funding The Long Forest Project (LFP) run by Keep Wales Tidy (KWT) and the Woodland Trust to raise awareness of the value of hedges, particularly as wildlife habitat but also as part of our farming heritage – and that they still have a working use today. Working with public and private landowners, the LFP aims to plant 100,000 trees and restore 120,000 metres of hedgerow in Anglesey, Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire and north east Wales to connect isolated pockets of wildlife-rich habitat and help animals and plants interbreed.
In south east Wales, much of the hedge revival is taking place along the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, especially between Gilwern and Goytre. Here, groups of volunteers led by expert hedge layers are learning new skills and deploying locally native plants such as hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose and field maple to ‘gap up’ – “fill in the gaps in old hedges and create new ones where the landscape allows,” says Tom Ward-Jackson of KWT.
Much of the old hedgerow may be overgrown and old trees need to be coppiced – cut down to ground level – to allow fresh growth to sprout. Once the new growth or newly planted trees are large enough, they are laid. This involves cutting the stems part way through using a billhook so the stem can be bent over and woven together to create a barrier – a process known as ‘pleaching or plashing’. Any wood from chopped down trees may be used to form a temporary barrier and also protect the new shoots from browsing animals. It can also be used as stakes to create a solid support for the growing hedge.
“On the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, the most obvious beneficiaries are the bats, drawn to the canal to feed on midges and other aquatic insects,” Ward-Jackson says. Large hedgerow trees also offer potential roosting sites while larger terrestrial mammals such as foxes and badgers might even set up home in the base of the hedges. Finches and warblers nest in waterside thickets and the nationally scarce spotted flycatcher, a regular here, will also find more amenable habitats. Ward-Jackson is optimistic that the canal offers “some really good habitats for wildlife. The trick will be to find groups of volunteers to help maintain the new and restored hedgerows after the project ends in spring 2020.”
Hedgerow styles around the country
North East: The Yorkshire style
Yorkshire comprises several upland regions and shallow valleys where, traditionally, farmers rotated arable and sheep-farming in the agricultural cycle. This meant that they didn’t need the stout cattle-proof structures of the Midlands but, instead, something that would keep the sheep in but also maximise the acreage for planting. In addition, the wind-swept hills often lacked the variety of trees to furnish them with all the necessary materials. The Yorkshire style creates a very thin hedge – cut close to the ground to promote thick growth low down and then finished by incorporating sawn rails and stakes to strengthen the structure. Cut stakes are laid to protect the initial growth from rabbits and sheep.
North West: The Lancaster and Westmorland style
The north west also has its particular hedge style, known as the Lancaster and Westmorland. This is a heavily pastoral region so stock-proof hedges were a necessity and the hedgelayer would use stakes close together, on alternative sides of the hedge, with the pleachers woven tightly to create a firm barrier. Essentially, the hedge is contained within a double row of stakes. In the north west region, the Canal & River Trust has been hedgelaying along the Glasson branch of the Lancaster canal for the past three years and achieves about 30-50m per winter. This again provides a vital linear wildlife corridor across a relatively lightly wooded landscape.
West Midlands: the Midland Bullock
Perhaps the most commonly laid hedge today and certainly not restricted to the Midlands, this hedge, known as the Midland Bullock is designed to be substantial enough to prevent large animals such as cattle from pushing through it. The pleachings – the half cut through stems and trunks – are laid at angles against natural stakes and the ‘binders’ are woven like rope between stakes along the top of the hedge to create a very attractive finished structure that is surprisingly strong. New shoots grow from the pleachings and complete the dense network of living ‘fence’. To preserve its integrity, the Midland hedge is kept to around 4.5-5 feet in height. The field side is left to become noticeably bushy while the road or ditch side is neat and the dense vibrant hedge offers a multitude of habitats and food for insects, birds and mammals. A typical well-laid hedge can last 15-20 years before it needs to be relaid – and this is about the same lifespan of a barbed-wire fence!
East Midlands: The Derby style
The Derby hedge is similar to the Midland Bullock but, being closer to more industrialised areas such as the Nottinghamshire coalfields, the farmers could make use of machine-sawn stakes used in the factories and mines to create the basic structure of their field boundaries. While easier to handle and hammer into the ground, the sawn stakes are often considered to be less attractive than the natural stakes used in the Midland style. The pleacher stems are laid in front and behind these stakes creating an easy-to-build structure that can keep the rowdiest of cows from straying. No binders are needed to strengthen the top of the hedge.
South East: The Southern hedge style
If you need a hedge that’s stock-proof on both sides – for example, when you need a hedge to provide a boundary between two fields – then look no further than the southern hedge style. This involves a single line of stakes with brush laid on each side. This creates a bushy hedge that, once the shoots from the pleachers (the laid stems) have grown out, is strong and stock-proof for sheep and cattle. As these hedges were commonly used in lowland sheep country, the hedge layer would bend the pleacher deliberately downwards to ensure there were no gaps at the lowest levels and so prevent little lambs from making a break for freedom. The bindings are woven alternatively between the stakes using a form of basket weave, rather than twisting them together like rope as in the Midland style.
South West: Sturdy earth and hazel sticks
As you get further west, in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, the predominant hedging style involves a sturdy bank of earth and stones as the main barrier for livestock with a hedge along the top secured by crooked hazel sticks to strengthen the living part of the boundary. For Somerset and Wiltshire, you are more likely to see the Midland or Southern Style of hedgelaying. Canal & River Trust has two hedgelaying projects underway in this region. Along the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal, volunteers are replanting and relaying long sections of hedge along the waterway, creating an important wildlife corridor through this relatively treeless part of the Somerset Levels. Rare species such as nightingales are still heard around here and dormice will benefit from the extra cover. The Trust is also improving 1.6 miles of hedgerow along the Kennet & Avon between Devizes and Bradford on Avon, again to help dormice and the numerous bat species that thrive along the canal.
London: The ‘motorway style’
Greater London and the home counties don’t have a particular hedging style – unless you include the ‘motorway style’. This comprises a hedge laid against a post and rail fence on the field side and doesn’t not have any bindings along the top (also known as ‘heatherings’ in the trade). It is a quick way to establish an attractive, wildlife-rich hedge that doesn’t have to be stock-proof. Wild hedges do find themselves in the heart of London courtesy of the canal network and are the strongholds of some of the capital’s last remaining house sparrow colonies as well as wildflowers and bat roosts.
Posted on 31/01/2020