Hedges In Our Landscape by Paul Blissett 
     
    IntroductionBy products from hedgelayingBrecon style
    How hedges have arisenRegional hedgelaying stylesMontgomery style
    The benefits of hedgesMidland styleOther styles
    A brief history of hedgesDerby styleBeech hedges
    The current positionSouth of England styleHedgerow conservation grants
    Hedgerow shrubsLancashire styleConclusion
    Hedgerow maintenanceSomerset style
    Hedging stakes and bindersYorkshire style
Introduction

We shall consider a hedge to be a row of woody stemmed plants managed so as to provide a stockproof barrier. Whilst many take hedgerows for granted as a natural feature of our countryside, hedges can only survive and flourish with correct management.

How hedges have arisen

Hedges have come about in three different ways:

  • Where woodland was cleared and the edges left as hedges
  • Undisturbed, hedges can set themselves over time by an existing feature such as a ditch, bank or fence
  • As a result of deliberate planting
Today, new hedges are almost always planted, but in the past many hedges were formed by the other two methods.

The Benefits of Hedges

Hedges serve to keep stock in a pasture and out of crop fields. They also provide shade for stock and protection from the wind and guard against soil erosion. Hedges are an attractive feature of the British countryside and a valuable wildlife habitat, not just the hedge itself but also any associated ditch and bank. Hedgerows provide a rich source of food for birds and small mammals. Hedges may also link otherwise isolated wildlife habitats thereby creating valuable wildlife. Once planted, hedgerows require only periodic maintenance to provide a permanent stockproof barrier.
 

A Brief History of Hedges

The very earliest field enclosures were portable hurdles used to secure stock. With the growth of permanent settlements and an increase in arable farming, living hedges provided a better solution providing permanent boundaries as well as enclosures.

Not everyone was happy with this arrangement and in the 12th Century, Richard the First issued an edict that hedges should not exceed 4 foot 6 inches tall both to allow free range to the royal deer and so that he could chase them on horseback!

From the 13th Century to the start of the 17th Century a gradual process of land enclosure and hedge planting took place, much of it associated with the increasing importance of sheep reared for wool. This process often involved the disappearance of whole villages as large sheep ranches were established. Over 80 deserted Northamptonshire villages have been identified stemming largely from the mid 15th to 16th centuries. The civil unrest caused by such dramatic events led to many Acts of Parliament which tried to prevent further enclosure. The number of such Acts passed suggested that they were having at best only limited effect.

However, it gradually became clear that advances in both arable farming techniques and selective breeding could dramatically increase farming yields. These new techniques could not be successfully applied in the disjointed open field holdings and common land that still persisted.

Consequently, in 1603 the first Act promoting enclosure was passed, to be followed by over 5,000 separate Enclosure Acts enclosing over 7 million acres of open fields or common land. Enclosure acts specified that the plots of land they created be enclosed by hedges and ditches and maintained by the owner subsequently. Oliver Rackham estimates that over 200,000 miles of hedge were planted between 1750 and 1850 and that this was as much as in the previous 500 years.

With greater attention now given to animal husbandry, the average weight of cattle and sheep sold at Smithfield Market more than doubled between 1710 and 1795.

Some counties, such as Lancashire, Kent, Devon and Cornwall were completely devoid of enclosure acts whilst in others a large proportion of the open field land was lost. Slater has estimated the percentage of open land enclosed by Acts by county and the most affected were as follows:
 

County
 

Northants

Hunts 

Rutland

Bedford

Oxfordshire

East Riding of Yorkshire

Leicester

Lincolnshire

Square Miles
 

517

168

73

214

332

470

313

775

Percentage of open land enclosed

51

46

46

46

45

40

38

29

Enclosure involved considerable expense and was of greatest benefit to the bigger landowners, consolidating their previously scattered landholdings. Enclosure and the new hedges were less welcome to the poor who were deprived of their common grazing rights. As a sop, a small proportion of the land covered by enclosure was allotted close to dwellings for growing food - hence the term allotments.

Elm and oak were frequently planted in hedges for timber and remain much in evidence today. Elm remains widespread in hedges, having suckered from the root systems of elm standards felled with Dutch Elm disease. Here it can often become dominant suppressing all other shrubs. A row of mature oak through a field invariably denotes a former hedgerow.

Although some started calling for a reduction in the number of hedges even as enclosure was still taking place, on the grounds of efficiency, the number of hedges did not start to decline significantly until after the Second World War. In 1946 there were an estimated 500,000 miles of hedge in England.
 

The Current Position

The intensive farming methods developed since the end of the Second World War required larger field sizes for the effective deployment of large farm machinery and led directly to large scale hedgerow removal. Also, as less and less stock was actually kept outside, good hedgerow management declined in importance. The continuous decline in the number of people working on the land has also led to less hedgerow management being undertaken, resulting in further hedgerow loss. Until it was banned, stubble burning was another potential cause of hedgerow loss.

It is likely that over 300,000 miles of hedgerow have disappeared since 1945. Whilst most hedgerow loss has been due to changes in agricultural practices, about 40,000 miles may have been lost to building, quarrying, reservoirs and roads.

More recently, the 1993 CPRE Hedgerow Survey estimated that an average of 2,200 miles of hedgerow were deliberately destroyed in England and Wales each year between 1990 and 1993.

Hedgerows can only survive in the long term with correct management. Today, neglect and incorrect management are responsible for more hedgerow loss than outright removal, which is now less than new hedge planting.

It is estimated that there were 352,000 miles of hedge in England and Wales in 1984. By 1990 this had fallen to 270,000 miles and by 1993 to 236,000. The 1993 survey revealed that far more hedges were being planted and fewer actively removed than for 1984-90. Hedgerow loss for the period 1990-93 was almost entirely due to changes of management, including neglect.

Hedgerow Shrubs

Hawthorn is the most common hedgerow shrub, prized for its hardiness and dense thorns with blackthorn the second commonest. Common hawthorn found in hedges is crataegus monogyna with its deeply lobed leaves and single-seeded fruit, rather than the relatively uncommon woodland hawthorn, crataegus oxycanthoides, which has less deeply lobed leaves and two seeded fruit.

Unlike hawthorn, blackthorn suckers vigorously encroaching into a field unless kept in check and was therefore less favoured with farmers. 

Spindle in bloom might at first be thought an exotic rather than indigenous species!
Other hedgerow shrubs include field maple, hazel, plum, crab apple, holly sweet chestnut, elm, beech, hornbeam, ash, whitebeam, wild privet and spindle. Poisonous shrubs such as yew and box are not planted in stock hedges.

Beech is not commonly found in farm hedges since it is attractive to stock. The numerous beech hedges on Exmoor are a notable exception where it is widely found, commonly situated on a high bank.

The oldest hedges generally have the most variety of plant and shrub species. Indeed, this species diversity is often used to date a hedge although this should preferably be supported by documentary evidence.

As a rule of thumb, each different shrub species, excluding elder, per thirty yard stretch represents 100 years. Some of the oldest hedges are to be found by ancient green lanes and parish boundaries. Spindle and hazel are two of the best indicators of an old hedgerow.
 
Elder, centre right, cut down when hedge laid 3 months earlier already higher than hedge
One plant which should normally be cut out of a hedge is elder since it grows faster than all other hedgerow plants and crowds them out. It is also very brittle and useless in any hedge intended to provide a stockproof barrier.

Small amounts of elder can be kept in check by regular cutting back, but where it is deemed to be a problem, then a rapidly degrading weedkiller such as Roundup can be applied to the cut stump.

Maintenance of Hedgerows

Vigorous, healthy hedges require only regular trimming to keep them to the required height and width and to encourage bushy growth. Today this is universally achieved using tractor mounted hedgecutting equipment.

Trimming is best done in the late winter when any berries will have been eaten and should not take place annually - most plants will not flower on year old wood. Trimming should follow the direction of any previous hedgelaying to minimise damage to the wood. Done correctly, cutting twigs rather than major stems, mechanised cutting can achieve most satisfactory results as regrowth in subsequent years will show.  

A healthy hedge can normally recover well from severe cutting but repeated over zealous cutting can gradually cause whole hedges to die off. One problem associated with mechanised hedgecutting is the decline in the number of saplings left in hedges to grow into mature trees.

However, as hedges grow, they gradually become more tree-like and less bush-like; gaps tend to appear lower down and they cease to provide an effective barrier. At this point, the hedge should be allowed to grow sufficiently tall so that it can be laid, both to fill in the gaps and to ensure the long term viability of the hedge by promoting vigorous regrowth from the base of the hedge.
 

All growth is at the top of this gappy hedge, laid 20+ years before and showing a single mechanical cut
As many stems are used as possible, here 6 within a few inches
Hedgelaying is a traditional method of hedge management and has been practised for hundreds of years. Caesar described the process of hedgelaying in detail in 57BC in his Gallic War when he encountered laid hedges in the territory of the Nervii in Flanders.

Hedgelaying involves cutting nearly all the way through the base of the stems and laying them over at an angle of about 35 degrees. The cut stems, called pleachers, are tucked tightly together and lay parallel to each other. 

Generally, hedges are then staked vertically and bound horizontally for strength and to achieve the thickest possible hedge. The hedgelayer uses a fearsome array of axes and billhooks and normally stakes and binds the hedge with hazel.

Stumps are cut as cleanly as possible since this is where regrowth is most desired and eventually a new hedge will grow from the established root system. In the meantime, the laid pleachers act as a living barrier and protect the regrowth from browsing stock. 

Early regrowth from base of laid hawthorn, left and elm, right
Early regrowth from newly laid hawthorn hedgeUnlike hawthorn, elm suckers as well as regrows from the stumps

Where the cycle of laying and trimming is repeated, hedges can thrive indefinitely. Hedges might typically be laid every 15 to 25 years. The cost of maintaining hedges is broadly equivalent to that of fencing which has to be replaced about every 15 to 20 years.

Where hedges become very overgrown they can suppress most other plant life. Laying such hedges can reclaim areas of previously shaded verge rich in dormant seeds which are then able to germinate.

Coppicing a hedge, i.e. cutting it off completely at just above ground level, is also a valid way of restoring hedges where the temporary loss of the hedge until it regrows is not an issue. Coppicing will often take place in conjunction with the planting up of any gaps in the hedge and is the best treatment for very overgrown hedges.

Hedging stakes and binders

Stakes are used to support the newly laid stems and allow the hedge to be kept compact.  Stakes are normally hazel or ash, though elm, field maple, blackthorn and hawthorn are also fine.  Sweet chestnut seems like overkill since the stakes are only required for the first few years anyway.


This 15ft goat willow has grown from an odd willow stake in a hedge laid in 1992/93Willow must not be used since it will take root and grow!   Having seen this happen with the goat willow shown on the left, I am convinced that this is how odd willows have commonly been introduced into laid hedges.

Sycamore stakes look promising, but split far too easily when you try to knock them into the ground. 

Binders provide lateral rigidity to the hedge - if you push or pull from either side you should see that the whole thing is interlocked.  They also allow the hedge to be kept a compact as possible.

Binders were traditionally hazel, but I like willow just as much and it is more pliable than hazel, especially the thicker stems.  Ash can also make suitable binders, though may attract stock which find the bark very tasty.  If you have them handy, large straight lengths of dog rose can be mixed in with the binders to provide additional deterrents to both people and animals!

Two stakes and two binders per yard are generally required adding 10% to allow for a few poor ones.


By Products of Hedgelaying
 
In the past, people found a use for just about everything that was extracted from a hedge when it was laid, whether as kindling or logs for firewood.  Today, anything left over tends to be regarded as a nuisance but there are a number of options:
  • Anything that can make a decent log should be cut to length and stacked separately.  Even if the landowner doesn't want it someone else most likely will and it simplifies the rest of the clearing up
  •  
  • On occasion it may be possible to stack brushwood out of sight behind the hedge.  Not only is this the least effort, but it's also the most environmentally friendly option, providing both a short term habitat, dead wood and a gradual release of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere

  • If woodchips are required, then chipping may be appropriate for the brushwood.  Remember that the finished product will still have thorns in it unlike woodchips bought commercially
  •  
  • If neither of these options is suitable for the brush then it can be burnt
Both the pile of chippings and logpile came from the same 160 yard length of very overgrown hedge when it was laid

This pile of woodchips  from hedging brushwood is 15ft wide and 4ft high!!!!
This logpile was extracted from the same hedge as the woodchips on the left

Regional Styles of Hedgelaying

Different styles of hedgelaying have developed in different counties, both to perform different functions and reflecting the local materials available. The tools used for hedgelaying, especially the billhook - the most important hedgelayer’s tool - also vary from county to county. The main hedgelaying styles are described below.

Midland Style

This is the most common style and certainly not restricted to the Midlands. The attractiveness of a newly laid Midland hedge accounts for its widespread popularity today. A Midland hedge is only designed to be stockproof on one side and on the other side, you will usually find a ditch, path or road. The field side is left very thick and bushy whilst the other side is completely cleaned of brush and left very tidy producing a single brush hedge. 

Midland hedge, newly laid, below left and after 1 year, below right
Newly laid Midland hedge at Watergate Farm, Hockliffe, April 2000
Midland hedge one year after laying, Watergate Farm, Hockliffe, April 2000

The laid hedge is offset slightly towards the stock or field side and stakes set just to the field side of the stumps. The Midland hedge is designed to be bullock proof and is therefore as substantial as possible with brush retained above the height of the binding on the stock side only. The height of the hedge to the bindings should be about 4 feet. The overall height will typically be 5 feet or more.
 
Willow binding on a Midland Style ash hedgeThe bindings or heathering on a Midland style hedge are bound together like the strands of a rope. Whilst the field side should appear completely natural, the other side of the hedge should look like a solid wall of wood, with pleachers parallel and all white (cut) wood showing in the same direction.

Traditionally, once a Midland hedge had been laid, any adjoining ditch would be dug out and the spoil from the ditch tipped on the base of the hedge to nourish the hedge.

Derby Style
Derby hedge at 2000 National Championships

This is similar to Midland Style, but uses square section machine cut stakes, perhaps because historically these were easier to get hold of in a mining area than coppiced material. 

A Derby hedge is never bound and the pleachers are not offset as far into the field as on a Midland hedge, giving a slightly narrower hedge.

South of England Style
 
Fine section of South of England hedge, 1996 National Championships

This is predominantly a sheep rather than a bullock hedge but can be called upon to act as either. Unlike Midland and Derby styles it is a double brushed style, the same each side. This style is ideal where a hedge runs between two fields and needs to be stockproof on both sides, especially where there is no ditch. The finished result looks much more natural than a Midland style hedge.
Second year's regrowth just starting on South of England hedge
Unlike the Midland hedge, no brush should stick up above the level of the heatherings which are woven alternately between the stakes as in basket ware rather than twisted together as in Midland style. The height of the hedge to the bindings is normally about 3 feet 6 inches. The stakes run directly down the centre of the hedge.

Since the hedge needs to be sheep-proof, some pleachers are swept down, both to provide a barrier to lambs and to protect regrowth on both sides of the hedge from being nibbled by stock.

To make the hedge more stockproof at the bottom and since it does not reach the height of a Midland style hedge, the pleachers in a South of England style hedge may be laid at a slightly shallower angle than Midland style.

Lancashire Style
 
Lancashire style hedge at 1996 National ChampionshipsThis is a double brushed style, the same on each side. It does not use heatherings but uses a double staggered row of stakes to contain the hedge.  Although very practical, this style is rarely seen outside Lancashire and without binding, does not give as attractive a result as South of England or Midland styles.

Somerset Style
Demonstration Somerset hedge at the 2000 National Championships

A low broad double brushed hedge which uses crops for stakes alternately either side of the hedge.  In addition, pliable dead stems are run diagonally across the top of the hedge to act as binding and keep everything in place.  The end result is extremely strong - I tested it!  This description is based on the example observed above which differs from the textbook definitions of Somerset hedging which do not indicate the use of crops or binding.

Yorkshire Style
Yorkshire hedge at the 2000 National Championships

This description is based on the example observed above.  Yorkshire hedges are unique in their use of cut timber rails which are nailed to sawn softwood stakes.  The hedge is about 3feet high and double brushed, though quite a narrow hedge is produced.  Stakes can be either side of the rail and are not necessarily equidistant.

Brecon Style
Two views of Brecon hedge at the 2000 National Championships

In common with some of the other Welsh styles, Brecon hedges have hedges driven in at an angle so that they are at right angles to the laid stems in the hedge.  This is a double brushed style.  As well as using living stems in the normal way, many stems are coppiced and laid in as deadwood to protect the regrowth from sheep.  Generally found on a low bank.

Montgomery Style
Montgomery hedge at the 2000 National championships

Montgomery style is another double brushed Welsh style using stakes driven in at an angle.  It does not use binding but the top of the hedge is woven around the stakes to achieve an equivalent effect.  Living stakes can be used both in the centre of the hedge and half height at the edge of the hedge where they are cut at an angle to leave the white wood either showing or hidden from view depending on the hedger's preference.  This Welsh style does not use deadwood and will generally be found on a low bank.

Other Styles

There are many other less common styles including a large number of Welsh styles, too many to cover here. Hedgelayers will also adapt to local circumstances and each person’s work is usually recognisably different.

A recent arrival is the motorway style which dispenses with heathering and, with a post and rail fence on the field side behind it, does not need to be stockproof. Often stakes are dispensed with as well, almost all the brush trimmed off, the pleachers cut short and then laid low into the post and rail fence. To leave a tidy and compact finish, stems cut from the hedge are often used in place of stakes and wedged in the ground on the side nearest the road with the other end tucked under the top rail of the fence to secure the laid pleachers.

Beech Hedges

Perhaps the most famous beech hedge in the United Kingdom is in Perthshire in Scotland and was planted in 1746.  It is one third of a mile long, about 100ft tall and is managed as an ornamental screen, a function of beech much favoured by gardeners today, though in more modest proportions! 

Both beech and hornbeam retain their leaves throughout the winter when managed as a hedge, shedding them only in spring, when emerging new shoots finally dislodge them and it is this, along with their lush summer colour that makes them so popular in gardens.  Where regularly trimmed at the sides to encourage regrowth there is no need to lay these hedges.  However, laying may still be the best remedy where the bottom of the hedge has become very sparse.  Generally, beech hedges are little found outside gardens and parks since they are attractive to grazing stock.
 
Mature Exmoor beech hedge on low bank, laid stems still clearly visibleOn Exmoor in Devon, however, beech hedges are a common, though still spectacular, site.  They are generally situated atop substantial earth banks about 5ft tall and sometimes just as wide.

Traditionally, all these hedges were laid and some still are today,  particularly by roadsides.  Laying appears to take place every 40 years or so and must generate huge amounts of firewood!  Stems are laid flat and tied securely using binder twine where appropriate. Where the hedge is not on top of a bank, some trees may be left to grow on as standard trees.

Newly laid Exmoor beech hedge atop 5 ft bank with mature hedge across road for comparison


Grants For Hedgerow Conservation

Various different environmental incentives have been used over the years to encourage farmers to manage their farms in environmentally beneficial ways.  In the past the Hedgerow Incentive Scheme specifically targetted hedgerow management, including planting, protective fencing, coppicing and laying.  The current scheme takes a more broad brush approach and unfortunately does not specifically promote hedgelaying .  There is more information about grants on the home page of this website.

Conclusion

Whatever we may feel about them today, hedgerows came about as a cost effective solution to the genuine need to establish field boundaries and enclosures.

Their upkeep, or lack of it must always be viewed from an economic perspective and, to the extent that we value them, their long term viability should be encouraged. Today, relatively few hedges "work for a living" and neglect rather than the flail is their main enemy.

It is therefore fitting that substantial grants are now available for hedgerows under long term management agreements. In this way perhaps we will be able to take their presence, though never their delights or diversity, for granted.

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