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.
Hedges have come about in three different ways:
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.