Sunday, 9 February 2014


It is not always easy feeling optimistic in February, the farm animals are hungry, the birds and other wildlife too, are short of food and shelter, and the gales have left the land looking battered and worn out. Spring still feels some way off, but it is a time when the bare bones of the fields, hedgerows and woodlands reveal most and it is a great time for seeing what there is, stripped of all that verdant summer overgrowth.
Daisy the cow tree climbing on an old tumbled down hedge
 It's the time we tackle the last of the hedging and fencing work before the birds start nesting. Most of the hedges around here are traditional Cornish* -  earth filled, granite faced and topped with blackthorn, oak and hazel. They are a bit tumbled down in places, generations of cattle sensing that it's always greener on the other side has taken its toll. Countless rabbits too, have burrowed into the heart of the hedges so they sag and slump.

Hedge before laying
We are slowly trying to put them back up if they are not too far gone and wherever we can we lay the trees and shrubs that grow along the top. Hedge laying or steeping is  a practice that has gone on for hundreds of years  although it was never that common in these parts. This hedge in particular doesn't look like much but there could well have been a hedge of some sort here for a 1000 years or more. I like this about hedges, they are  easily passed by but like old bones they are remnants of a very long ago past.
S. on the last stretch 
I learned to lay hedges with the help of the Devon Rural Skills Trust and used the skills for  several years in combination with post and wire fencing work. Back then it was rare to see a hedge laid in Cornwall and if you did it was usually lashed down with orange baler twine. Most of my jobs came from Devon and even then it was not always easy convincing customers that a laid hedge was the way to go. Nearly 20 yrs on the situation hasn't improved much, and although awareness about the value of hedges has grown, few people can make a living from this old craft. My hedge laying skills are a bit rusty so Steve, a local hedgelayer, took the job on.

Laid and crooked to hold it in place
One of the reasons for laying this particular length is to lower the hedge line so the butterflies can cross more easily. You would think they would be able to fly over the hedge even with trees on it but the Pearl Bordered Fritillary is not so bold; wary of heights,  they are easily discouraged when they come up against a tall hedgerow.

The hedge will reshoot in the spring

Unfortunately the mechanical flailing of hedges has almost completely extinguished the beautiful craft of the hedge layer. It has also had the same effect on  the wildlife and wildflowers that depend on them. Some say that flailing is good for  hedges on the general principal that a cut hedge is better than an overgrown one, but  there is now plenty of evidence to show that the repeated flailing of hedges is killing off the hedgerow trees and shrubs  and the diversity of wildlife that live in them has suffered as a result. 
Flailing hedges in Devon
It's unlikely that the hedge laying craft will return in a big way any time soon, as it is not seen as cost effective, but when whole species disappear from an area as a result of flailed hedges how much richer are we?

As soon as economics is the dominant factor in countryside management it rarely bodes well for the creatures that live there. Perhaps the more awareness grows of these almost extinct heritage crafts like hedge laying and the benefits they can bring, the tide may slowly turn. After all, the riches of the countryside should continue to be a reference to the variety of life that lives in the country and not to the money that is to be made there.

* The Cornish Hedges website is a great source of information and includes a detailed history of a single mile of Cornish hedgerow from the 60's to 2008 by Sarah Carter. Her 90 page study soon dispels any preconceptions that  flailing is not so bad after all.

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