We spent a merry day yesterday with the Beechcroft team at Swanwick Lakes doing a spot of hedge laying. This is an old technique used before fences were available. It’s a very satisfying job and has some huge benefits for wildlife.
There are many styles of hedge laying that have developed regionally around the UK. These are generally tailored to the type of livestock that are prolific in that area. For instance the midlands style is designed to be strong, with a double layer hedge and a topper to prevent cattle escaping. The style that I learnt, Lancashire, was designed to keep in sheep whilst utilizing the thorny, often stunted and gnarled hedges of the moors and hills.
It is a style that I really like as it is simple, you remove less brash and it results in an extremely thick hedge within one year, so the benefits are almost immediate. Those benefits are that of safety for nesting birds. With an unmanaged hedge, it is generally quite spindly and nests can be predated very easily by species like magpies. In a hedge that has been layed, it is so thick it helps to protect them as larger predatory species find it difficult to reach nests deep within. It also acts like coppicing and helps prolong the life and vitality of the hedge. It looks awesome as well.
The process of laying it is quite simple. You cut through the stem of the tree, normally using trees/shrubs with and inch or two diameter, applying gentle pressure you snap the tree so it splits down the middle of the stem. This retains some of the cambium layer on the bottom that sustains the tree and is a process called pleaching.
The traditional tool is a bill hook which is used to cut through the stem and lever it over, creating the hinge and the split. It is important to remove the remaining stump so as water does not collect in the cut bit and rot.
Once laid you have to then put in stakes. I put these in every metre on opposite sides of the hedge. This uses less stakes, which you have to save from coppicing work done last year or earlier this winter. Other styles use more stakes in a straight line and this is then strengthened with binders that weave along the top. This looks really nice but is a bit more labour and resource intensive.
All in all hedge laying is a traditional skill that would be a great shame if we lost in the countryside. Some hedge rows have existed for hundreds of years and been repeatedly laid. This steadily increases the diversity of the species in and under the hedge rows. It also helps link areas of woodland, providing safe highways for small animals to travel without getting predated. It’s also quite a satisfying job with a great deal of problem solving and artistry needed to achieve a good job.