Hedges and hedgelaying overview
South of England style, August 2018. My own garden hedge in Wingrave, Bucks. It has just had its second light trim having been laid in April 2018
Whilst it may be tempting to regard hedgerows as a natural feature of our countryside they are in reality a traditional form of field boundary and enclosure that only exist as a result of deliberate planting and subsequent maintenance.
Hedges serve to keep stock in a pasture and out of crop fields. They also provide shade for stock, protection from the wind for crops and stock, guard against soil erosion and provide both a valuable wildlife habitat and corridor, not just in the hedge itself but also any associated ditch and bank.
Hawthorn is the most common hedgerow shrub, prized for its hardiness and its dense thorns. Blackthorn is the second most common hedgerow shrub. In spring blackthorn puts out its white blossom before its leaves whilst hawthorn is the other way round. Other typical hedgerow plants are hazel, elm, ash and field maple.
The oldest hedges are normally the most varied and these are typically found alongside old green lanes and parish boundaries.
Vigorous, healthy hedges require only regular trimming to keep them to the required height and width. Today this is universally achieved using tractor mounted hedgecutting equipment. With care this can achieve most satisfactory results as regrowth in subsequent years will prove.
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 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.
Hedge laying is a traditional method of hedge management and has been practised for hundreds of years. It 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 staked vertically and bound horizontally for strength to produce a strong hedge. The hedge layer uses a fearsome array of axes and billhooks and normally stakes and binds the hedge with hazel.
Stumps are left as clean and tidy as possible since this is where regrowth is most desired and eventually a new hedge will grow from the already established root system. In the meantime, the laid pleachers act as a living barrier as well as protecting the regrowth from browsing stock. Where the cycle of laying and trimming is repeated hedges can thrive for hundreds of years. The cost of maintaining hedges is broadly equivalent to that of fencing which has to be completely replaced periodically.