Hedges in our Landscape
I originally wrote this article in the early 2000s when there was nothing of note on the internet about hedgelaying. I updated it in September 2018.
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. I myself have observed a new blackthorn hedge establishing itself in Stewkley over the years where it has suckered from an existing hedge on one side under a grassy track for vehicles to the post and wire fence on the other side of the fence has protected it and it has grown very well.
- As a result of deliberate planting
Today, new hedges are nearly always planted, but in the past many hedges were formed by the other two methods.
Hedges serve to keep stock in a pasture and out of crop fields. They also provide shade and shelter for stock and for arable land 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.
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 effected 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.
Other hedgerow shrubs include field maple, hazel, plum, crab apple, holly, sweet chestnut, elm, beech, hornbeam, ash, whitebeam, guelder rose, alder buckthorn, purging buckthorn, wild privet, wayfaring tree 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 was commonly planted for its salt tolerance and is usually 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 as a method of dating a hedge although this should preferably be supported by documentary evidence.
As a rule of thumb, each different shrub species, (elder is excuded because it spreads so quickly), per thirty metre 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. Nurseries sometimes sell a "Saxon hedge mix" which give the diversity that would be expected from a hedge dating from Saxon times.
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. Even if coppiced elder will invariably be the tallest plant in the hedge by the end of the growing season. It is also very brittle and useless in any hedge intended to provide a stockproof barrier.
Unfortunately one cannot even rely on rabbits to keep elder in check since they don't find it palatable and an elder-only hedge can sometimes be a sign of an active local rabbit population. Elder can be kept in check by regular cutting back, but where it is deemed to be a problem, it may be necessary to treat the cut stumps with an appropriate weedkiller.
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.
Hedgelaying is a traditional method of hedgerow management and has been practised for thousands of years. Caesar records in his Gallic War in 57BC how the the Nervii tribe in Flanders partially cut through the stems of trees and laid them over to impede the progress of cavalry:
".... the Nervii, from early times, because they were weak in cavalry, (for not even at this time do they attend to it, but accomplish by their infantry whatever they can,) in order that they might the more easily obstruct the cavalry of their neighbours if they came upon them for the purpose of plundering, having cut young trees, and bent them, by means of their numerous branches [extending] on to the sides, and the quick-briars and thorns springing up between them, had made these hedges present a fortification like a wall, through which it was not only impossible to enter, but even to penetrate with the eye." (translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, see Chapter 17 at http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.2.2.html)
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 often stakes and binds the hedge with hazel, though this depends on both the area / style of hedge being laid and the materials available
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.
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.
Early regrowth on a newly laid hawthorn hedge. It is the growth from the base that is most important; the laid stems will gradually die back over time, but long before then the hedge will have re-established itself with the regrowth from the stumps.
Early regrowth on a newly laid elm stem. Elm hedges remain quite common despite Dutch Elm Disease.
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.
Willow must not be used since it will take root and grow! Having seen the odd willow stake bursting into life this is one way that willow have get into laid hedges.
Sycamore stakes look promising, but are useless as they split 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 used willow extensively in the past and it was fine as long as you don't use very thin ones which do not grip the stakes as well as hazel. As willow is more pliable than hazel you can use thicker willow binders than you could hazel. 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.
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:
- As I have a wood burning stove and hardly ever have my central heating on I am always happy to take away as much firewood as I can get in the car. If you don't want the wood then it is easiest to keep larger pieces suitable as firewood separate from general brush cut out of the hedge. Even if the client 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.
- I always like to tuck some deadwood in to the base of the hedge since thii provides a valuable habitat otherwise initially lacking in a newly laid hedge.
- If none of these options is suitable for the brush then it can be burnt.
Woodchips from the brush of an overgrown 160 yard hedge
Firewood cut from the same overgrown 160 yard hedge
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. Various 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.
Midland Style hedge I laid in Beaconsfield in December 2010
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 6 inches. The overall height will typically be 5 feet or more.
The 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.
South of England hedge I laid at Elstow, Bedfordshire in 2012
This is both a sheep and a bullock hedge. 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.
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.
A fine, and very substantial, Derby hedge, National Championships 2003
A Derby hedge is a single brushed hedge akin to Midland Style, but always uses square section machine cut stakes, perhaps because historically these were easier to get hold of in a mining area than coppiced material. An absence of coppice material probably also explains the absence of binders on a Derby hedge.
The pleachers are not offset as far into the field as on a Midland hedge, giving a slightly narrower hedge since the laid stems are run in tidily to the stakes which effectively taking the place of binders.
Incidentally, whilst is possible to bind square cut stakes, but they do not take the binders anything like as well as round stakes and the end result is a bit incongruous.
A section of Lancashire Style hedge that caught my eye at the 2008 National Championships
This is a double brushed style, appearing the same on each side. Lancashire hedges have a double staggered row of stakes to contain the hedge and do not use binding. The hedge shown here has been staked with cleaved stakes but this is not a characteristic of a Lancashire hedge. Although very practical, this style is rarely seen outside Lancashire.
Demonstration Somerset hedge, 2000 National Championships.
Note how crook supports the hedge
Demonstration Somerset hedge, 2000 National Championships.
Diagonal binding strengthens and compacts the hedge
A low broad double brushed hedge which uses crops for stakes alternately either side of the hedge. In addition, pliable dead stems are looped diagonally across the top and tucked down into the base of the hedge on either side to keep everything in place. The end result is extremely strong - I tested it! This gives an extremely sturdy and compact hedge. This description is based on the example shown above which differs from the textbook definitions of Somerset hedging I have seen which do not indicate the use of crops or binding.
Yorkshire hedge, 2000 National Championships
Yorkshire hedge, 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 3 feet high and double brushed, though quite a narrow hedge is produced. Stakes can be either side of the rail which makes the hedge stronger and are not necessarily equidistant.
Brecon hedge, 2000 National Championships
Brecon hedge, 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 more-or-less at right angles to the laid stems. A Brecon hedge is a double brushed style and 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 hedge, 2000 National Championships
Montgomery hedge, 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 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 can be recognisably different.
A relatively 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 with the butt end wedged in the ground on the side nearest the road tight into a pleacher with the top end tucked under the top rail of the fence to secure the laid pleachers. An alternative way to secure a hedge tightly into a post and rail fence is to retain suitable laterals and tuck them under the top rail preferably in tight to a post as well (don't nick then, they'll break!) as shown below with field maple on a hedge I Iaid at Buckland Churchyard in April 2016.
Living lateral tucked under top rail secures hedge to adjacent post and rail fence
Living lateral tucked under top rail secures hedge to adjacent post and rail fence
Where there is plenty of hedge, it may be possible to use live stakes either side of the hedge for a Living Stake Style hedge. Conceptually this is similar to Lancashire Style, but you leave living uprights on either side of teh hedge at suitable distances apart, taking into account the height of the hedge you are laying. The result is very strong, can be taller than hedges laid using dead stakes, is quicker to lay and by dispensing with stakes and binders gives a considerable cost saving. I have increasingly used this style in recent years. Here is an example from Bow Brickhill in March 2016:
Three live stakes are visible on this side of the hedge. Those on the far side are not visible. Dead stakes would not be strong enough to secure this weighty hedge.
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 Devon hedge
Newly laid Devon hedge
On Exmoor in Devon beech hedges remain 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 crooks where appropriate. Where the hedge is not on top of a bank, some trees may be left to grow on as standard trees.
Where the bank has eroded, that is also reinstated also using deep turfs laid like bricks so successive rows overlap to present a grassy face to the outside. The banks are built to taper in slightly as would a dry stone wall. I did a week long Devon hedging conservation project many years ago and it was hard but satisfying work.
Initially the hedge laid flat on top of the bank is enough to deter sheep from jumping onto the bank but this may be supplemented by posts and wire close in to the bank as shown.
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. More recent schemes have not just focussed on hedgerows, but on overall management of agricultural land for the benefit of wildlife and the environment for a more joined-up approach.
With Brexit looming this is all now up for grabs once more. Whilst at the time of writing, September 2018, the current Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove has been making some promising declarations about rewarding farmers who are protecting the environment, no-one knows what if anything will ultimately transpire.
One recent development has been the Heritage Lottery initial funding award in July 2018 to the Surrey Wildlife Project to plant, protect and restore more than 80 kilometres of hedgerows in the North Downs which is part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. If all goes well, the initial development funding award of £56,600 will be followed by a full funding award of £390,000 to implement the project. Hopefully this may encourage other County Wildlife Trust to consider this route for funding.
Whilst the Surrey Hills AONB award represents laudatory use of National Lottery funding, there can be no substitute for a coherent national scheme for landowners. Recent experience suggests that such a scheme would be most unlikely to be restricted to individual aspects of land management such as hedgerow maintenance, but will look at the whole thing in the round.
Whatever we may feel about them today, hedgerows came about as the most cost effective solution to the requirement to establish field boundaries and enclosures.
Today, their upkeep, or lack of it must still be viewed from an economic perspective and, to the extent that we value them, their long term viability should be encouraged. Although they continue to provide invaluable shade and shelter for stock, as highlighted by the extrememly hot summer of 2018, these days relatively few hedges provide stockproof barriers without being supplemented by post and wire fences (usually essential by a road).
Whilst the routine management of hedges by trimming is usually done reasonably well, it is their periodic rejuvention achieved by laying that is usually foregone and that threatens their long term future.