The fight to save the British hedgerow

The middle of the last century saw countless miles of hedgerows destroyed. Graham Downing has been doing his bit to reverse the damage

Last spring they were covered with drifts of snowy blossom. Now they drip scarlet and crimson with hips and haws for the birds to feast upon, their russet leaves tangled with blackberries and the downy seed heads of old man’s beard.

Hedges are a defining feature of the British countryside, their presence a testament to the way generations of farmers have managed the landscape by creating enclosures in which to raise livestock and grow crops, resulting in the patchwork rural scene that is unique to this country.

Forty years ago the very future of hedgerows across much of lowland England was in doubt. As a boy in the Norfolk countryside of the 1960s and 70s, I watched the bulldozers levelling miles of hedges, pushing the twisted stumps up into great heaps for burning and turning the meadows I had known into huge arable fields. The sight of it hurt me.

When, 30 years later, I was lucky enough to be presented with the opportunity to manage my own farm, I had no hesitation in turning back the clock. From a 1927 map I plotted the alignment of all the hedgerows which had been removed from my farm during those years of destruction, and replanted them. We put in 1km of hedges and re-created the pattern of small fields.

Planting took us two winters. Thousands of hawthorn, field maple, dogwood, hazel and crab apple whips were dug in, nurtured and fenced to protect them from rabbits and hares, and now we have a new generation of hedges already eight feet high, growing dense and thick, and with sapling hedgerow trees spaced along them. They offer new nesting cover for birds and a banquet of berries that lasts long into the winter.

My hedge restoration programme was not to the liking of the farming contractor who was doing our arable work. I think he was quite shocked at the enthusiasm with which I divided up the large fields, and we parted company. We now have a contractor who is quite comfortable turning his machinery in small fields. This year, incidentally, he has produced one of the best harvests we have had for years.

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It is not just the planting of hedges which has seen a renaissance now that the conservation of wildlife and the creation of a beautiful landscape have gained acceptance as a rationale behind farmland management.We are also seeing a welcome return to traditional methods of hedgerow management, such as cutting and laying by hand and now, when the leaves have started to fall, it is the time of year to get out the axe and billhook.

A hedge is a living organism. It is essentially a line of trees whose fate, if left alone, is as that of we humans: to grow through infancy into adulthood and onwards to decrepitude. Unlike the human body, a hedge can be rejuvenated by cutting. Take a gnarled and ancient hawthorn stem, slice it two thirds of the way through at its base, bend it over through 90 degrees and within a year you will see shoots appearing from the stump.

The old wood will slowly die back, replaced with vigorous new stems.Some are now several hundred years old and the line they create in the landscape will be exactly that followed by the 18th century yeoman farmer or the medieval ploughman before him.

The craft of hedge laying is one which was so nearly lost. After the last war it was maintained by the foxhunts and at local hedge cutting competitions.

Today, the National Hedge Laying Championships are staged, this year on the Brocklesby estate in Lincolnshire.

To watch them is a treat. First the dead wood and bramble is removed and the hedge bottom raked out. Then the main stems are ‘pleached’ or cut partly through and pulled over, the bushy tops of the hedge being thinned and the cuttings piled up to protect the new growth from browsing by livestock. Finally, a row of stakes is set into the hedge and the top bound together with long hazel binders.

Then nature takes over, the vigorous green shoots heading skywards every following spring until new thick growth obscures the craftsman’s handiwork. At this stage, the hedge may again be managed with by a tractor-mounted mechanical hedge-cutter, but over the years there will come a stage when the stems grow old, and weakened. Then the hedge must once more be coppiced or laid, where upon its long life-cycle will begin once more and its place in the landscape will be assured.

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