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The joy of hedgelaying

The joy of hedgelaying Pete Birkinshaw/Flickr

We often take them for granted, but the hedgerows criss-crossing our landscape are vital stitching in the patchwork quilt of the English countryside. They provide a home for wildlife, lend beauty and character to the landscape and tell us about the history of a place and its people: some of the hedgerows lining our fields and country lanes are more than 800 years old. But what’s even more astounding is that these hedges are man-made. Without skilled care and management, our hedgerows would no longer exist.

We spoke to Claire Maymon of the National Hedgelaying Society about what’s involved in caring for hedgerows, and how people can get involved to learn a rewarding new skill and keep hedgerows thriving.


What is hedgelaying?

Hedgelaying is the old craft of “laying” a hedge down so that new growth can be encouraged. The stem of the hedge is cut 90% through and laid at an angle towards the ground. Where the stem has been cut new growth will start, and in time this vigorous new growth fills in gaps and re-generates on old, thin hedge. The style of laying depends on the district and there are many different styles.


How does it help hedgerows?

The act of laying a hedge invigorates new growth. When laid carefully by hand an old hedge can appear to be young and fresh, old gaps and poor areas very quickly fill in and a stockproof boundary is formed. Machines and flails can never achieve the results of a hand laid hedge and can often damage the hedgerow.


How did you get into hedgelaying?

From a distance I had always admired the beauty of a laid hedge, and had always worked on the ground or in nurseries so enjoyed outside activities. Sadly, it was someone that passed away that made me realize that if I didn’t learn soon, I might never! I was very fortunate to meet Mr John Savings, a legendary Oxfordshire based hedgelayer, who fired me with enthusiasm and was my tutor on several courses that he ran.


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What do you enjoy about it?

It’s hard to put into words the complete satisfaction and reward you feel when an old, muddled up mess of a boundary has been transformed into an eye catching and very beautiful piece of living hedge. The physical act and demands on a body are not realized until you stop: I don’t know of any hedgelayers that attend a gym!


What skills do you need to become a good hedgelayer?

Good hedgelayers evolve with experience. Anyone can try to lay a hedge down but the skills learnt are ones of forward vision and a feel for the hedge you are working on. Very quickly you become aware of how wet or dry your hedge is, how easily or not your pleaches [the stems which will be bent over] will cut and how lucky or unlucky you are to find straight up and down lengths that will easily “go down”. Working out where and how to cut your pleach is a skill that only experience will give you.


Why are hedgerows important for nature?

Laid hedges create wildlife corridors and safe havens for nesting birds and small animals, because the density of the laid hedge and the re-growth of the new shoots forms a safe environment. The hedge becomes a natural barrier to animals and won’t cause the damage to stock that barbed wire can.


What’s the state of hedgerows across the country today?

Sadly, the length and condition of hedgerows continues to decline. In the 2007 Countryside Survey only 48% of hedgerows were in a good structural condition, and in arable areas this figure dropped to only 10%. The length of ‘managed’ hedgerows decreased by 6.2% in Great Britain between 1998 and 2007 with a large proportion of these ‘managed’ hedges turning into lines of trees and 'relict' hedges, due to lack of management.


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Do you have any advice for someone who wants to learn how to look after hedges?

For anyone wishing to learn to lay hedges I would suggest they look locally for a course. In Gloucestershire we are very lucky to have the Cotswolds AONB that run regular hedgelaying courses. Alternatively by looking on the National Hedgelaying Society’s website courses are available and are listed. The other thing to be aware of is that although it seems very simple and a result can be achieved quickly, practice and experience are the best teachers.


What’s your favourite part of the English countryside?

My family are Worcester based going back many generations so I would have to say that Worcestershire countryside takes some beating however, I love to go down the M52 through Herefordshire and into Monmouthshire, the space is bigger and more open down there. The Yorkshire Dales, too, are special - although quite lacking in laid hedges, as I noticed when I walked the Dalesway 2 years ago!


For more information about hedgelaying, including events and courses in your area, visit the National Hedgelaying Society’s website.

Laid hedges create wildlife corridors and safe havens for nesting birds and small animals

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