The next time you go out into your garden to give that hedge a trim just consider traditional hedge layers. In all kinds of weathers, rain snow or blow and in this case 2nd December it was cold wet, overcast and blowing, they are out there taming our hedgerows.
What a grand sight it is to see the finished product framing our fields. It might at first sight seem drastic to reduce a hedgerow from a ten foot wilderness to what seems like a three or four foot hurdle but over the years generations of craftsmen have honed this skill to suit the wildlife, crops and livestock.
You will notice that most of the branches have not been cut all the way through but only partially cut, this prevents the shrub from dying and allows sap still to rise and feed the plant. In the spring these laid branches called ‘pleachers’ will sprout lush new growth that will reach skywards and form a healthy new hedge where birds, insects will thrive. What was once an untidy hedge with gaps in it all over the place is now absolutely sheep proof and thick enough to keep livestock from roaming. The crop that was shaded all along one side of the field and that did not grow well because it was in the shade will now thrive in the sunshine. It’s not just trimming a hedge is it, it is much more than that and from skills that can be traced back over centuries, possibly even from Roman times.
Part of the skill is knowing just how much to cut into the upright stem before layering it. The cut must be in line with the hedge and only sufficient to be able to bend the pleacher down into the new hedge towards the horizontal so the sap can still rise. Laying the pleacher horizontally or even lower will almost certainly result in that branch drying out and dying off. The smaller shoots called brush will either be trimmed off or woven into the hedge.
The traditional tools used are the billhook and the axe but today the job is made a little easier by the use of a chainsaw for the thicker stems especially the elder. The billhook is curved so that it can drag out all the old dead leaves and rubbish that accumulates in the hedge bottom and allow some light and air in and it also makes for a nice tidy hedge.
When the work has been completed there is of course quite a lot of old brush and debris to dispose of. It is usually burned off but some farmers will allow the brush to be piled up in designated areas so that the local wildlife can benefit from it. Hedgehogs can hibernate in there, all kinds of bugs and beetles will thrive in there and can also be beneficial to crops as a natural pest control in much the same way as farmers create beetle banks today. Almost certainly a hen pheasant will choose such a site to nest in.
If the hedge is laid once every fifteen to twenty years it will potentially last indefinitely. This is a winter job of course, during the summer months birds will be nesting there somewhere.
BIRDS OF THE HEDGEROW
I was trying to decide which of our birds is most commonly seen in these hedgerows? Is it the yellow hammer typically singing “a little bit of bread and no cheeeese” on the top most branches of the hawthorn while its mate sits on the nest below?
Or is it the common whitethroat warbler, a summer migrant that seems to be in every hedgerow and certainly gives itself away with its loud chattering song, quite often delivered as it briefly flings itself in the air.
Then there is the brightly coloured chaffinch of course and the greenfinch. All these birds absolutely love our hedgerows and are commonly seen there. I think I would have to divide the choice between summer and winter. During the winter it must surely be the yellowhammer and in the summer the common whitethroat.
So as we hunker down for winter I just wonder where this whitethroat warbler that I photographed during the summer is right now, this very minute? In the autumn they cross the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and then the mighty Sahara Desert and head for the more lush areas of Africa, no mean feat for such a tiny bird eh?
So right now it might be in Namibia or Botswana under the blue skies and warm African sunshine staring out from some shrub at a herd of elephants feeding only yards away. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, I wish I were there too!
Ho Hum, spring is not so far away eh.