The art of hedgelaying has been practised for hundreds of years. Traditionally used to create sturdy barriers to secure livestock and to give them shelter from the wind, they also provide invaluable habitat, and more importantly, connectivity for many species. A combination of hedge row removal to expand farming area and the advent of cheap wire fencing has led to a reduction of almost 50% of our hedgerows in some parts of the country.
As described in our previous article, a hedge is laid by the skilled technique of partially cutting and laying scrub and young trees so that they are still attached to their root stock via an intact strip of bark, cambium and sapwood, keeping them alive. This practise manages the height and width of the hedgerow, while making it denser and yet still living and growing. The addition of vertical stakes and binding at the top helps create a sturdy barrier for livestock. Over the centuries different regional techniques have been developed, each specialised for certain livestock and terrain. More information can be found here.
The creation of hedgerows is thought to have started in the Roman era and peaked in the 18th century due to the Enclosures Act. Hedgerows started to disappear on a massive scale during the Napoleonic wars, when the nation was threatened by starvation and needed to create larger fields. Also after the Second World War, farmers were offered financial incentives to remove hedgerows and to farm greater areas as well as making space for new farming machinery.
While these financial incentives were halted long ago their impacts can still be felt to this day. In some parts of the country 50% of hedgerows have disappeared and many existing hedgerows are in a poor state due to a lack of management. If not periodically coppiced and laid, a hedge becomes a line of trees. This significantly reduces the quality of ground level habitat. Many species rely on the dense, low-lying habitat created by hedgelaying. A line of large trees often shades out the area beneath restricting the growth of the scrub beneath them creating gaps in the hedgerows.
In recent times, instead of creating new hedgerows, farmers often erect cheap wire fences that are easy to install. However, traditional hedgelaying can provide multiple benefits to farmers. Hedgerows provide vital cover for livestock, shielding them from the elements. They provide overwintering habitat for a host of predatory invertebrates and birds that prey upon crop pests, as well harbouring a variety of pollinating insects vital for crop pollination.
Thanks to a number of grant schemes encouraging farmers to restore and create hedgerows, their extent is slowing growing once more. However, we have a long way to go if we are to restore this vital habitat network to its former glory.
For those interested in learning how to lay a hedge, Sutton Council is running a hedgelaying workshop on Saturday 8th February.
To book a place on an event, please visit http://188.8.131.52/suttonecology/. You will need to create an account and book each person on. For further information, please email: email@example.com or call 020 8770 5822.
By Matt Pendry BSc
Biodiversity Project Officer