The trees bordering these fields in upland North Wales were once well managed dense
hedges, but with the advent of affordable wire fences, they’ve been left to fall into neglect.
Huge numbers of farm hedges in lowland areas have been systematically removed in order to
make small fields into larger ones, so we have far fewer hedges in Britain than we once did.
Viewed from above, Britain’s agricultural landscape is a rolling patchwork quilt of fields and meadows, most of which were first cleared and farmed hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years ago. Many of these ancient fields are bordered with hedges, or, in some cases, the remains of hedges.
Very often, these hedges too will be ancient in origin, with the trees that reside in them having been preserved into an unusually old age by many years of careful management. Trees that are managed as part of a hedge can live for a very long time. Some of these ancient hedges might even appear on old maps, and can be just as historic as the old routes that they flank.
There is a method for dating the age of a hedge known as Hooper’s Rule. Hooper’s Rule is based on data obtained from old hedges suggesting that the age of a hedge can be determined by the number of species found within that hedge. The age is found by counting the woody plants in a hedgerow over a 30-yard distance and multiplying that number by 110.
Using this method, an old hedge bordering a lane near my house is dated at 800 years. This might sound ridiculously old, but this hedge borders a lane that leads to a church known to have been in use for around 1,000 years, so it is quite possible that the hedge is as old as Hooper’s Rule suggests.
The hedge as a historic landmark
Many of our British hedges are, in fact, hundreds of years old. Many were planted during the periods of the Land Enclosure Acts, the bulk of which took place during the 18th and 19th centuries. Hedge planting was so popular then that nurseries selling part-grown trees for hedging sprang up as rural businesses.
But these 200- or 300-year-old hedges are the relative newcomers on the scene, because we have been growing and tending hedges since the very dawn of farming. Many of the field boundary hedges all around us, and that we take so much for granted, are actually historic living landmarks.
The antiquity of these hedges suggests that they should be preserved, because, although farm hedges have been continuously planted over thousands of years, they have also been hacked down at regular intervals. The 17th century, for instance, was a time of freezing temperatures and grinding poverty here in Britain, and hedges were frequently cut for firewood.
Later, another threat came in the form of the industrial age, when the size of our fields increased from tiny enclosures of perhaps less than an acre to vast stretches as far as the eye could see, and more and more hedges were removed to make way for modern farming methods.
Different regions of Britain have slightly different methods of hedge laying. Some methods use
stakes hammered into the hedge to support the bent-over uprights. Others feature a woven
willow section along the top, which serves to keep any springy and defiant uprights pinned
More than just a pretty face
Those concerned with protecting the environment and our wildlife believe we should protect our existing farm hedges. They also believe we should repair and maintain the many miles of neglected and derelict hedges that we have in this country.
Hedges help shelter crops and livestock from the wind, and it is scientifically proven that a hedge is a more effective windbreak than a wall. That is because some of the wind filters through a hedge, causing it to slow down, whereas when wind hits a solid object, like a wall, it can deflect and cause wind turbulence.
Hedges don’t just provide shelter for crops and livestock right beside the hedge; the protection from the elements works right out into the field. It is estimated that a hedge of a meter in height will slow the wind speed for several meters out into the field. Wind speed can be slowed by 35 to 70 percent. High hedges planted around a small field really can produce a microclimate that will help crops and livestock thrive in otherwise hostile conditions.
Incubator for native plants and wildlife
Native hedges also have immense wildlife value for plants, birds, insects and animals. They produce not only a habitat but also a wide range of food, especially in the form of berries (for both humans and birds), and they also support a range of plants that require small trees to grow on or near.
A newly laid hedge in its bare bones.
Hedges are the perfect habitat for plants like the dog rose and the honeysuckle, as these wild climbers and ramblers are supported by the hedge, but are not overshadowed by it. Wildflowers like the bluebell, violet and wild primrose thrive in the dappled shade and shelter offered by a hedge.
A hedge that isn’t trimmed or mowed too vigorously is a riot of colour in spring, and it is said that more species of plants can be found in a section of native hedge than in many hundreds of acres of farmland, which is why hedges are so important.
The same hedge from the previous photo, the following summer. By the following spring, the
hedge will be a mass of flowers and berries. From then on, its height can be kept in check by
Essential link in local ecology
Many of the plants and animals that occupy our forests also occupy our hedges. Hedges are mini woodlands, and they also act as wildlife corridors for animals travelling from one patch of woodland to another. In this way, hedges can act as motorways for wildlife, busy networks connecting the remnants of our forests.
Some trees and bushes have their lives prolonged by careful and regular trimming, and in this way something of a forest in miniature is created. By harnessing the tree’s natural tendencies, it can be maintained at the desired height for hundreds of years. The lifespan of a hedge means that these bonsai woodlands are now a part of our history, heritage and landscape.
Once a laid hedge has established itself, it can be trimmed with a machine. An old finger-bar
hedge cutter like this one will do far less damage to the structure of the hedge than the modern
flail hedge cutters, which can be rather too brutal.
As well as looking pretty in our landscape, hedges can, in certain situations, help protect the land from soil erosion and flooding. They can also act as a filter for field runoff. Of course, like woodlands, hedges will help to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, so planting and maintaining hedges is a very good thing for all concerned.
… and a very niche sport
One man who doesn’t need any convincing about the importance of hedges in our rural landscape is professional hedge layer Gary Moore. “Hedge laying” might sound like something that country folk do on their way home from the pub when they need a lie down, but it’s not. In fact, hedge laying is the correct term for the way in which a hedge is managed in order to prolong its life and effectiveness as a boundary.
When professional hedge layer Gary Moore isn’t
competing in hedging competitions, he is usually
found at work laying more hedges.
People have been laying hedges ever since they first tried using hedges as means of stock control, but only in more recent times has hedge laying also become a competitive sport. Hedge laying in very basic terms involves selecting long healthy uprights from an overgrown or ripe hedge, and then, by cutting partway through the base of the plant, it can be bent down and woven into the length of the hedge. Placed almost horizontally along the hedge, but reaching uphill just slightly, these lengths will soon shoot with buds and growth that will fill in gaps in the base of the hedge, and re-establish it as an effective boundary.
It’s possible for anyone to have a go at laying a hedge (always laying uphill, for the sap to flow), but to lay a hedge tidily and in a manner that makes the best possible use of the materials growing within the hedge really is something of an art form. Before the advent of wire fencing, laying a good hedge was one of the few ways available to the farmer trying to control livestock and protect crops.
Regional styles endure
As skills were passed down through generations, styles of hedge laying varied from region to region. Since most workers never travelled far from their birthplace, distinct regional styles of hedge laying sprung up.
A person might not get rich from laying hedges, but hedge layers enjoy a simple, healthy
outdoor life, happy in the knowledge that they are helping preserve our beautiful landscape.
Today, efforts are made to keep these age-old regional variations alive, and hedging societies and the training courses and competitions that they arrange help pass these skills to the next generations. Gary Moore lays hedges for a living, and also competes at the many hedging events held throughout Britain every year. Based in Sussex, England, Gary learned to lay hedges in the “South of England” style, and it was in this style that he began competing.
“Until seven years ago, I really specialized in the ‘South of England’ style,” he explains, “but more recently I’ve tried learning some other regional styles too, like the Devon style, the Derby style and the Midland style.”
A little-known 'sport'
As someone who grew up in farming and forestry, Gary had tidied up plenty of overgrown hedges, but he’d never particularly thought of it as a sport until his brother told him that, without consulting Gary, he had entered them both into a hedge-laying competition. “I thought, ‘Oh well I’ll give it a go,’” he says, “and so, without any training, I had a try, and I got quite hooked on it.”
The start of a hedge-laying competition. Each competitor is given a strip of overgrown hedge
to start with.
Absorbing one’s mind and body in a creative or productive task is undeniably good for the soul. “It’s so satisfying, cutting back and creating something that’s still living, but shaped,” Gary says. “It’s like creating order out of chaos!” As well as laying hedges for a living and competing in the sport, Gary also teaches courses run by the South Downs National Park.
Gary chuckles at my use of the word “sport” when referring to competitive hedge laying. That is because, compared to other sports, hedge laying is very low profile. Hedge-laying competitions are often little known, quiet events, held in fields in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter. Most British people probably don’t even know what a hedge-laying competition is, so, yes, perhaps describing it as a sport is misleading.
Further along in the competition, the hedge layers have made huge progress and the thick
base of the hedge has now been established. See how the uprights have been partially cut at
the base, bent down and woven into the hedge’s length.
A simple but important hobby
For Gary, hedge-laying competitions offer the opportunity to get together with like-minded people, in what is both a social event and a celebration of skills rather than a cut-throat competition. That said, Gary has won plenty of awards for his hedging skills, including national champion hedge layer three times over.
The hedge layer’s tools are simple: a billhook and a pair of sturdy leather gloves.
His favourite win was at a competition put on by His Royal Highness Prince Charles, when he had the opportunity to lay a hedge on the prince’s land. Prince Charles is the patron of the National Hedge Laying Society, and has enjoyed laying some of his own hedges.
No matter how near the top of your game you are in the world of competitive hedge laying, you are still just the guy who chops hedges, as hedge laying wins bring no great financial reward. Gary lays hedges for a living through the season, which is during the winter months while the plants are dormant. In summertime, he does a mixture of farm work, fencing and tree felling.
Wielding an axe and a billhook, Gary is clearly no tree-hugging eco-warrior, but he is well aware of the benefits hedges have on our landscape, and why they are so important. “In the 1970s, we ripped out so many hedges in this country,” he says. “When you look at a tall, thick hedge, and see all of the birds that use the hedge, you realise how important that habitat is.” FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com.