Kirsty Brown – Conservation Project Assistant
Alasdair (Conservation Graduate Trainee) and I recently took part in a hedge laying workshop at the Moors National Park Centre, Danby, along with a small group of regular National Park Volunteers.
This traditional method of hedgerow management requires a great deal of skill, and Keith Ferry of Woodland Connections was our expert instructor. Hedge laying is a type of hedgerow management, and helps ensure the hedge remains strong, thick and stock-proof, plus it looks very tidy once complete. Left unmanaged, hedges get tall and straggly, with gaps at their base that animals can squeeze through.
Keith gave us a brief history of hedgerow management, and passed around some of the many types of billhook available, each with regional differences (and some of which looked like they were out of Pirates of the Caribbean!). An axe, small foldable saw, pen knife and loppers are also useful tools of the trade. Most importantly, all tools need to be sharp!
Firstly, we surveyed the hedge, identifying the species present, the rough age and condition of the hedge, and whether there were any species such as oak, which may have the potential to be left standing to grow on as hedgerow trees. Hedges need to be laid in their dormant phase, usually October to March in the North York Moors area, and this particular hedge was just on the cusp, as it has been a very late autumn.
The decision on which direction to lay the hedge depends on a number of factors, including what the land owner wants, whether there is a bank/ditch/difficult access on one side, and the prevailing wind (resulting in the hedge leaning in a particular direction). Next, Keith demonstrated how to clear away small twigs and make the first cut. The techniques and styles for hedge-laying differ around the country, and in this case we were slicing through the base of each plant as low down as we could, gradually chipping off more with the billhook and gently easing the stem downward to bend it towards the ground, leaving a section of the bark and the inner rings of the stem intact to allow the hedge to survive (although one or two were accidentally chopped right through – luckily it was a thick hedge so there was plenty to fill in any gaps we made!). The laid stem is called a ‘pleacher’, and is laid with a slightly upward slant to allow the sap to still rise. Right-handed people work with the billhook in the right hand and push the stems to the left, and left-handed people work on the other side of the hedge and do the opposite – we were lucky as we had both in our group!
It is incredible to imagine that, come spring time, this hedge will spring into life (hopefully!) just from the thin connection of bark and inner sapwood we left, allowing the sap to rise enough to keep the hedge alive.
The Traditional Boundary Scheme is a grant scheme available for the restoration of hedges and dry stone walls in the North York Moors National Park, and includes grants towards hedge laying and coppicing, in addition to hedge planting. The next deadline for applications is any moment now – 22 November 2013. Otherwise look out for next year’s application information, from April 2014.