Hedges and Hedge-laying

by Veronica Gore

Banner Image © Jane Firth

Traditionally-layed hedges are a haven for wildlife as well as an effective field boundary. From the 1940s hedges were increasingly replaced by wire and post fences but they are making a come-back as their environmental benefits are better understood.

Revitalizing old hedgerows

Hedge-laying is an ancient craft which regenerates the trees and ensures the hedge is kept “working” much longer than its natural life. In and around The Ullswater valley you will see remnants of old hedgerows that have been left to grow and not laid and hence cease to be an effective field boundary.

From the 1940s farmers concentrated on growing more food and crops. They often grubbed out the hedgerows and replaced them with wire and post fences. This made fields larger and allowed for greater mechanisation and an increased space for crops.

But today you will increasingly see a revitalisation of hedge-laying as the benefits for the environment and for biodiversity are increasingly understood. Along road sides and across fields there is a new network of hedges, utilising what is left of the old hedgerows where possible, and planting new hedgerow trees where there are gaps.

Above: An old hedge being revitalised - notice the new trees planted between the old © Veronica Gore
Below: A layed-hedge © Veronica Gore

Hedge-laying - an ancient craft

The traditional hedges were primarily made up of hawthorn, but also contained wild dog roses, beech, blackthorn, crabapple, hazel, ash, oak, wild cherry, with wild honeysuckle growing through them. In winter the trees are dormant and they can be cut and bent. Traditional ‘Cumberland’ hedge-laying style is different to other parts of the country. (See the Wikipedia article below for a description of hedge laying styles from other parts of the country, and the National Trust article for a description of hedge laying in Borrowdale). In Cumbria each trunk is almost severed. This is called ‘pleaching’. The thin trunk is cut enough so that the branch can be laid to lie flat on its neighbour and so that the sap continues to flow to keep the tree alive and to encourage new growth.

'Pleaching' is typical of Cumbrian hedge-laying © Jane Firth

The laid stems are called ‘ligers’. It seems extraordinary that the severed trunk does not die, but in fact it thickens, like a wound that scabs over and carries enough sap to allow the almost severed branches to keep on growing. This growth from the almost severed young trunk is the most important. The laid branches are tied together, and over time get covered by new shoots so are barely seen. Every ten to fifteen years or so the hedge is laid again, by which time the upright shoots from the nearly severed initial trunk have become about ten feet tall and are thick enough to start the process of nearly severing and laying flat all over again. Over years the hedge becomes a thick mass of tangled, almost impenetrable, branches and is a haven for birds, insects and wild flowers.

The layed stems are called 'ligers' © Jane Firth

Hedges - a haven for wildlife

A recent article in The Guardian (see link below) describes how ecologist Rob Wolton found 2000 species in a hedgerow near his house in Devon: 80% were insects - flies, butterflies, bees, and moths; the rest were birds - thrush, dunnock, bullfinch; and other small vertebrates - dormice, toads, lizards, grass snakes, long eared bats, hedgehogs. It’s a bit warmer in Devon than around Ullswater, but nonetheless many of these animals will be found in thick Cumbrian hedgerows and perhaps others too - for example yellow hammers, bullfinches, linnets, barn owls, gold and green finches, blue and great tits. The berries and nuts from the hedge are a source of food. The hedgerows also provide corridors of food and shelter between woodland areas, and at their base a margin where numerous wild flowers and grasses can grow, hence creating not just a haven for wild life but a wild flower garden.

by Veronica Gore

A mature hedge is a haven for wildlife © Jane Firth

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