This winter, the volunteers at Lark Rise farm had the challenge of completing laying a section of hedgerow in Holly Field, one of our fabulous wildflower meadows. Part of the hedge was included in the 2018 Hedgelaying Championships, and I thought it would be good to continue with the same style of hedgelaying to create a nice dense barrier between the meadow and the arable field.

In recent years, we have grazed the meadow with sheep, and, despite the electric fence, they have regularly escaped the field they are supposed to be in, and raided the wheat and barley growing next door. It seems that once they have a thick fleece, they are prepared to put up with a mild shock in order to get at more enticing grazing!

The hedgerow was planted about 20 years ago, and has been allowed to get really tall and bushy, but that means there are gaps at the base which are big enough to let the sheep through. Hedge laying is a traditional way of making field stock-proof, and it also creates a dense, tight hedge which is good for nesting birds as well.

In the autumn, we had a couple of sessions with the Rustics, laying quite a large amount of the hedge and also preparing the rest of it – the big wide hedge has to be trimmed extensively to remove side branches (siding up). The plan was to finish laying this prepared hedge with two corporate work parties and a couple of visits by the Duke of Edinburgh Award volunteers in March, but COVID-19 put a pause to that plan! Some of the Rustics helped on the last group session of the year in early March, but over 10m were left to do, as well as all the final trimming and tidying. Having prepared the hedge by siding up, it was even worse than if we had left it alone. Hedge cutting rules are that mechanical cutting has to be completed by the end of February, and manual cutting by the end of March, to avoid nesting birds. Long-tailed tits had already started nest-building in the big rose patch at one end of the hedge, so I avoided working in that area and left it as it is – it is already fulfilling both the aims that we want our hedge to achieve – no sheep can get through, and it is good for nesting birds.                                                                                                 

The competition hedge in this field was laid in the Lancashire and Westmorland style, and we decided to continue with this style to achieve a nice look. This is a low wide hedge, with the main stems laid almost parallel with the ground, and held in place with a staggered row of stakes on both sides. This hedge is designed to take a heavy weight of snow, unlikely to be a problem here, although there were a few flakes of snow blowing round in the strong northerly wind as I set off to complete the job on Sunday morning, supposedly the first day of British Summer Time! It was a day for lots of layers – despite working hard wielding heavy axe, billhook and hand sawing the stumps, I needed two jumpers and two coats, and a thermal base layer – only taking off the outer coat when axing the particularly large hawthorns for prolonged spells! The competitive professional hedgelayers use chainsaws, but I enjoy the peace and quiet of working with traditional edge tools, although in the cold wind not a lot of birdsong was heard – the Skylarks had an occasional half-hearted go, and one or two Dunnocks kept up their twittering song. A small flock of Fieldfares and Starlings passed by briefly perhaps thinking they will stay a bit longer before making their spring migration north!

It was very satisfying at the end of the day, to walk along the full length of hedge laid this winter, thinking about the various groups of people who have helped work on it over the months, particularly our good friends in the Rustics volunteer group and the kids learning how to use hand tools for this sort of work as part of their DofE efforts. I hope they can all come back soon to admire the final results. In total we achieved nearly 70m of laid hedge, which would have cost at least £10 per metre if we had hired a hedge laying contractor to do the work. Thank you to all our volunteers!

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring 

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