Hedges are back – and you can learn to lay one

A newly-laid hedge at Carsington.

Catherine Roth talks to a man who has been laying ‘traditional’ hedges for many years – and now teaches others to do it.

TRADITIONALLY-LAID hedges draw on age-old techniques to ensure the provision of effective barriers for livestock – and they can last for hundreds of years. 

It is a craft well known to Iain Thistlethwaite, who works as a Trails Ranger for the Peak District National Park and has been laying hedges for the various conservation organisations he’s worked for over the past 25 years. 

He also enjoys passing on his skills to others by teaching countryside courses – including hedge laying, woodland management, tree felling, bird and tree identification and woodland ecology – at the Eco Centre at Middleton-by-Wirksworth.

Hedges not only mark boundaries and provide barriers but are wildlife corridors for a wide variety of species including small mammals, birds, insects and plants.

A well-laid hedge provides a stock-proof barrier which will last far longer than other alternatives. For example, fence posts may need replacing after 10 years whilst hurdles can last just five to six years. 

Once a hedge has been established it will last for hundreds of years if properly maintained. This is far longer than if it was left to grow into individual trees. Species such as hazel, blackthorn and hawthorn will likely only last for just over a hundred years if grown as stand-alone trees. 

Iain says: “There is higher conservation value if the hedge is allowed to grow into a row of trees, but because they are short-lived species, they will die at a similar time, leaving no mature tree cover.”

Whilst a mechanically-cut hedge is flailed – often every year – a laid hedge is left to grow for a few years before being relaid every seven to 10 years when most of the stems should be between five to 10cm thick and at least two-and-a-half metres in height. Relaying a hedge also ensures that not only does it have less chance of becoming diseased, but it won’t become a row of trees, putting part of the field in shade and adversely affecting the growing conditions of crops.

Iain says: “We have lost thousands of miles of hedges since World War Two because of agricultural intensification and wanting bigger fields, as well as urban development and expansion of the road network. Across Great Britain, 140,000 miles of hedges between 1945-1970 were lost; with a further 78,000 miles lost between 1984 and 1990.” 

Since then, there has been a continued loss of hedgerows, either as a result of them being removed or not having been managed, resulting in them simply becoming a row of mature trees. 

The history of hedge laying goes a long way back to when early farmers wanted to control the landscape by containing livestock and indicating ownership. Iain says: “When they were clearing a forest, they chose trees to form barriers around fields, as stock will wander if there’s no boundary. The people in Derbyshire found hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel to be the most effective, and was also what grew best there.”

Iain adds: “Hazel has a lovely straight stem and grows in pretty much any soil. Hawthorn and blackthorn are quite spiny with lots of thorns and are effective at keeping stock from pushing through. Blackthorn also produces sloes, which are used in the gin making process.” They are quick growing too. Hazel will put on up to a metre-and-a-half of growth in a year, whilst hawthorn, also known as “quick thorn”, will put on between 70cm to one metre in a year.

Other trees can be laid in hedges, including ash, field maple and willow. However, some are unsuitable for forming hedges and are to be avoided. Iain explains that, whilst rose is very thorny, it is not particularly thick. He would also avoid elder. “It’s a woodland tree and inhibits the growth of other trees. In a hedge setting, elder forms gaps that will mean the hedge isn’t stock proof any more.”

Often, one or more of the trees in a hedge – for example, an oak – would be left to grow tall. This ‘standard’ tree might be used for a specific job on the farm, such as a future beam for the house or one of the barns, or it might be pollarded – cutting branches back to the main trunk above head height so that it can grow again – to provide timber for posts or firewood. Other standard trees might include fruit trees so that an annual crop can be harvested. 

While a newly-laid hedge has little wildlife value, the new growth makes it a welcome habitat for numerous species. Iain says: “After a hedge has been laid, it will reset itself in the first two to three years and then more species will use it than they would a flailed hedge. If hedges are cut every year, they won’t flower and fruit.” 

Instead, laid hedges are allowed time to grow, which means the trees can flower and provide pollen for bees and butterflies as well as producing berries for the birds. It also encourages other plant species including bluebells, dog’s mercury and wood anemones.

Hedges also offer an important habitat for insects, birds and small mammals such as hares, rabbits, hedgehogs and mice. They help to form wildlife corridors that link one woodland with another and provide shelter for species, act as a wind break and can also help to prevent soil erosion, particularly in large fields. Iain says: “Leaving a strip of land that’s not cut or ploughed means it is left quite undisturbed. You wouldn’t necessarily find a lot of insects in the middle of a field, but small mammals and birds will nonetheless find a large food source in the hedgerows.” 

“There is a hedge laying course at the Eco Centre starting on February 10 and a woodland management course starting on February 17, 2024.”

At the Derbyshire Eco Centre, part of Derbyshire’s Adult Community Education, hedge laying courses run in February and November, timed for the winter months when the trees are dormant and the sap isn’t rising. However, the courses are still very much weather dependent. The courses don’t take place in heavy rain or really strong winds. Frosty days are to be avoided, too, as the moisture in the trees will be frozen, making the branches brittle, leading to a greater chance of them snapping.

Safety boots and glasses, a hard hat and thick gloves are essential when laying a hedge and a variety of tools are used. The main one is a bilhook. Iain says: “This has a wooden shaft with a curved edge on one side and a straight edge on the other side. It’s a handy tool for coppicing, pointing stakes and chopping sticks. Most people who attend the courses want to go and buy one after using it!” 

Other tools used in hedge laying include a hand or felling axe, loppers, bow and pruning saws, a metal bar and a mel for knocking in posts, a rake, as well as a sharpening stone for tools. Chainsaws may also be used as some of the trunks can be quite big. 

Iain says: “We use traditional bilhooks and axes on our courses but have a chainsaw on site for speeding up and finishing jobs. It means you don’t have to put so much effort into some of the cuts – it’s really hard work if you’re doing it all day.”

While the basic principles remain the same, there are many variations in the style of hedges, which differ from county to county and are also dependent on what trees are already growing in the area. Iain explains: “If you have one line of trees then you can’t lay a double-edged hedge.”

Some of the differences include the length of the rotation period, the spacing between stakes, and whether heatherings are used, flexible stems which literally bind the top of the hedge together until it becomes established.

Before one of the hedges at Carsington Water was laid in 2013 – where the Eco Centre’s hedge laying courses take place, visitors walking along the trail were unable to see across the water. Ten years on and it is getting ready to be laid again as the trees are at the right height and thickness.  It’s a combination of Midland and Derbyshire style because there is a fence behind it. Iain says: “If the hedge is mechanically cut at a certain height – for example, eight feet – then it will send out shoots from there and those will then send out another seven to eight new shoots. It then becomes really difficult to lay a hedge.” He recommends a rotation period of 10-12 years for this particular style of hedge, re-laying one section at a time until it’s time to begin again. 

When laying a hedge, Iain explains that work should always be carried out on the ditch side but the path side is used at Carsington as there is a fence and stock on the other side.  Hedges are traditionally laid uphill and if on the road side with the flow of traffic. He says: “We cut any branches sticking out towards us then take the hedge back to the main trunk. If, for example, a hedge tree has died, then this provides a natural gap. We then lay the first hedge stem.” 

After that, it’s time to make the pleacher. Iain says: “We cut down three quarters of the diameter of the tree trunk and take out three quarters of the stem. This is then laid at 35 degrees. The new growth from the cut pleacher will thicken up the hedge and give new life.” This continues for the length of the hedge and afterwards stakes are put in every 50-70cm.

After many years of hedgerows being removed, new hedgerows are now being laid and old hedges restored through this ancient craft. It is a skill that not only provides effective stock proofing but is also helping to increase biodiversity.

Editor’s Note: For details of courses, visit: https://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/education/adult-education/centres/derbyshire-eco-centre/derbyshire-eco-centre.aspx 

There is a hedge laying course at the Eco Centre starting on February 10, and a woodland management course starting on February 17, 2024.