Pleaching, bill hooks and plodgers. Hedge laying with Wilder Horsham District
I had no idea that hedge laying was competitive, and that there's a Hedge-laying Society. I learnt a lot from my morning with the Wilder Horsham District staff and volunteer team, who were hedge laying one sunny autumn day at Mayes Park, not least, what a plodger, bill hook and 'pleaching' are.
We all met up on the land owned by James Clapshaw (who, along with his daughter Mila, was hedge laying with us). I chatted to a few volunteers as we headed out to the area where we’d be working, and discovered the range of experience varied considerably.
Liz and Simon were quite new, but the two Tonys, Cook and Powell, were very experienced (in fact, I'd met Tony Cook when I went along in summer to find out more about the Himalyan Balsam removal). Simon, who has been a member of the Trust for decades, had previously learned how to do coppicing with the Wilder Horsham District group, but was looking forward to learning the new skill of hedge laying.
I asked Senior Land Advisor Richard Black why taking care of hedges so important. ‘Because they are an incredibly important habitat for wildlife’.
He explained that Britain was once a mix of open ground, woodland and scrub, maintained in roughly equal proportions by big grazing and browsing animals but that now in our human-managed landscape scrub is in short supply. Hedges are a proxy for scrub, and support much of the same wildlife, but will, in the absence of browsing, naturally try to turn into woodland, getting tall and leggy, leaving gaps, so hedges do need to be managed.
In the days before stock fencing, hedges kept grazing animals contained away from crop fields, so they needed to have dense growth from the bottom up. A side effect of this is that they are a fantastic wildlife corridor for small mammals and birds, which enables them to hide from predators.
Hedge laying is a traditional country craft, undertaken in winter by skilled labourers and 'land was managed like this for time out of mind'.
There are different styles practised in different regions. We were using the South of England style, which lays hedge in both directions, so you get growth on both sides. In the Midlands, you'd do it one side only. In terms of timing, you wouldn't undertake this work when birds are nesting in spring, or in the summer when there's a lot of growth (and anyway, as a farm worker, you'd be busy growing and harvesting crops). So it's an autumn and winter activity, traditionally.
Our working party at Mayes Park split up and begin undertaking various tasks. Some cleared bramble away from the hedge base using slashers, shears and loppers, so they could see what needed doing. Others were sharpening the ends of stakes with an axe (I was shown how to do this safely, and it was great fun). The staff team along with the more experienced volunteers were supporting the newer volunteers and teaching them different skills.
I watched Tony C pleaching the tree stems, 'which looks brutal, but it isn't', he explained. He was creating a sloping cut with his billhook (sharp, round-ended traditional knife), chopping the stem back, but leaving a hinge. The stem is then laid down sideways.
Trees are very clever and know when they've fallen - they send up new vertical growth. Plus you get a halo of new growth around the new stem near the ground. To hold the newly laid down stems in place, they were supported by the sharpened stakes. These had been being knocked in at 50cm intervals (measured with a striped stick - striped so if you dropped it, you could spot it), using a plodger. This big-headed and rather beautiful hammer had been made by Tony out of Holly, which is a very hard wood. Finally, thin whips from young coppice growth are used to neaten it all and make everything secure.
All of this work, Tony explained, prolongs the life of the hedge. Native hedge plants you might later plant to infill any gaps include Blackthorn (produces sloes), Hawthorn (produces berries) and Field Maple.
The Wilder Horsham District volunteer group meets once a week (on average). The day varies but is usually Monday or Friday.
Watch Richard Black and the Wilder Horsham District volunteers as they use a traditional management technique called 'hedge laying' at Mayes Park near Warnham.