March 06, 2011

Hedge fund

We are in Shropshire for the weekend, where the traditionally laid hazel hedge we saw under construction last spring has thickened up nicely and is coming back into bud.

The technique, called 'pleaching', involves cutting saplings (usually hawthorn, blackthorn or hazel) almost all the way through, then pushing the cut stems down so they lie nearly horizontally and securing them with stakes and plaited bindings. The cuts quickly heal and the stems send out new twigs which, in time, become an impenetrable, stock-proof hedge.

Hedge-laying is an ancient skill, and much less common than it once was. To lay a hedge takes time, but the results are beautiful and long-lasting, as well as providing a great habitat for wildlife.

Cutting machines trim hedges only from the top, thus concentrating new growth there and leaving the base of the hedge to become leggy so that animals may pass through. Then, farmers may be tempted to replace old pleached hedges with electric fences instead, but a traditionally laid hedge, properly maintained, will do its job naturally, and beautifully, for generations to come.