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Think of the actions of a beaver. They create dams that produce pools in which they can protect themselves from predators. A selfish act that results in a plethora of benefits for a wide variety of other flora and fauna. Last week myself and the other trainees learnt the art of hedge laying; a hedgerow management practice that has been used in the UK for about 2000 years. During the session I felt a sense of connectedness to nature. I felt part of the ecosystem. Like the beaver selfishly engineering the environment for their own needs, we too did so. In creating a thick and bushy natural hedgerow to keep livestock contained, we have produced nesting habitat, a food source, and a protected corridor for wildlife’s safe passage.

Steepers with partial enrichment. Photo: Philip Wilson

So, what is hedge laying? It involves cutting trees to the point where they can no longer stand. With its partial attachment, the tree, or in Devon hedge laying language, the steeper, is laid down adjacent to the field you want the livestock kept in. New branches that grow from the steeper will, at a later date, go through the same process, eventually resulting in a thick hedgerow. Nationally, there are many techniques. Some say that every valley has their own style. In Devon alone there are six distinct methods that vary in tree/shrub species and the substrate on which they grow (rock wall or clay soils for example).

  The Billhook, a hedge-layers essential tool. Image: Philip Wilson

On Lower Sharpham farm we have been laying hazel in the hope of enabling the recovery and return of the hazel dormouse to the area. This golden-brown arboreal rodent has seen one third of its population decline since 2000 due to deforestation of old woodland and removal or neglect of hedgerows. Dormice are highly selective feeders, eating shrub flowers in spring, insects in summer and fruit and nuts in autumn. Lack of available foodstuff means dormice hibernate over winter. Hedgerows therefore provide habitat for nesting, breeding, feeding, hibernating and a means of movement.

The Hazel Dormouse makes several nests in hedgerows to reach distant foraging ground. Image: Zoë Helene Kindermann (creative commons)

Hedge-laying not only integrates us and our actions with the wider ecosystem, but also connects us with other people; it is part of our cultural heritage. I would encourage anyone looking for ways to connect with nature to seek opportunities to learn and practice hedge-laying. Together we can help nature recover.

A successful days work. Image: Lisa Milnor

Written by Philip Wilson

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