Many of you will have been watching closely as the hedge running along the top of Trawscoed Meadow has been taking shape over the winter months.
Planted in the early days of the Garden, it is an interesting native hedge ‘mix’ with the individual species planted in blocks. This results in possibly the most unnatural hedge any of us had come across before. It had steadily grown too big for its boots, with occasional attempts to top it leading to a dense layer of top growth and lots of holes at the bottom. Upon close inspection much of the recent growth was dead, or in bad health due to the poor light and air flow.
All this resulted in a rather sorry looking hedge of reduced wildlife value, planted in front of one of the most picturesque views in the Garden.
At 100m in length, the work would take a professional with chainsaw 3 days, at a cost of £1000 or more. As a main entry point to the Garden and Regency Parkland, it was decided that action needed to be taken.
The Regency Restoration Project is a 5 year program set on restoring Paxton’s network of lakes and carriageways which run through the Garden’s parkland. It is committed to developing the skills and volunteer base necessary for the long term management of heritage landscapes, increasing accessibility and to providing enjoyable activities steeped in local history.
This hedge also sits opposite our classrooms and crosses a historic carriageway, and so was the perfect place to begin some training, start raising awareness of the value of hedges, and get people enjoying some traditional countryside skills.
The call to learn
It began with some accredited training back in October with students learning the fine art of hedgerow design and maintenance led by local farmer come tutor, Rob Davies of Coleg sir gar. Over 8 weeks they covered species ID, planning and countryside legislation, followed by planting and hedgelaying, all with a healthy dose of countryside anecdotes and soggy comradery thrown in for good measure. Those who survived will be rewarded with a certificate, a kick start to a career in countryside management or the knowledge that hedge laying will always be there to fall back on.
A simplified explanation of hedgelaying can be found below.
The Theory of Hedgelaying
The laying of a hedge is done in 3 rolling stages.
After carefully checking for dormice, brambles, deadwood and excess growth is removed allowing light and access to the base of the hedge.
Laying the pleachers
A long tapering cut low to the ground allows the tree (pleacher) to be laid at a 30° angle, this encourages fresh growth along the length and from the base, which is tidies up to prevent rot. Gaps are filled with straight material thinned from the hedge and pushed into the ground.
Stakes are set at an angle in order to pin the hedge down before lengths of willow are woven along the top. These bindings firms up the stakes, and finishes the look of the hedge. A quick trim and the job is done.
After 4 solid days on the hedge, around 1/3rd was completed using the double brush (bushy both sides) stake and pleach method of the Brecon\Carmarthenshire style. With bird nesting and dormouse hibernation setting the deadline, completing the hedge before March felt like a challenge, so with volunteers ready to go we set our sights on the final hurdle.
Learning on the job
In theory hedgelaying is a relatively straight forward process – however in reality the world of hedgelaying involves an awful lot of head scratching, and not just from the hawthorn.
Firstly there are the tools, whilst chainsaws work exceptionally well in hedgelaying, they are not ideal for learners, or for use with volunteers. Hand tools provide the authentic experience and allow a real connections to form between hedge, wildlife and hedgers.
Opting for hand tools is harder than it seems however, after trying an array of modern bill hooks and axes it becomes apparent that old tools really are the best. The balance and quality of workmanship on an old forged axe or blade can really be appreciated after a few hours of working with their modern factory made counterparts, although the cost or initial sharpening can be off-putting. Eventually the best tool for the job turned out to be a side axe made in Africa using spring steel, sourced from Tools For Self-Reliance, a Welsh charity based in Crickhowell. Sourcing hedging stakes is also an issue for the uninitiated…
Then there’s the species involved. Whilst hazel, willow and hawthorn are a joy to work with, being soft to cut and pliable, others such as our rather large field maples presented more of a challenge. These were hard, brittle, full of thin sticks and generally unpleasant. Guelder rose and dogwood were more of an unknown, whilst the books state they can be laid or at least coppiced, only time will tell. The elder was left intact, unlayable and a valuable source of nectar and fruit later in the year.
Deciding what to cut or leave, and which way to fold or weave material is something which comes with experience, and is partially down to the preference of the hedgelayer.
Finally there’s the time it takes! I’m lucky to work with volunteers from 4 different organisations, Mencap, Barrod, Cynnedd and Next Step, alongside our students and teams from HSBC and a local small holders associations. Whilst a man with a chainsaw can do a job in 3 days, our motley crew was lucky to complete a meter an hour to begin with.
Eventually however the rhythm set in and as we all learn, the work speeds up.
Within all our teams there were those more comfortable with working ahead and clearing the hedge, whilst others got into the laying, mastering the balance of the axe and the spring of the timber. Still more enjoyed putting the finishing touches to the hedge, teaching or clearing up and watching for traffic. And then there’s always the one who just wants the biggest tool – come to be known as Thor’s hammer.
All in all around 60 people have worked on this hedge, aged from teens to sixties, bankers to farmers. They have enjoyed watching the robins, and felt the satisfaction of seeing a new hedge take shape, with some vowing to go and do their own hedges.
With the height reduced, and a convenient binder to lean on, the views are opened up across the valley, revealing Paxton’s Tower and early glimpses of Llyn Mawr and Principality house. The meadow, now visible, offers a quiet escape on a busy summer’s day.
Now the work’s done it’s time to see what happens next, with a bit of luck and a fair season, new growth should soon be visible. In time the hedge will thicken, providing a rich habitat for dormice, birds, butterflies and bees, and will be ready for its next lay in about 10 years.
A Big Thank You to all our volunteers, and to everyone who’s stopped to comment, also to the Heritage Lottery Fund and our other fantastic funders, without which none of this would have been possible.