Peter Dowdall says now is as good a time as any to lay a hedge which plays a vital role in our environment.
Many of our hedgerows have simply evolved over the years. Some were planted originally as hedges and were just ‘let go’.
New species have colonised the areas and in a case of survival of the fittest, they have become a spectacular addition to our countryside, showing off their beauty with the blossom of the hawthorns and blackthorns early in the summer.
Later, the purple loosestrife, honeysuckle, montbretia and fuchsia all set the country ablaze with their vivid colours.
Even now, the countryside is awash with haws, sloes, wild damsons, and berries on the holly bushes and Mountain Ash trees to name but a few.
Many of the plants growing in Irish hedgerows are not native but they have naturalised and become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. Welcoming foreign species often enrichs our landscape.
Vigilance and maintenance are also required to stop the thugs from taking over such as Japanese knotweed, the wild rhododendron and common laurel. Left to their own devices these species will create large areas of monoculture with no diversity.
Hedgerows are an invaluable part of our natural environment, sustaining and giving refuge to myriad wildlife, they are an intricate part of the rich tapestry and vital in the promotion of biodiversity.
In these times of rapid species extinction, we need to focus more on how to maintain what we have.
The ancient art of hedge laying declined soon after the World War II in Britain due to the lack of labour, increased use of machinery and the agricultural trend of removing hedges to make bigger fields.
Most domestic hedges are grown to mark out boundaries, to obscure unsightly buildings and to provide protection from wind and unwanted guests.
Originally hedgerows were planted to prevent livestock breaking into areas where they weren’t wanted and to provide shelter for that same livestock.
If left unmaintained any hedgerow will continue to grow upwards and outwards and will simply become a line of trees with some undergrowth. In terms of biodiversity, they will offer little for wildlife.
I can’t say I have done much hedge laying in my time, I learned how to do it in college, a lifetime ago now and have been aware of its importance but it’s not something that I ever really embraced.
My bad, as modern parlance would put it.
The practice of laying hedges encourages good regrowth from ground level and a well-maintained hedgerow will be a thick, bushy impenetrable barrier which will provide shelter, aesthetic beauty, will be a haven for wildlife and will help to prevent soil erosion.
Laying a hedge should be done at this time of the year, before the end of February when plants are dormant and involves cutting the stems of the hedge near ground level.
These stems need to partly but not totally cut through so that they are flexible enough to bend without breaking.
A series of stakes are installed along the hedgerow every 50cm or so and a strong hedge is created by weaving the cut stems, known as ‘pleachers’ in front of and behind these stakes.
The part of the stem which is left upright should then be removed to just above the cut and it is from here, as well as the nodes along the ‘pleachers’, that the new growth will come.
The stakes are usually of hazel or ash and should be easily available at this time of the year.
A good lopper is needed as many of the side stems will be removed lower down on the hedge to allow light to penetrate and thus encourage regrowth.
A billhook, there are many different types, is used to make the cut which provides the ‘pleacher’. Don’t expect to find one of these in the garden centre tool area, you may have to source an old one somewhere.
In the meantime, a small hatchet used carefully can do the job.
In 1978, three hedge layers in Britain who were concerned that the skill could be lost forever set up the National Hedge LayingSociety, of which Prince Charles is now patron.
There are over 30 different regional styles of hedge laying recognised in Britain. That’s important, as different regions will have different species and thus the treatment will need to vary.
The modern hedge trimmer or flailing machine, used by local authorities and many farmers and landowners doesn’t allow for such regional diversities and will simply destroy all.
The Hedge Laying Association of Ireland organises regular events and workshops and can be contacted through their website www.hedgelaying.ie