As Spring approaches and our hedgerows are about to burst forth into growth, experienced hedge layer John McKeon considers the value of our hedgerows and how we should look after them. John is a committee member of the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland and he will be running a one day training course on hedge laying in Castleblayney on Saturday 8th February. Tel 087 1462790 for details.
In Co Monaghan it estimated that we have almost 13,000 kms of hedgerows. Hedges are an important asset in our countryside, being valuable both for agriculture and biodiversity. As we have so little native woodland in Ireland, hedges are an important substitute for woodland edge habitat. Furthermore they act as a carbon sink and of course are a visual amenity in our landscape. Hedges need some maintenance in order to keep them at their best.
Our knowledge of hedgerow management is poor. Since the 1960s there has been little or no hands-on hedge work done. The last fifty years have seen massive hedge removal – much of which was necessary as we moved from the horse and cart to modern machinery which requires bigger fields. But like many things in life we tend to go too far before we see the error of our ways. The ripping out of hedges has for the most part stopped and it is now an offence to remove a hedge. However hedges are still under threat from neglect and mismanagement. The existing stock of old field hedges were mostly planted between 1750 and 1850. Problems arise because whitethorn (hawthorn) bushes have a relatively short life and decay can set as early as 80 years after planting. This decay progresses very slowly over fifty years until the whitethorn trunk is rotted through, covered in ivy and falls down. As this repeats itself over the years the hedge becomes very open and as farm animals tramp through it makes a bad hedge even worse. By this stage the hedge is not stock-proof, does not provide shelter and is of little use to wildlife.
Can anything be done to stop the rot in existing sick hedges? Fortunately there are two practices which can stop the ageing process in hedges and return them to the vigour of their youth. They are ‘coppicing’ and ‘hedge-laying’ – both drastic surgery for a sick hedge. When cut hard back at the base, whitethorn has the ability to renew itself by growing new shoots which produce a thick hedge. Coppicing involves cutting the stems at ground level. Gaps should be planted with new whitethorn and also introduce other trees like crab apple, holly, spindle, hazel, guilder rose to increase biodiversity. Coppicing is the most drastic hedge treatment as it removes everything and it will be three or four years before the new growth forms a new hedge. A coppiced hedge must be fenced to protect it from grazing animals.
Hedge laying is the craft of cutting hedgerow stems partly through so they will bend over without breaking and continue to grow. The cut stems are laid to form a stock-proof barrier. New growth comes from the cut stump at ground level, thickening up from the base. The process if carried out every 40-50 years can extend the lifespan of the hedge indefinitely.
A total of 35 shrub and tree species, including 27 native species, were recorded in the Monaghan Hedgerow Survey, undertaken in 2010. A well-managed dense hedge provides a good habitat for insects, birds and plants. Of particular interest to famers is that a good thick hedge provides a stock-proof barrier as well as shelter for farm animals.
Coppicing and hedge laying were traditional winter work on farms and produced enough wood to heat the house as well as rejuvenating the hedge. These old crafts are a far cry from the mechanical hedge cutting of today which often leaves the hedges, shattered, battered, gappy and broken. Tractor hedge cutters can only work on the top and side of hedges. This may be adequate for a young vigorous hedge. As hedges age they become leggy and gappy and decay or rot enters the stems at ground level. If the hedge is to be saved and returned to the vigour of its youth, tractor flailing is not the correct option – it should be coppiced or laid. After a few years later you can start cutting by tractor saw again.
Coppicing or hedge laying as a long term management programme has been shown to be a more cost effective boundary that post and wire fencing as the latter needs replacing. Hedges also have more benefits than wire fences, such as shelter, wildlife, visual amenity, carbon sink and water control. Hedge work is time consuming manual work but with training it can be a very rewarding and fulfilling outdoor activity. The new agri- environment scheme provides grants for coppicing and hedge laying. If you are employing a hedge layer the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland has a listing of hedge layers and advice on hedge laying. See www.hedgelaying.ie.