Hello, t’is me!
Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging for some weeks now; it’s long overdue. The pause doesn’t mean I’ve been resting – the opposite in fact. Winter might be a dormant season on a farm but that doesn’t mean less work but rather the opportunity to do jobs that have to be done in this particular time frame. It might sound obvious to state that farming is seasonal – but this statement carries more weight than might at first appear. Nature marches to her own beat and we play catch up. I remember reading once that it was important for a novice gardener not to do things perfectly but to do things at the right time and this is also true of smallholding and farming. When growing things sleep it’s time to do repair and restoration work and for us on this holding that is divided up into lots of small fields, winter means hedge laying.
Hedges are so very British and are the vernacular in this part of the UK. Further north on moorland and hill farms you see beautifully crafted dry stone walls, on larger farms fields are often divided up with wire or post and rail fences and on arable land nowadays the hedgerows have been ragged out to provide uninterrupted vistas for vast farm machinery to chomp it’s way through the landscape. But here in the damp and lush stock rearing foothills, thick bushy hedges keep cattle and sheep (more or less) where they’re meant to be and the ancient husbandry of hedge laying is alive and well.
A hedge left to it’s own devices over time grows spindly and out of control. The shrubs and trees of which it’s composed grow up towards the light and the crown of the foliage cuts out the light from lower down the stems and the growth becomes weak and etiolated and eventually dies out. On country walks you might see hedges that have been left untended – a line of angled windblown shrubs marching across an open field with gaping holes for stock and walkers to traipse through. Seemingly random in their place neither marking nor penning stock, they’re what’s left of what once marked boundaries. When we moved here quite a lot of the hedges were leggy and sparse and some had died out. My father and Phil laid the hedges one by one each winter to rejuvenate them and now almost 2 decades later, almost all of the hedges in our ownership are repaired although a couple need replanting ready for laying in a few years time. A few years ago I took over from my dad helping Phil and learning from him the basic skills for hedge laying and it’s one of the very few outdoor winter jobs I actively look forward to.
In winter, deciduous shrubs and trees lie dormant and you can perform the brutal surgery required to twist the stems to your will without killing the plant. Once the sap starts rising in spring, cutting into the stems and trunks mean that the hedge can “bleed” out and be stunted or killed. So once the leaves have all fallen in early winter you can start laying the hedges and you must finish before spring arrives – and also before the birds start nesting in the hedges else you will disturb their house building and family rearing efforts. Hedge laying is all about conservation, not just of the land but of the myriad species that depend upon the ecosystem – lichens, microbes, plants, insects, birds, mammals all crowding into these corridors of twigs and leaves like an endless network of hotels and roads of safe passage. It’s an investment in land, preserving the contours and boundaries almost without ceasing for centuries – if ever you need reminding that you are merely a steward of the land you own for a season, then working with trees and hedges reinforces that.
We started our laying at the beginning of January and Phil comes once a week and the two of us work all day. So although it might only take 4 or 5 days to lay a length of hedge, it takes us around a month of Mondays to complete each hedge. There are several “styles” of hedge laying and competitions are held for skilled practitioners to display their talents. We don’t lay to a particular “style” – the closest I know of is Welsh Border Style. Our only priorities are to make thick healthy stock proof boundaries and to preserve the hedge. The first hedge this winter was an old out of control beast that had never been laid by us or our predecessors; we guesstimated it hadn’t been touched for maybe 40 or 50 years. It was composed of a good deal of blackthorn which makes excellent stock hedging but is very painful to handle without stout leather gloves or hedging mitts! It also tangles into thickets rather than growing straight and tall like hazel or ash and it’s tough. So patches of this hedge were slow going and required patient untangling. You also need to be well armed…
Here is the overgrown hedge complete with mature ash and oak trees down it’s length:
To lay a hedge you make cuts through the base of the stems at an angle; you cut through most of the stem from the “topside” as it were, leaving a strip on the underside and lay the trunk or stem down at an angle to the ground. This is called pleaching.
The uncut strip still attached to the roots is the life support for the hedge and is the only viaduct for the sap to travel to the rest of the plant. Thus attacked the plant puts renewed vigour into survival and puts out new growth and sends out new bud breaks from the near-horizontal stem and so rejuvenates itself. If you’re a gardener you’ll know about this from training other plants such as cordon fruits or rose bushes. A vertical stem produces growth and flowers at the top of it’s growth; bend it horizontal however and it will break out new growth along it’s length and become more productive.
You can see this principle in action in this very poor blurry evening picture of the hedge we laid 2 winters ago. The hedge itself is laid at around a 30 degree angle more or less and the new growth has shot up from each stem to the light and stands proud above the top of the hedge. This makes it much thicker and fresher and keeps it alive for many more years rather than dying out.
Often there are too many stems to lay down so you have to thin them out; it’s a question of experience and judgement deciding which growth should be cut out and which should stay – after all, you can’t change your mind once it’s cut through! Phil makes the decisions here mostly because he has decades of experience but you soon get your eye in so it’s not hard. The waste timber (brushwood) gets thrown into the field to one side for burning later on and any decent dimension timber gets logged for firewood. There’s usually quite a lot of it – more than you leave behind in the hedge!
Once you’ve laid a few metres of hedge you insert stakes at an angle through the stems and hammer it into the ground a little way. This “pins” the stems into place and also give you something to weave subsequent branches around as you pleach and lay them. You can use split soft wood hedging stakes like we have here – you buy them in and it saves time. Or you can use straight pieces of timber cut from the hedge itself like my neighbour does. Personally I think this looks nicer and if I was doing it on my own and not pressed for time I would do this too. But hedging stakes are OK. They’re not chemically treated timber, they’re meant to rot away in time because the hedge eventually meshes together as it grows and doesn’t need the stakes support after a while.
This was “my” working side of the hedge – Phil was on the other. I wasn’t too happy about this because I had a gully to straddle whilst working and my wellies had a hole in too I soon discovered…
It’s hard work even though it’s enjoyable, I can usually find muscles around my abdomen I don’t normally use when they ache the next day – you twist and pull down timbers that don’t want to shift, in a hedge this size and age and state of neglect the dimensions can be really quite large and effectively you’re trying to pull down young trees with your body weight without damaging them as well as heaving the cut brush and logs over the fence out of your way. You try to concentrate on the moment and the work in hand and not look ahead too much because it can be depressing to see what tangles are coming up…
Working in the cold is bracing and invigorating and with someone to share the work with, chat to and laugh at the time soon goes. However it’s important to keep dry and keep warm and tea breaks are a really REALLY important part of the work. Especially if you’re working with Phil who has to have tea on the hour, every hour stiffly laced with sugar. For some reason it’s my job to pour the tea but any excuse to wrap your hands around a hot mug is good so we bring a thermos of tea for Phil and another of coffee for me and sometimes we refill them at dinner time to keep us going through the afternoon. I’m not sure of the wisdom of imbibing 2 litres of coffee in a day but hey, when you’re working like this it’s OK to bend the rules sometimes!
The all important tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits stowed carefully in the tractor link box for our breaks. Shall I be mother and pour?
After 4 weeks of Mondays spent like this, some dry days and fun, one utterly miserable wet day when our leather gloves were soaked and our waterproofs giving up the struggle to keep us dry by the end of the day, it’s time to burn the brushwood. We usually do this on the last day of laying and once the fire is lit I keep it stoked whilst Phil alternates between the last bits of pleaching and driving the tractor to push piles of wood up near the fire. I like this job, especially if it’s bitingly cold because the heat from the huge fire and the hard physical work keeps you warm. I like it best of all when it’s snowing and the juxtaposition of the fire sparks leaping up and the snow flakes falling seems to awaken some ancient primal feeling inside of me that I can’t explain. We had no snow the first day of burning but there was some still lying on the ground and the wind was blowing cold off the snow covered mountain tops despite the weak February sunshine.
We’d amassed a huge amount of brushwood in this old hedge – you can’t really appreciate it from this photo but there were 5 big heaps we pushed up with the tractor and all of them as tall or taller than me. You can see Phil’s orange chainsaw helmet peeping out between the piles to get some idea of scale – truly this was a vast amount of timber from the whole month of January.
For some reason we just couldn’t get the fire going that day. We tried and tried, all the usual tricks and nothing worked.
I’m used to laying and building fires, I do it every day in winter because wood is the fuel that heats out house and our water and making and burning greenwood fires with wet brushwood takes a bit more practice but I can still do it. I was disgusted at the failure and remarked to Phil that in 18 years of hedge laying we’d never not managed to get a brush fire going and he replied “well, there’s always a first time” which didn’t improve things!! About half an hour before packing up time we finally coaxed it into life and I told him to go home and leave me there to feed it – I wasn’t going to waste hours of fruitless fire charming to let it go at the last minute.
I worked until it was too dark to see and work safely and the only thing visible was the glow of the embers so I called it a day and headed wearily uphill to the house. I was rewarded by a beautiful full moon rise just above the fence level in another overgrown hedgerow – my camera couldn’t really capture the beauty of it and it rises so fast this low down on the horizon… but I tried.
However we were happy with the job done and the wild hedge that grabbed and slapped at my head and shoulders as I circled the boundary last summer on the tractor whilst making hay on that field was now tamed and beautiful and ready to grow out for another 20 years. (and yes, we have a serious mole problem!!)
The embers were still in the next morning and I was determined not to waste them so I decided to see how much I could burn working on my own with my two stubby little legs and aching arms to power it. I worked all day and to my surprise I actually managed to burn every last scrap – a feat I was sure at the beginning of the day was impossible for one tired woman to do without tractor or help. I also stupidly forgot to wear my chainsaw helmet and visor and a large piece of ash floated from the fire when I was some distance away and burned my cheek. I grabbed a handful of snow from where it was lying in the hedges still to cool it and carried on working but it was a bigger area than I realised and the second degree burn that decorated my face for a couple of weeks was ugly, painful and impressive! Manuka honey and aloe vera helped it heal fast but I think I’ll be wearing the red scar on my cheekbone for some time before it fades, if it ever does. Luckily I’m not too bothered about looks and it remind me how lucky I am it wasn’t my eye and that in future I make sure to protect my face or else…
The following week we started on another hedge. This was shorter and composed of a lot of hazel and was altogether a more well behaved hedge and was a joy to lay. It had also been laid since we’ve been here so it wasn’t overgrown, just ready to be laid again – Phil remembered that it was the first hedge he laid with my late father when we moved here which was a bittersweet memory; time marching on and that I’m now doing the jobs Daddy did half my lifetime ago… but also comforting. I promised Phil I’ll wheel him out here in his old age to watch me lay it again in my 50’s so he can check I’m doing it right!
This hedge laid beautifully:
You can see the young ash trees we left to grow in the hedge; their kindred are laid in the hedge itself. In time I’ll have to chose which of these to thin out but for now they look striking standing against the sky.
Even the fire was better behaved this time and we quickly burned it between us but after two months of hedging I was bone weary and glad it was the end of the season. I am a reasonably strong and relatively young woman but I lack the musculature of a man born to working on the land, my upper body strength is less than I’d like and this kind of work pushes my body even as it strengthens it and I’m feeling less spritely than when I first started this work! I was also aware that my next few heavy winter farm tasks were coming up imminently so I was glad to say goodbye to the “hacker” and leather gloves, the chainsaw helmet, thermos of coffee and the hedging stakes – and the drum of waste oil that is our secret weapon for recalcitrant bonfires!!