They criss-cross the Irish countryside like arteries and can be found (surviving as fragments) in our cities and towns, where they offer motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, outdoor enthusiasts, private gardens and even livestock valuable shelter from wind, rain and snow.
But that’s just one of the many benefits of Ireland’s hedgerows. They also serve as precious nature reserves and wildlife corridors for flora and fauna. They store carbon, reduce the risk of spot flooding, soil erosion, air and water pollution, and allow landowners and local authorities to enclose stock and delineate property boundaries in a way that’s far more affordable, sustainable and enduring than fencing, barbed wire or walls.
Fascinatingly, many of our hedgerows are also centuries old – so old, in fact, that they’ve been described by ecologists as “agricultural artefacts”. And yet it’s fair to say that many are either badly neglected or inappropriately managed, using mechanical methods such as flailing that contribute to their sad but steady decline.
A big and noisy hurrah, then, for the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland (HLAI), whose members are doing everything they can to help revive the time-honoured craft of hedge laying (also known as "plashing"), written accounts of which go as far back as the time of Julius Caesar.
But what, you might ask, is “hedge laying”? Put simply, it’s an extremely effective, nature-friendly method of rejuvenating and conserving an established hedgerow by nearly (but not quite) slicing through its woody branches (just above ground level) to encourage the production of lots of young, vigorous, vertical growth.
Typically, that process of careful pruning follows the judicious removal of any old plant debris (stumps, dead branches) as well as the hard pruning of certain overly dominant wild plants (for example, brambles and ivy) that would otherwise starve the hedge of light and nutrients. Like most pruning work, it’s carried out from November to the beginning of March (the legal limit is March 1st) while woody plants are dormant, so it’s what you’d call classic winter work outdoors.
But that basic description really doesn’t do it justice. Instead the best way of gaining an understanding of this traditional craft, once practised throughout Ireland, is to watch a skilled hedge-layer such as Mark McDowell in action as I did last week.
Like any craftsperson, McDowell, a founder member of HLAI, relies on a handful of tools. These include a couple of sharp axes and billhooks as well as a small chainsaw, bushman’s saw, pruning saw, loppers, and a strange but beautiful mallet-hammer made of apple-wood. Known as a “mell”, it is used to drive in the vertical hazel stakes that he places at roughly 1m intervals along the hedgerow where they help to temporarily support its partially cut old branches: the latter are gently bent into a 45-60 degree angle by McDowell and then woven in and out of the stakes as well as each other to create a supportive woody lattice for new growth.
McDowell always begins with a careful assessment of any particular hedgerow’s age and condition as well as the number and variety of plant species that it’s home too. While Ireland’s hedgerows are notoriously variable, a typical one would include many native plants such as blackthorn, whitethorn/hawthorn, wild dog rose, spindle, elder, ash, crab apple, hazel, holly, honeysuckle, willow, gorse and ivy.
For future generations
“Unfortunately some neglected hedgerows are just too far gone, in which case I’d recommend to the client that they either be left as relict hedgerows (for their wildlife value), or be coppiced. The latter is a much more severe method of rejuvenation where the hedgerow is cut almost down the ground to encourage new growth. It’s not kind to wildlife in the short term, for which reason you should only coppice a certain percentage of a hedgerow in a given year, yet sometimes it’s the only answer. But with younger hedgerows, or those that aren’t too badly overgrown, hedge laying is the perfect method of rejuvenation.”
Asked what he thinks of mechanical hedge flailing, McDowell wrinkles his nose in disgust. “Flailing might seem like a good solution but it just creates more problems in the long term. Some native hedging plants, for example whitethorn, don’t respond well while it actually aggravates the problem of overly vigorous plants such as ivy and brambles taking over. On top of that, all of the cut plant material just falls down into the hedge and verge where it blocks light, stifles young growth and kills wild flowers, resulting in lots of ugly gaps and a decrease in biodiversity.”
Happily for us all, Irish gardeners, landowners, local authorities and the EU are now taking note of the many benefits of traditional hedge laying, the basics of which, promises McDowell, can be learnt in a day.
“Plus there’s the great satisfaction of knowing that your work will help to conserve Irish hedgerows for future generations to enjoy.”
(To buy a copy of HLAI's instructive DVD Hands on Hedges, or for details of its courses and qualified hedge layers, see hedgelaying.ie.
THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN
One of the most popular ornamental grasses is the lofty Stipa gigantea (commonly known as golden oats) whose tall, golden flower-heads add drama, glimmer and a lightness of touch to summer borders.
To encourage vigour and prevent established plants from becoming a messy nest of tangled leaves and debris, now’s the time to use sharp garden shears to clip their evergreen leaves back hard, so that you leave a neat, spiky mound behind. The same technique works well for pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) and for deciduous grasses such as Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and Deschampsia cespitosa.
Winter prune free-standing apple and pear trees, using sharp secateurs and/or pruning saw to cut out dead, damaged, diseased or crossing branches. Follow this by reducing new growth on main branches by about a third and removing long, strong shoots that are growing towards the middle of the tree.
For more detailed pruning instructions, see rhs.co.uk
Order seed potatoes now while stocks of hard-to-get, popular varieties are still available. Recommended Irish suppliers include Dublin-based Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) and Cork-based Fruithill Farm (fruithillfarm.com) as well as certain garden centres
DATES FOR YOUR DIARY
Saturday February 4th (9.30am-5pm), Ballykealey Manor Hotel (near Altamont), Ballon, Co Carlow: Snowdrop Gala & Other Spring Treasures with guest speakers Julian Sutton (English botanist and nurseryman) and Kevin Hughes (UK horticulturist, nurseryman and member of the RHS Woody Plants committee). Some of Ireland and the UK's best specialist nurseries will also be selling plants at the event, including Avon Bulbs, Coosheen Plants, Altamont Plant Sales (with hellebores from Ashwood Nurseries), Kevin Hughes Plants and Desirable Plants (Julian Sutton). Tickets cost €70 including lunch. To book, contact Hester Forde at 086 8654972 and email@example.com or Robert Miller at 087 9822135 and firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday February 5th, Bellefield Gardens, Shinrone, Birr, Co Offaly: a snowdrop open day and plant sales in the garden of galanthophile and landscape architect Angela Jupe. See angelajupe.ie