The hedger's art


Birders at their french windows on the east coast have heard the night calls of arriving migrant redwings and have been smitten, they say, with melancholy intimations of winter. This call, audible even over towns and cities, is described in Collins's Bird Guide as "a protracted, indrawn `stuuuf' with a hint of hoarseness", the rash imitation of which I do not advise.

Here in the west, the mood is different: a buoyant access of bird-life after the doldrums of late summer. Down at the lake yesterday, a pair of whooper swans flew in, sounding their bugles. The resident pair of mute swans set upon them with stretched necks and drove them off - a stirring sight, with lots of splashing. Back at my desk, I am distracted by the procession of birds along the hedge: song-thrush, blackbird, blackcap polishing off the blackberries; greenfinches dropping in for moments.

Birds have had man-made hedges for longer than we think. "They cut them into slender trees and bent them over, so that many branches came out along their length; they finished these off by inserting brambles and briars, so that these hedges formed a defence like a wall, which could neither be penetrated nor even seen through." That was Julius Caesar, around 55 BC, describing the defences of a tribe in Flanders. In Ireland today, the making and maintenance of stock-proof hedges is fondly regarded as a rural "tradition", when over much of the country its skills are quite extinct. Hand the average small farmer a curved billhook and he'll find every use but the right one. Most roadside hedges are shaped today by flail contractors, slashing their way at a fixed height through briars and saplings alike.

Caesar got the essence of hedge-laying. You use the billhook to half slash through a stem (preferably upwards) and bend it over horizontally, to wind it into the hedge. This strengthens the hedge low down and sends up a fresh set of vertical stems from the laid branch. A whole hedge can be laid in this way, with stakes cut from discarded stems driven in to help support it. "Hedge laying," says John Seymour in one of his books, "is a delicious occupation and can be raised to a high art."

But clearly, it needs to be taught, if the skill is to spread again through the thousands of kilometres of neglected hedges and make some of them, at least, as stock-proof as any barbed wire, with shelter both for cattle and wildlife.

A start was made two years ago in a hedgerow project by Crann in Co Leitrim; it continues there in courses at the Organic Centre at Rossinver. Now, Conservation Volunteers Ireland (CVI) is launching a series of one-day hedgelaying training courses from its Dublin base, the first on Saturday, November 13th, and others in January and February.

A hedge is always trying to be something more - an endeavour that, given regular and tender frustration, will keep it pushing up for centuries in a sturdy web of branches. Trimming is not all about neatness, or keeping a rigid shape: cutting back to the same point every time produces a tired and twiggy crust that grows gappy over the years. The ideal is a cycle of renewal. You let a hedge swell slowly, inch by inch, until it is too big, and then cut it back hard to start again. In my own, long struggle with a windbreak maze of fuchsia, the heavy-duty loppers have been as vital as the trimmer.

The over-managed hedge, mechanically cut, is of modest use to wildlife. What I think of as "Ulster" hedges, tightly-barbered hawthorn a few feet high, may shelter half-a-dozen pairs of breeding birds in 1,000 metres (this has been studied). At the other extreme is the tall and bushy field hedge, roughly A-shaped and with outgrowths of blackthorn, which has more than 30 pairs and perhaps a score of breeding species.

In the "agro-environmental specifications" (horrid language) emanating from the EU and embodied in the guidelines of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), the management of hedgerows tries to balance the needs of farming with those of wildlife and with human pleasure in the landscape. This means encouraging the development of hedgerows "with a diversity of height, stages of growth and form".

Thus, in drawing up a REPS farm plan, the ideal height of a stockproof hedge is "at least" 1.5 metres, and another half a metre is even better. Laying is recommended for rejuvenation, and even - for long-neglected and overgrown hedges - a drastic coppicing to bring up a fresh flush of shoots.

Where untended hedges have formed a virtual thicket, on long-disused farm roads or old embankments, for example, the advice is to leave them alone. And in the programme for hedge-cutting, selected saplings are marked and left to grow into trees, about 50 metres apart.

Care for wildlife looms large in the cutting programme. No cutting, first of all, in the nesting season, mid-March to July inclusive. Then a rotation; one-third of the hedges cut each year so bushes can flower regularly and bear their fair share of autumn sloes, hips and haws. Occasional stems of hawthorn, blackthorn, and so on - perhaps 10 per cent of the hedge - are left to grow in order to fruit each year, and whole mature hawthorns are left untouched at intervals to provide fruit for wildlife and nectar for bees.

These, at least, are the steps talked through with the 43,000 farmers now in REPS (some 30 per cent of our farms) and written down as part of their first five-year work-schedule. A computer system picks out half the farmers at random for subsequent inspections, and there are financial penalties for non-compliance. A further 5 per cent of applications are checked on site, together with the plan, to make sure the Department's farm planners are up to scratch.

No doubt there have been all kinds of chicanery and devastation, given the Irish farmer's long tradition of fitting any system to suit himself. Some 560 farmers have been disqualified from REPS since January last year. I like to think many others are getting real satisfaction at fitting their farms into the countryside.

Booking for the CVI hedgelaying training courses is essential. Phone 01-4547185 or write to CVI at The Green, Griffith College, South Circular Road, Dublin 8.

Michael Viney's email address is