One of the glories of the Devon countryside is the miles of hedgerows that divide the land into the small fields that are so different to the wide open countryside of arable areas such as East Anglia.

Devon is historically a pastoral landscape.  Prior to the invention of barbed wire, having livestock required hedges to keep the animals in the right place.  The fields were small to allow a rotation of the animals to ensure there was a ready supply of grass across the year.

Hedghelaying advocates, Kati Fitzhenmry & Graham Hutchinson

If a hedge is left then it will become ‘gappy’, either some of the shrubs will die or the whole hedge will grow into a line of small trees.  To keep the hedges in good condition, they had to be maintained and the traditional way of doing that was to lay them every few years.

Winter is the season for hedge laying, there are no birds nesting in the hedge, the absence of leaves lightens the job, and there are few other jobs for the farmers to do, or there were in olden times.  

To lay a hedge you chop into the base of the vertical stems to cut them part way through, and then bend them over and they are fixed down.  The hedge stems are still alive and they put out new growth to allow the hedge to thicken up again.  

Laid hedges are like linear nature reserves.  Most of our hedges have been in place for hundreds of years and, over this time, all sorts of animals and plants have moved in.  Occasional trees are allowed to grow, wild flowers attract insects and other invertebrates, these attract birds and small mammals.  Devon hedges are particularly rich because they are usually growing on top of banks which present other habitats for extra species.

These days, fewer fields are needed to rotate stock grazing, and hedge laying is hard work, time consuming and expensive so it is not surprising that the practice has declined over the last few decades.  A resurgence in efforts to restore our declining wildlife has rekindled interest lately.

Sidmouth Arboretum has been working with other local groups to lay some of the hedges around the valley including with the SVA and the Community Food Forest at Sidford.  The latest project is to work with the Friends of the Byes.  Among other things, this very active group of volunteers manages the community orchard in The Byes and they planted new boundary hedges a few years ago and now they have been laid.  The group have other stretches of hedge that they look after and these too will be laid in the coming weeks.  As the hedges grow they will give a boost to local wildlife by providing a suitable home for a wide range of species.

If you want to know more, why not call in on the Friends of the Byes who meet on Saturday mornings behind the Guide Hut in Lawn Vista, or visit the Arboretum website.

Ed Dolphin

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