A love letter to the hedge
My chainsaw requires an elaborate series of pumping, priming and lever twisting. Only then, followed by repeated pulls on its cord, can I coax the engine into spluttering life. It hates me stopping for a tea break. I smile at my anthropomorphising a chainsaw, but it does have moods and foibles, seemingly of its own. Cold weather makes it race, warm weather causes reluctance. A fifteen minute rest leaves it like a dozing soldier, reluctant to perform its duties. I turn back to the hedge, glancing at the stems I cut and laid before I stopped to sip a cup of sweet black tea, scalding hot from my battered flask. They lay one over the next like a thorny row of toppled dominoes. Long scars stare out where I have chopped through the stems, or pleachers as they are called in our strange language of the hedge. So pale when first cut, they have now started to change colour. The maple turns a satsuma orange, the spindle ivory like, hazel and hawthorn a cookie brown. I make some upward cuts with my saw, taking away the side growth from a hawthorn pleacher. It is January and no leaves adorn this gnarled and curlicued limb, a handful of berries, unclaimed by blackbird or thrush still gamely cling on. Wizened like currants, they tinkle at my touch coloured like a supermarket Beaujolais. Cleared of encumbrances I bend to cut my now clean, straight pleacher. The little saw roars once more and I make a diagonal cut downwards from right to left. I watch with an attentive eye through the mesh of my visor, looking for the base of the thorn to slightly give. This indicates I have made my cut sufficiently deep and reduced the rigidity of the growing plant. The top of my wrist flips the saw’s safety bar forward and my thumb depresses the stop button. The thunder clap shift from anarchic roar to silence is dizzying, yet there is never real silence here. Rooks caw raucously and the chittering and squabbling of the long tail tits is both endless and amusing. One of the cock pheasants crows a challenge over at the wood some four score yards away. He quits his row and I hear him ruffle his mantle when he hears no rival’s reply. Placing my saw down to my right, with gloved hands I bend the thorny pleacher gently over. Using my bill hook to make a final cut, I lay the clean limb to nestle and intertwine with its neighbour. The hinge does its job. Thick enough to support the pleacher in its new position of 40 degrees or so, but sufficiently flexible to allow me to alter nature. I flick the chainsaw back into life. Warmed up now it is speedily responsive. I trim off the heel of the stool and take a sideways step to my right to repeat the process with the next branch, then the next, then the next. I will stake and bind my hedge before I go home when the sun sets, this will guard my work from the pestiferous wind that loves to pluck at a hedge and undo hours of work. When I drive away I survey my work in the gleam of my truck’s headlights. It is a sight I never grow tired of, it also pays my bills.
The stylised image of a hedgelayer is that of a leather jerkined rustic, pipe smoke curling about his cap a pie, cutting away in a towering line of thorn and branch with a viciously sharp and curiously shaped bill hook. The bill hook is indeed an ancient tool, first found trimming Mesopotamian vines or Israelite briars. Bronze examples, thought to be over 1,000 years old, have been found in Egypt. At various points in history the humble bill lost its role as a tool for making good. It was instead called upon to become a thing of hate and destruction. This ergonomic tool of regeneration was downgraded to cut through muscle, bone and sinew, serving as the makeshift weapon for serfs and bondsmen, dragooned into leaving their land based toil to become soldier in some war or other for some lord, king or other. I own three billhooks. The youngest, a Yorkshire style hook, was made in 1941 and is stamped with a military crow’s foot. My oldest, and favourite -a Midland style bill- was crafted by a long forgotten Leicestershire smith in the 1920s. As the decades have rolled by its handle has been replaced numerous time but the cutting blade is as sharp as a razor and takes an edge as only old handforged steel can. Purists sneer at my using a chainsaw to lay hedges, claiming that an axe should be used if a pleacher is too thick to be cut with a billhook. Many of these purists are amateurs, extremely talented amateurs it must be said, competing in hedge laying competitions throughout the land. But I have a job to do at Flea Barn and the niceties and purities of craft are as relevant to me as a traction engine is to the tractor driver discing a field in his behemoth John Deere. I have a mile of hedge to lay and I don’t have time to dwell upon tradition for the sake of tradition.
Hedges, unlike woodland, are and always will be a construct of man. Romano Britons cut and laid small trees to form livestock retaining enclosures. Gaps were filled by transplanting thorny shrubs, these saplings were protected with cut brash. The traces of these early hedges can still be seen today. After harvest, when the summer sun bakes the stubbles dusty yellow, the land reveals her ancient secrets to the questing camera of the drone. Dark lines, the memories of hedgerows long gone, spread out like the veins on the back of my father’s hand. As crop production increased so hedges proliferated; they kept browsing wildlife out and gifted tender plants protection from the elements. Hedges acted as near permanent boundaries, their permanency led to the fields being given names. What would Sheffield, Huddersfield or Enfield be without the hedge? Hedges became walls, delineating the ownership of land. When hedges grew too large and shaded out growing crops they were cut. If gaps appeared, enabling cattle or sheep to escape, they were filled by laid lengths. When the hedge got in the way they were coppiced and hacked. But these hedgerow battlements were too massive by now to be removed by mere handtools. Trees were left behind and grew from sapling into towering elm or curlicued oak. The blackthorn suckers merely waited for a back to be turned to spring up and become a bank of scrub. These ancients had no thought that their hedgeplanting and management was providing habitat for wildlife. The idea that our forebears were somehow more as one with nature is a nonsense. It is the fantasy of earnest middle class, middle Englanders; those who turn to Extinction Rebellion and carve their own wooden spoons which they use to sup soya mush imported from halfway round the globe. The hedge is merely another example of man harnessing and mastering nature for his own ends. Plants such as hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, hazel, dogwood and rose all happily grow cheek by jowl with one another. They are also precocious and forgiving enough to allow man to cut and trim them to his whim, growing and regrowing with a speed and thickness that suits our needs. It was mere happen-stance that man’s creation of the hedge suited wildlife, not due to any Anglo Saxon proto-conservationists. A mixed hedge plays nursery to tree and house sparrows, yellowhammers, linnets, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, wrens and tits both blue and great. Finches be they green, chaf, gold or bull also rear their young in the crosswork of limbs. The grey partridge and pheasant escape from raptors in its thorny understory and weave their ground nest in the hedgerow’s lee. Shrews, mice and voles scurry and feed here. The hedgehog’s very name screams its preferred habitat. Rabbits and rats tunnel amongst the roots, the stoats and weasels follow them to dance then feast on the squealing subterranean inhabitants. Deer shelter from the elements here and badgers build their cavernous setts, foxes take up residence when brock decides to evacuate. Invertebrates- beetles, aphids, bees, flies, wasps and mites call the hedge home. All-comers may feast upon the fruits borne by the hedge in autumn. This man made thing, created to keep cows and sheep in and wind and rain out is so much more than a barrier. If the woods are the lungs of the land, the hedgerows are the arteries. I love hedges.
In Britain we have had a good number of revolutions. One regicidal, one industrial and the rest agricultural. Bar from the prosecco quaffers of their day, the likes of Charles Fox and the Duchess of Devonshire, 18th century England largely had no truck with hot heads such as Robespierre or Danton. Our men of change were Jethro Tull, “Farmer” George III and Robert Bakewell. Whilst France clamoured for “Egalite et Fraternite”, we rebelled via enclosure and the four field rotation system. Open field, or strip, farming was in strong decline by the early 1700’s. The invention of the horse drawn seed drill meant that crops could be sown in straight lines. Straight lines were previously unheard of in the agrarian landscape- there is no such thing as plumb linear in nature. These arrow path drills meant that a horse drawn hoe could be used to suppress weeds. Landowners no longer needed to make their money via rents paid by a multitude of strip farming husbandmen. Instead they could enclose their lands and farm for themselves. Some husbandmen became paid employees of their erstwhile landlords. Many more turned their back on the land and headed to the smoke and cinders of the emerging industrial conurbations. The hedge became a barrier of a different nature, keeping out the wandering house cow or litter of pigs owned by the landless. Common land became less common. The hedge was both an image of an ending of old freedoms and simultaneously a totem of improvement. In France, the symbol of revolution was the guillotine. In rural England it was the hedge.
I have a copy of the Ordnance Survey map of Debenham for 1881. Nearly two centuries after Jethro Tull’s horse hoe first made its appearance, the land shown is still a patchwork of small fields. The sheer number of individual farms speaks of times when a large farmer was someone with one hundred acres rather than thousands of hectares. Flea Barn, or more correctly “Park Farm” is shown, surrounded by a spider’s web of lines marking the hedgerows. Most of the fields are odd angles and corners. No problem for a ploughman and a team of Suffolk Punch horses to deal with, but a cash sapping disaster of stopping, starting and turning for modern machinery. Each land parcel is of a similar size. Hedges are dotted with standard trees, intricately marked by the draftsman’s pen nib. Whilst most of the hedgerows inked on this crafted map are long gone, some still remain. These living marks of time past, the maple and hawthorn, elm sucker and blackthorn, hazel and dog rose are the offspring of Victorian hedges. Those nineteenth century barriers were in their turn borne by hedges dating back to the enclosures act. It was a landscape that remained more or less unchanged until 1914. It was on the 28th June in that year when a Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip succeeded in getting a left and right, bagging both Archduke Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess of Hohenberg. His marksmanship cost the countryside much. Farm labourers, gamekeepers and estate workers flocked to the colours. Their employers also donned uniform and were commissioned with rapidity. Off they went to the mire and blood of Flanders or Dardanelles, many never to return. Whilst Tommies died in their tens of thousands, the true lost generation of the Great War was the officer corps. The life expectancy of a subaltern on the Western Front was a mere six weeks. With few heirs to carry on estates, a crash in agricultural income, the introduction of death duties and sweeping tax hikes all spelled the end of the old ways. A shift in land ownership occurred, nearly one quarter of farmland in England and Wales changed hands between 1918 and 1927. The new Lords of the Manor were a different animal to their predecessors. The old squirearchy in all their stuffy, minor aristocratic ways had been loath to change much, hedges were valuable to their shooting interests, as were the woods. A lack of ready cash meant that mechanisation of agriculture had been slow to take hold. The new landlords however were men of action and commerce. These were the stock who had fled the land to join the industrial revolution in the 18th century. These men had made their money in the town and had now returned to bring their business brains to the land.
It would be wrong to say that the countryside changed overnight following the end of the Great War. Some bright young things spurned Baden Powell’s Scouts, perceived as too militaristic and stuffy. Instead they joined the ranks of the quasi spiritual, proto environmentalist Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, or the Woodcraft Folk and the Green Shirts. The big bag Edwardian shooting squire had evolved. Sickened by the mass slaughter he had seen in France he now shunned preservation in favour of sporting shooting, cherishing game, heralding the dawn of the Game Conservancy. The countryside was something to be held up as pure and clean compared with the corruption of the trenches or the fire and brimstone of the industrial towns. In 1939 the invasion of Poland put paid to this brief flirtation with greener things, and the country returned to khaki and five years of war. The brave new post war world of 1945 was markedly different to that of armistice 1918. We lost our hedges after World War II. The word lost is arguably too genteel - they were destroyed, smashed and erased -by saw and plough, by dynamite and digger. This was no act of vandalism led by those who had bought their land after the Great War however. It was by government diktat. The nation was hungry and dessicated. Brought down by a cash sapping, man grinding war against totalitarianism. Victory in Europe brought to the British countryside a brutal modernism. The science and technology that had been used so successfully to kill off the cults of Nazism, Fascism and Japanese Imperialism was turned to the land. The pesticides and herbicides they sprayed had been developed as chemical weapons of war. The munitions that had levelled Dresden and Hamburg were employed to explode ancient elms and towering oaks, turning them to smouldering rootless splinters. Machinery that had stormed the beaches of Normandy was adapted then enlisted to erase hedges. The land had one job to do- feed the nation. Farmland that had been a partnership, albeit a fairly one sided one, between man and wildlife shifted to become a human dictatorship. Every square yard needed to be productive. Hedges and trees, woodland and wetland, were enemies of mass production. The small land parcels seen in the map of 1881 were wasteful, they hampered the new, ever larger brutal agricultural machinery, from reaping their economical mono-culture harvests. If England was to pull herself out of rationing and thrive, the hedge had to go, drains be dug and wildlife could go hang. From 1946 – 1963 it has been estimated that 4,800 kilometres of hedgerows were grubbed out per annum. In 1950 the Forestry Commission claimed there to be one million kilometres of hedgerows in England, by 2007 The Countryside Commission tallied up a mere 477,000 kilometres. The English hedgerow, was being eradicated, but not through devilment or farmer greed, they were merely a hindrance to production. The emerging, ultimately all powerful, supermarkets demanded more food, for less. The consumer clamoured for the same. Governments of various hues had become urbanised, as had the voters. The countryside was a foreign country. A vibrant hedge, filled with bird and mammal life didn’t gain votes. Environmentalists, politicians and commentators were all too happy to point a callous free finger of blame at the farmer for this wrecking of the land, emboldened as they were with their bellies full of plentiful cheap food. The farmers had stark choices, feed the beast and put production before wildlife or kick back and go to the wall.
Inconsistency is the politician’s lot. Since 1945 landowners had been cajoled and funded, encouraged and primed to remove hedgerows. The livestock farmers had duly grubbed out the bullfinch and replaced it with barbed wire. In arable country, the hedges that remained were sad affairs. Filled with gaps, sparse remnants of old. Cut and smashed to sticks in the ground, barely clinging onto life, unloved and of little ecological value. However in the early 1990’s Whitehall called an about turn. The value of the hedge was once more realised. Not now as a barrier, but as a priceless wildlife habitat. Government grants were now made available for planting kilometre upon kilometre of new hedges, frequently in the very places where the previous government’s grants had paid to rip out miles upon miles of old hedgerows. The landscape of Suffolk has, over the past 25 years or so, become lined with hedging whips, guarded with hare and deer proof plastic spirals. The new plantings grew, their trunks restricted by their plastic tubes and bare of growth. What should have been hedges became linear rows of lollipops. The upper boughs gave security to some of the birdlife that had so long missed the hedgerows. Yet these scant based replacement hedgerows were of no use to the grey partridges or wild pheasants. The small mammals, the voles and dormice, hedgehogs and woodmice found no shelter here, exposed as they were to predators. The wind and rain could whip through these new havens, that were in truth no haven at all, an umbrella frame with no canvas. To remedy these failings is my lot. The hedgelayer was once the man who renovated the old. Today I am the man who makes good the new. Ninety percent of the hedges I lay or coppice have been planted within the past 20 years. This is to be celebrated, the hedge has become a thing of veneration once more, a good hedge is as much of a mark of a good farmer as is his yield per hectare.
The hedges at Flea Barn are a mix of old and new. In most cases the guards have been removed and many have been coppiced. Coppicing is a traditional method here in Suffolk, more dramatic when compared with laying. When coppicing I cut the hedge down to a few inches from the ground. All winter the “stool” that is left will remain dormant, guarded by the cut brash and retained by living stakes. Then in the spring nature takes over, fresh growth erupts from the stools, multiple stems rise to the sun. The old and decayed hedge is rejuvenated, like a tired executive freshened by a pummelling received at a health spa. It has become a fad with the uneducated to post images of coppiced hedges on social media, declaring the landowner to be a villain who has “destroyed” a hedge. This is as far from the truth as is possible. Coppicing is as much working with nature as hedgelaying, we cut down the old so that the new may grow back stronger. It is a bizarre trait of those who clamour for more wild that they can become so attracted to the order of the laid hedge yet are enraged by a coppiced same. Hedgelaying is a craft that conjures images of “The Green Man”, a timeless artisan activity. It is all of these things, but it is no more nor less regenerative than coppicing, it is simply prettier. Our scheme at Flea Barn will see nearly one mile of tired hedgerows rejuvenated by laying. It is only right that the totem of this place, the healthy hedge, should be treated with such care. Hedgelaying in all its quirkiness has helped me to gain a level of notoriety and even partial fame. When I am introduced to a fellow guest at a drinks party as a hedgelayer and writer, it is the former title that attracts interest. I appear monthly on my local BBC radio station, my words from the hedge seem popular here. Thousands of people on Twitter feel themselves transported to older times when they view the images of neatly laid pleachers I post up. If social media likes were pound notes, I would retire in comfort. Yet this is not a comfortable job, my arms are scratched and scarred, psoriasis has taken hold so often has my skin been wrecked and snagged by briar, thorn and bramble. I see concern in people’s faces. They fear, when they see my rolled up sleeves, that I am a self harmer. I suppose I am. Life in the hedge is one of constant cuts yet it is also a joyous one. Few other jobs in the countryside bring you so close to wildlife. My working day is observed closely by many a boot button eye belonging to mice and voles. Stoats grow used to my activity and dare themselves to come close, to peer myopically at my toil. The birds seem to be nearly impervious to the work, it is no rarity to feel the near imperceptible weight of a robin land on my bent shoulder, blue tits row up as if in a cinema to gawp at my toil. Grey partridges regard me warily, I wonder if they know that I am largely doing this for them? Of course they don’t I am anthropomorphising again.