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  • Writer's pictureWords From The Hedge

Ask the fellows who cut the hay

We live in a time when our countryside is under threat and we yokels are oppressed. Admittedly it is no new phenomenon_

We have endured -The Norman invasion, the reformation, the enclosures act, the corn laws and their repeal, Jethro Tull, Horse power to steam power to diesel power all in one generation. Science. Science of how to grow more crop per acre, how to grow more crop per hectare, how to grow a bigger sheep, how to clone a sheep, fatter cows, speedier pigs, battery chickens. First heirs died in Flanders, heirs of heirs died in Flanders, death duties, WWII. Machines doing the work of two men, three men, robots, Country File, The Guardian Newspaper, Wild Justice. How we endure.

These threats to the countryside may be viewed as no threat at all. They are merely the natural succession of things. Scientific methods to help feed our growing population. Scientific change to improve animal and human welfare. Scientific change to show that what we did before was old fashioned, archaic, what we did was cruel, it was WRONG.

I hasten to add I am not a Luddite. I don’t shun science, claim the earth is flat or believe that BBC period dramas are fly on the wall documentaries. I do have, however, a serious concern that there are people who are now trying to change our countryside utterly and irrevocably and these people are using snippets of science to add a veneer of authenticity to their view that we are wrong and they are right.

I believe their reasons for doing so are not due to wishing to improve the lot of man, nor that of our fauna nor flora. Their reasons for change are simply because they are slightly scared of the countryside and those of us who live and work within it. And what scares you must be changed and made good and wholesome and understandable. These people look at the countryside in the way missionaries of the empire viewed their efforts to convert tribesmen to Christianity

But the countryside has a knowledge that does not conform to mere science. It has a living breathing language and it can talk to you if you are willing to listen - the beasts that walk on four legs or two and the birds that fly. There is a language in the soil and the plants that grow in it. The lessons learned can never be gleaned merely from a book. No University imparts this information. No Agricultural college, evening class, nor school can teach this wisdom. No, this knowledge can only be gleaned by being part of the landscape and listening not only to those who have been part of that landscape for longer, but also listen to the land itself.

When I kneel in a hedge to start laying the first pleacher of the day, I have already spent precious minutes, quarters, sometimes hours looking at the framework, the skeleton of that hedge. I have a bit of a private conversation with it. It tells the tales of the man who planted it, maybe the man who laid it twenty years before. The man who drove the tractor with the flail. Is it skeletal and broken? Who has called this place home? Are there old nests at groin height from robins, eye height from a thrush, finger tip height from yellowhammers? The hedge tells its tale and when I lay it the sole aim is to help it become a better living thing as a home to those birds, a better windbreak to those grey partridges, a haven for the voles, the spiders, the let the blood flow more freely through these arteries of the land.. To do something so important cannot merely be rushed into. The Scientist can give exact data on what precise height the hedge “MUST” be. He will have an analysis of the understory flora. The CO2 captured by the hedge will be known down to the last shoot. However the scientist will think my hour long chat with a hedge is madness. Mark me down as a lunatic. However I learned to have this conversation, this language of the hedge, from a chap called Micheal Dixon.

Micheal showed me how to lay hedges. He taught me not like a lecturer. My learning was almost by osmosis. His teaching method was for me to observe him, then try for myself, and if he stopped shaking his head in despair you knew you were starting to get the hang of things. Micheal never stopped shaking his head - the whole seven years I was in Leicestershire. He would never be entirely happy with my work. And why should he? The countryside allows each man or woman to have their own style and idiosyncrasy. Each hedge layer may adhere to a style, but each one of us does things slightly differently and that is why the likes of the vocal TV “conservation Evangelists” of this world don’t quite trust us. We do not conform. Yokels don’t conform. Science demands conformity. 2 +2 must always equal 4. Not in the countryside it doesn’t . Nature will never conform to an equation, Micheal Dixon never conformed, his hedges looked different to the next estate’s hedges at Lowesby. Not by much, but by enough to be a Quenby Hedge. They all did the same job, they kept the blood flowing, they merely didn’t conform to an exact equation. So if you want to know how to ensure you have a field edge full of yellowhammers or bullfinches. A hedge bottom that has the beady eye of a Grey Partridge staring out. A Dormouse asleep in the margin. Ask the fellows who cut the hay...or in this particular case the hedge.

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