Hedges are 'valued for the huge benefits they bring for wildlife'

Sheila steeping a hedge

Sheila steeping a hedge - Credit: Sheila Meades

I’ve always enjoyed spending time in the countryside and often noticed hedges cut and laid parallel to the ground and wondered why and how this was done.
The practice is called hedge laying (or steeping in Devon) and, a year ago, I had the opportunity to learn more on a one-day hedge laying course at The Donkey Sanctuary.
I thoroughly enjoyed the course and was keen to practice my new skills. Luckily, as a local nature conservation volunteer, I’ve had the chance but I’m still very much an enthusiastic beginner.
Many countryside hedges are centuries old and were originally constructed and planted by farmers to provide stock-proof barriers and places of shelter from the elements for farm animals and crops.
A traditional Devon hedge is comprised of a substantial earth bank, faced with stone or turf, and with shrubs and trees, including hawthorn, hazel and field maple, growing on top in either single or two parallel lines.
Hedges are also valued for the huge benefits they bring for wildlife. Well-kept hedges provide a perfect habitat for a host of creatures including birds, insects, small mammals and reptiles. Many Devon hedges are proving to be beneficial for some rare and threatened species including greater horseshoe bats, cirl buntings and hazel dormice.
The flowers and grasses that grow in the hedgerows are also of great wildlife value. Much-loved plants such as primroses, celandine, violets, red campion, and cow parsley are commonly found, providing plentiful supplies of nectar for pollinating insects.

A recently laid blackthorn hedge

A recently laid blackthorn hedge - Credit: Sheila Meades

Last year, Sidmouth Arboretum carried out a survey of the valley’s hedgerows and found a wide diversity of plants. With the help of volunteers, they will be continuing the monitoring, data recording and reporting this year.
Hedges need to be maintained or they will grow too tall and cast shade and become sparse at the bottom, allowing stock to break through and reducing places for wildlife to feed and seek shelter.
Nowadays, most hedged farm boundaries are managed using mechanical means but steeping is the traditional method, carried out in autumn and winter. The technique reduces the height and rejuvenates the hedge, allowing it to thicken up again from the base.
To steep a hedge you identify a number of healthy, clean-growing stems (called steepers) and remove the rest with a handsaw or loppers. Using a billhook, the traditional hedge laying tool, you make an angled cut about three quarters of the way through each steeper and gently lower so it lies along the bank. You then saw off the remaining ‘heel’ of the stem. The steepers are secured either by weaving them together or by holding them down with a hooked stick, called a ‘crook’. Surprisingly, cutting deep into the stems doesn’t damage the trees, in fact it encourages vigorous new growth.
I enjoy hedge laying as it provides both a mental and physical challenge. You need to plan the job carefully before you wield your billhook and the work itself is very physical and often very thorny! I love the character of hedge banks, the intricate root systems, the badger holes and the sense of history you get, wondering who originally planted the hedge and when.
If you are able to get out for a walk, see if you can spot any steeped hedges and look closely at the technique. You’ll also find plenty of ancient, disused, hedge banks around the valley including on Mutters Moor and Salcombe Hill.
Thanks to www.devonhedges.org for additional information. If you would like to volunteer to help with the hedgerow wildflower survey, and/or join the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group’s mailing list, please email sidvalleybiodoversity@yahoo.com

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