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Hedgelaying in Burton Bradstock

‘NO chainsaws allowed, no tree climbing — and I have plenty of first-aid kits in the truck!’

Coastal West Dorset countryside ranger Adam Butcher’s health and safety advice was probably the most contemporary element of a day when Burton Bradstock villagers laid a hedge — in the way it’s been done across the centuries

As part of The Corncrake Project, a volunteer team spent a blustery morning creating a new, old field boundary, between the village playing field and the parish council’s neighbouring pasture.

Loppers, billhooks and bow-saws in hand and not a tractor-mounted flail in sight, the team plashed, trimmed and coppiced.

Directing operations on behalf of the county council’s Dorset Countryside, Adam explained the principles of hedgelaying — creating a living, growing boundary by cutting halfway through woody growth (plashing) and bending and weaving the trunks to form a barrier.

The plants rapidly regrow, forming a dense barrier along the entire length of the hedge.

Peer into and underneath many hedges in west Dorset and the evidence can still be seen of what may be the vestiges of pre-Roman laid hedges.

Cost-cutting and efficiency drives have meant that one tractor driver can cut miles of hedgerow in the time it would take to lay just a short stretch.

But as Adam explained, farmers and landowners are now becoming much more interested in the conservation value of having sturdy, self-replenishing borders to their land, for stock control, or simply to contain an area.

“Although hedges were originally laid as stock-proof boundaries, as hedges have been laid in this country for a thousand years or more, native species of plant and animal have evolved to live in them.

“Birds and mammals use hedges as nesting sites, food sources and shelter from predators. Wildflowers and fungi grow in and under hedges in the same way as they do in ancient semi-natural woodlands. You can even age a hedge by counting the wildflower species under it.”

And who knew? There are around 30 different styles of hedgelaying in England. For cattle, which like to lean on things, stakes and binders are used for reinforcement.

The traditional Dorset style for sheep that just barge on through, tends to have a laid hedge on a bank, which provides shelter for the animals.

In Burton Bradstock, the previously unkempt line of trees is now tidily and firmly laid and birds, insects and small animals are already making themselves at home.

Burton Bradstock hedge before

Burton Bradstock hedge after

Hedges are not simply a phenomenon of modern agriculture, dating from the Enclosure Acts in the early 19th century. At least half are estimated to be much, much older, some dating from the earliest settlements as man created barriers to keep stock in and enemies out.

In 55BC Julius Caesar recorded the fact that the Nervi tribe in Flanders, “cut into slender trees and bent them over so that many branches came out along the length; they finished this off by inserting brambles and briars, so that these hedges formed a defence-like wall, which could not only not be penetrated, but not even seen through.”

Just over two years ago, Burton Bradstock Parish Council bought the seven acres of land running alongside the River Bride, known locally as Corncrake, as a unique opportunity to safeguard an important parish asset. The hedgelaying day was the first of a number of initiatives planned this year, to manage the grassland, trees, access and flood alleviation.

Aims are to maintain the open, rural character of the fields, improve public access, conserve flora and fauna, extend wildlife habitats and use the fields for education, especially for pupils at the village primary school. More information on the Burton Bradstock village website.

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