Our volunteer group were able to practice traditional skills and use rarely seen tools earlier this month. A section of hedge separating the two orchards at Stowe Barton was in need of laying, and as the saying goes: many hands make light work. Hedge laying is a traditional method of creating a stock proof boundary, with various styles being prominent in different parts of the country. The skill has declined since the introduction of stock netting, and most modern hedges are now mechanically flailed. The orchard hedge cannot be flailed, so by tending it manually we’re both keeping the skill alive by teaching others, as well as improving the hedge’s nature value.
On the day we introduced the group to the billhook: the traditional tool of hedge laying. As with the hedges themselves, billhooks also have regional differences: ranging from the simple, single curved edge Southern counties billhook; to the large, double edged, axe-looking Yorkshire style.
Before anything can be laid, the hedge first has to be prepped. This stage can be quite head-scratching as you have to decide what to get rid of: whether it is too small, sticking out at the wrong angle, or damaged and unable to lay; and how you are going to fill any gaps in the hedge.
Once the prepping has been done, the hard work can begin! In order to lay a pleacher (as the stems when laid are known), you make an angled cut, thinning out the stem. Care has to be taken not to cut too shallow as there is the risk of snapping when attempting to bend the stem over. Conversely, if you cut too deeply, you risk damaging the cambium layer of the stem (the part that actively undergoes growth and repair).
After a brief hesitation from being handed an unusual tool and having to be precise with cuts, our volunteers attacked the hedge with gusto. Working in pairs in sections on both sides of the hedge, stems rapidly started to be laid and the hedge started to take shape.
Despite being in Cornwall, we were laying the hedge in the Devon style: pleachers laid in two, near horizontal, parallel lines on top of an earth bank.
Once a few pleachers have been laid, it’s time to pin them down. To do this, any removed stems that have a fork in them are turned upside down, and cut to form a crook. These are then hammered in place which prevents the newly laid pleachers from moving which would risk damaging the weak connection.
By the end of the day, our volunteers were well acquainted with both tool and task, having covered approximately 100 metres of hedge. And, as you can see below, the hedge finished looking a lot tidier than when we started!
There was enough hedge left over that we were able to invite a work group from the Real Ideas Organisation to help finish it off; giving the young unemployed some new skills and a taste of what it’s like to be a Ranger. We are ever grateful to everyone that took the time to come out and join us in our work, and we hope that along with assisting us, they managed to take away some useful information and abilities.
Volunteer Ranger for Boscastle to Morwenstow