This ancient art will thicken your hedges, making them more stock-proof as well as helping wildlife
It is illegal to cut hedges after the end of February. But there is still time to not just cut them where necessary but to also improve their structure and ensure their value to the environment by perhaps laying them.
Many people have never seen a properly laid hedge, but this old practice is regaining popularity as we re-learn its benefits in protecting wildlife and ensuring the healthy life of the hedge.
Hedgerows provide essential shelter and a vital source of food for songbirds, mammals and insects.
They are often referred to as ‘networks for nature’, as they offer safe passage for a huge range of wild creatures which can move between fields and woodland out of sight of predators.
Good hedges also provide valuable shelter for livestock and an attractive natural and hugely beneficial barrier dividing fields and protecting new sections of woodland.
Around 50 years ago, during the drive to intensify agricultural production and ‘modernise’ farming methods, the importance of hedgerows was to a degree forgotten. Prior to that time, the practice of laying hedges to rejuvenate them and keep them stock-proof was common and ensured the preservation of thick species-rich hedgerows that provided food and shelter for the then relatively abundant wildlife.
Over the following decades however, land was extensively drained, and miles of hedges were bulldozed, often grant-aided by farm ‘improvement’ schemes, to make fields larger and facilitate the use of bigger tractors and other farm machinery.
This was at a huge cost to the landscape and the environment.
Once tractor-mounted hedge cutters came on the scene, manual hedge-laying died out, principally due to the shortage of labour and the cost of carrying out a task that requires a great degree of skill and experience.
I well remember from my childhood how during the winter once the livestock had been looked after, the men would turn to laying the hedges and ensuring that the farm remained stock-proof for the coming grazing season.
This was before the rise in contracting services, and the shortage of farm labour had not yet begun to bite. Nowadays few farms have permanent employees, but hedge-layers can be hired.
It is well worth laying even small lengths of hedgerows and working around the farm, perhaps a field at a time where needed. A well-laid hedge is something of real beauty and a sound long-term investment.
The last time I had some hedgerows in need of laying on my farm in Meath, I had to enlist the help of some professionals who travelled from Leitrim and lived in a caravan on site while carrying out the work.
It was of well worth the cost as these hedges, which had become overgrown and full of gaps, are now thick at the base with luxuriant growth and fully stock-proof.
There is no good mechanical substitute for rejuvenating a hedgerow.
The Irish Hedge-laying Association have a good website (hedgelaying.ie), and the Teagasc website has videos and other useful features on how bees, birds, bats, butterflies and badgers, to name just a few, need healthy hedgerows to survive and prosper.
Whitethorn is probably the most common species grown and it makes an excellent fence when properly managed as well as providing abundant blossom in spring and berries in the autumn.
Also common is blackthorn, which is used for making walking sticks and the shillelagh, the weapon of choice during the faction fights of past centuries. But beware its
I have many happy memories of sunny afternoons in late autumn spent gathering sloes, blackberries and rose hips from my hedgerows. Foraging for wild food is one of nature’s gifts and a rewarding pleasure
Joe Barry is a farmer and forester on the Meath-Kildare border