Hedgerows are perhaps the most prominent feature of our rural landscape. Not only do we depend on them for field and boundary divisions, but, when properly managed, they look great and provide low-cost, stock-proof fencing and safe corridors along which wildlife can travel.
A network of thick hedges linking small copses of woodland ensures food and security for wildlife, plus a host of plant species. Two thirds of our bird species nest in hedgerows, which also support bats, butterflies, hedgehogs and owls.
Despite extensive hedge removal in the 1970s, we still have approximately 300,000km remaining which are, in effect, linear woodlands and which are home to 37 species of trees and shrubs, 105 species of wild flora and cover approximately 1.5pc of our total land area.
The under-storey provides nesting sites for birds as well as seeds and berries, while hedgerow trees provide additional nesting spots and song posts and another supply of food.
Ditches, banks and verges provide yet more important habitat. Hedgerows provide us with wild food including many useful herb species, and we are so accustomed to their presence it is hard to believe that the majority of them are at most 250 years old.
Prior to the enclosure acts, most of our land was unenclosed commonage but trees, and especially native species, were more plentiful then.
The traditional farming practices in use in those days benefited wildlife which did not have to suffer from the pressures of intensive farming with its use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, the early cutting of meadows and heavy mechanisation.
We have lost thousands of hectares of wildlife habitat to roads and building and so it is more important than ever to ensure that we care for our existing hedgerows and safeguard their future.
Many of them are old, gappy and in need of rejuvenation. Coppicing and hedgelaying are the best means of restoration and, thanks to REPS and a revival in woodland crafts, there is now a widespread interest in these old skills.
Before World War II, virtually every farmer and farm labourer knew how to manage and lay a hedge properly and doing so was one of the most important farm tasks during the winter months.
After the war, labour became scarce and, with the availability of wire fencing materials, barbed wire and mechanical hedge cutting replaced men with axes and slash hooks.
There then followed a period of gradual decline in hedge care and it became fashionable from around the 1960s to grub them out, fill in drains and generally create big fields to suit larger machinery. It was only when many species of birds started to decline rapidly in numbers that we woke up to the damage we were causing.
The inevitable EU directives followed and now it is illegal to uproot or remove a hedgerow in any manner. Furthermore, it is an offence to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch during the nesting season beginning on the first day of March and ending on the 31st day of August.
This timely law ensures that birds can rear their young undisturbed and we can all enjoy the sight and scent of meadowsweet, wild rose, elderflower and a host of other attractive and valuable species throughout the summer.
One of the hedges on my farm had been coppiced around 30 years ago and the subsequent regrowth left it ideal for hedgelaying. I decided first to compare which was more expensive: erecting a strong, high-tensile wire sheep-and-cattle proof fence or laying the hedge.
I contacted Neil Foulkes from Ballinamore in Co Leitrim who quoted me for the job, and I was astonished to find that manually laying the hedge would be only slightly more expensive than the post-and-wire alternative, while being clearly the more attractive option in terms of appearance, longevity and usefulness. I am more than happy with the result and intend laying further sections over the coming years.
There are a number of hedgelaying contractors working throughout the country, most operating under the umbrella of the HLAI or Hedgelaying Association of Ireland. See www.hedgelaying.ie or call Neil direct on 086 3028790.