Hedgelaying for horseshoes

On a misty, grey morning last week, in the rolling fields of Deer Park Farm near Chudleigh, thirty or so people gathered for a day of hedgelaying. I was one of a handful of beginners who joined a group of more experienced volunteers from the Devon Wildlife Trust, hoping to learn just how this traditional rural craft works. Hedgelaying, I soon discovered, is not only a fascinating cultural activity that’s been practised for hundreds of years, it also plays a very important role in making farmland suitable for a whole range of wildlife, in particular the greater horseshoe bat.

John, the farmer, gave us a warm welcome and showed us the hedge we were to lay. It had most likely existed since medieval times, he said. This was when hedges first started to be created in great numbers as people began enclosing their land for livestock. The hedge extended north-south along the steeply sloping edge of one of the farm’s meadows, which in spring and summer boasts an impressive array of rare flowers, including green-winged orchids. Along with well-managed hedges and the organic cow pats produced by John and Audrey’s cattle, this meadow provides a perfect habitat for the insects that make up the greater horseshoe bat’s diet.

Devon’s hedges are notable for their steep banks made of earth. The base of the shrubs and trees begins higher up that you might think, and gives rise to the deep-set country roads that characterise this part of the country. Over time, hedges can thin out near the base and lose the dense vegetation that’s vital for the creatures living in them. Hedgelaying in rotation every ten or more years allows the hedge the best chance of remaining in good condition for wildlife. As part of a commitment to organic, wildlife-friendly farming, John and Audrey were keen to make the farm’s hedges as beneficial to bats as possible.

Bats are excellent animals to focus on when managing farmland for wildlife. Since they are at the top of their food chain, anything we do to help them will have knock-on effects for endless other species in the ecosystem.

A well-managed, tall hedge, with a variety of woody species, plenty of new, shrubby growth interspersed with fully grown trees, is crucial to the survival of greater horseshoe bats. Trees provide feeding perches for greater horseshoes. Hanging from branches above the hedge, the bats emit sonar in search of insects along the hedgerow. Their unique method of hunting involves them darting out, grabbing moths and beetles, and returning to their particular perch to consume them.

Our designated hedge was very overgrown. It was made up of a historically coppiced mixture of trees that included hazel, blackthorn, elm and oak. John had marked in red the trees that were to be left standing here and there along the hedgerow for the benefit of the bats; everything else could be part of the pruning and laying process. Seeing the dense, tall mass of vegetation, it seemed like daunting task ahead.

For those of us uninitiated in the art of hedgelaying, local volunteer group leader Jackie gave a demonstration. First, it was important to try and lay everything in the same direction, ideally away from the direction of the prevailing wind – in this case, uphill. Smaller stems and coppiced growth could be pruned back near the base, making room for the slightly larger stems that were the ideal size and pliability for laying. These stems are known as “pleachers”, or more commonly in Devon, as “steepers”.

Using a billhook, Jackie made an angular cut near the base, slicing about two thirds of the way through the woody stem. This creates a kind of hinge that allows the main stem to be bent down to lie flat against the hedge’s bank. The remaining woody shard, she demonstrated, is then cut back with a pruning saw. This is to neaten the base and prevent rain collecting in the groove and rotting the still-living shrub. Most of the twigs and shoots along the length of the laid stem can then finally be pruned off. It was time to have a go.

We split up into pairs to work on different sections. Hedgelaying, I soon discovered, is very tiring at first, but it was easy to become absorbed in the process of cutting, bending and clearing. Before I knew it the hedge began to be transformed. Sections that had been full of gaps and spindly braches were replaced by neat swathes of lain stems, fastened in place with “crooks” – fork-shaped branches of hazel sunk into the hedge bank to peg down the steepers. With the help of a couple of chainsaws, even the toughest oaks were cut and laid successfully, and by mid-afternoon we were almost finished.

It was incredibly rewarding to see what a difference we could make in such a short space of time, and to know how beneficial this would be in spring, when lots of new growth will appear. Together we’d given the hedge the best chance of regenerating into a healthy, diverse home for dormice, beetles and, most importantly for the Devon Bat Project, greater horseshoe bats.

For more information about hedgelaying and managing hedges for bats, follow the links below:

Hedge Management for Greater Horseshoe Bats

Devon Hedge Laying

Good Hedge Management Guide

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