On Monday, 7 December 2020, hedgelaying work was started on the hedge to the right of the path from the War memorial down to the leisure centre. The work was carried out by Paul Sinton (www.paulsinton.com) and his team on behalf of Warwick District Council.
About 5 years ago, Friends of Abbey Fields helped plant several sections of hedges in Abbey Fields, including the gaps in this hedge. Part of the ongoing management of Abbey Fields is to keep the hedges in good order which is good for wildlife as well as for the hedges. The first part of the hedge from the War Memorial towards the leisure centre is the section WDC is looking at now. This first section of the hedge has been laid this year and WDC will allow it to grow out, and then do a further section in a year or two and so on until the hedge has been laid all the way down to Finham Brook.
The aim is to have a nice, dense, healthy hedge with standard trees interspersed. This is good for wildlife and for people to enjoy. In addition, the area of ground immediately next to the hedge on its east side (i.e., facing towards the Priory Theatre) will continue to be allowed to grow wild with brambles and nettles etc., so that this and the hedge and brambles will ensure a safe wildlife-friendly environment. These laid hedges form an important wildlife haven as they provide an excellent passageway for bats, birds and small mammals to move safely from place to place out of the sight of predators. Over time the hedge will be allowed to grow out and will be laid again some years in the future.
Hedgelaying is a skilled traditional activity which has been practiced for centuries. It is a winter activity, carried out when the sap is ‘down’, which Paul Sinton and his colleagues have been carrying out for many years. Each year they complete a lot of work for WDC.
Managed hedges require ‘laying’ every 10-20 years. Initially the hedge layer removes all rubbish such as litter, old fencing, ivy and dead wood which may have collected since the original planting or a subsequent laying. This allows light into the bottom of the hedge which will encourage new shoots to grow.
Trees and shrubs are then pruned to get rid of surplus and unwanted material. The stems are then partially cut through at an angle so that the stem can be bent over whilst still remaining attached to the original stem so that it can continue to grow. The term for these bent over stems is pleachers. It is from the pleachers that the new growth will emerge. Whilst the hedgelayer is bending the pleachers over he will be banging stakes into the ground about 18 inches apart and weaving the pleachers into them to keep them aligned and tidy. The stakes are often made from coppiced hazel. When the pleaches have reached the desired height, they are held in place by hethers, again often made of hazel. These are woven between the stakes and twisted together to form a strong and resilient binding at the top of the laid hedge which will keep it secure and stops wind damage. As the hedge grows it becomes thicker and stronger and makes a more effective barrier.
Note above, the Hethers which are horizontal, and the Stakes which are diagonal.
There are different styles of hedgelaying to be found across the UK and others in Europe. The styles developed over the years according to the availability of local weather, materials and farming requirements. All animals use hedges to provide shelter in adverse conditions and what might suffice for sheep will probably not for larger animals such as horses or cattle. In the midlands you frequently see Midland Bullock which was developed for larger animals.
Note above, the Pleached trees/shrubs (diagonal) Stakes (vertical) and Hethers (horizontal)
People have asked about the equipment being used by Paul and his team when they see the modern chain saws and hedge trimmers. In the past a hedgelayer would use a billhook, handsaws and heavy mallets.
Today the same effect can be achieved by skilled workers with modern equipment in a fraction of the time it took in the past. As Paul said “In the past a man would plough a field with a horse and a small plough with a single ploughshare. Today you have a tractor and a plough with multiple ploughshares. Which would you prefer to use?”