This blog is written by Jake - residential volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Swell Wood and Greylake. 

After much anticipation, we recently started the reserve’s annual hedgelaying season - something that we’ve all been looking forward to. 

Hedgerows act as important feeding and nesting habitat for birds, mammals and insects, especially in areas where tree cover is generally low (as is the case in much of the UK). These green and bushy wildlife corridors also help connect different habitats, allowing wildlife to move across landscapes should their existing habitat become degraded or lost. For example, mature hedgerows are vital for dormice migration between woodland blocks because of the cover they provide from predators

Hedgerows have a long history that dates back to the Bronze Age (maybe even the Stone Age). Thousands of years ago, the first farmers cleared woodland to form fields, and used trees as boundaries, so forming the first hedgerows. Incredibly, some of these ancient hedgerows continue to shape the English countryside, however most that we see today were formed after the Enclosures Act in the mid-1700s, which resulted in the parcelling up of previously open common land. You can read more about the natural history of hedgerows here.

The hedgerow before being laid 

But what actually is hedgelaying? And why do we do it on the reserve? These were questions that I was asking myself a few weeks ago. Hedgelaying is where hedgerow trees are semi-cut, traditionally with a billhook, near to the ground, until the trees can be bent over and laid down, one on top of each other. Amazingly, even though most of the tree has been severed, the remaining 10% or so still connected is enough to keep it alive and healthy, and new shoots will soon form from the now horizontal trunk, as well as the stump. We lay the trees in this way to ensure that the hedgerow remains dense and bushy at the base, which provides important cover for wildlife. Without such management, gaps tend to form as the trees grow upward and vegetation at the base suffers and dies back because of a lack of sunlight. 

A work in progress 

Clearly, hedgelaying has important ecological benefits, but it’s also an art form in some circles - a highly skilled countryside tradition where the intricate weaving together of trees is done in differing regional styles from the Isle of Wight to Yorkshire – well worth checking out. Here at West Sedgemoor though, our hedgerows certainly aren’t going to win any competitions – we practise ‘conservation hedgelaying’, which favours a scruffier, less stylised approach. It’s cheaper and less time consuming than traditional hedgelaying, but the effect on wildlife is the same, allowing us to restore more hedges and provide a greater benefit to the environment. 

All pictures by Jake