The ranger team along with our volunteers manage the hedgerows around the Millennium Country Park, this includes a traditional craft that has been an important part of conservation and land management for many generations: hedgelaying.

Hedgelaying or ‘plashing’ was first recorded in Tudor times, but probably developed hundreds - if not a couple of thousand - years before. It's a way of rejuvenating hedges to thicken them up, especially towards the base, and make them stockproof once again. This work is undertaken during the autumn and winter months.

It’s an old management technique which keeps the hedges thick, traditionally meaning they can effectively shelter grazing sheep and cattle. Today we know that they are also an important wildlife haven, providing an excellent passageway for bats, birds, and smaller mammals to move around safely and out of the sight of predators. 

Image: Volunteers getting involved with hedgelaying at the Millennium Country Park

Why is hedgelaying important?

If simply left to grow, hedges become "leggy" and develop gaps towards the bottom over years. Similarly, if cut to a similar height and width each year, they still develop gaps near the base.

In a farm setting this could allow sheep or cattle to escape through these gaps and in to adjacent fields where they would happily graze on the crops. To thicken up the hedge and make it stockproof again farm labourers would ‘lay’ each hedging plant over at an angle of 35-45 degrees and support the newly laid limbs with stakes set into the ground and standing shoulder height tall, set about 18 inches (45cm) apart - roughly the distance from your index finger to your elbow, for comparison.

Different parts of the country developed different styles of hedgelaying, suited to local needs and locally available resources. At the Millennium Country Park, we employ a version of a south midland (bullock-proof) style using stakes and binders cut from hazel growing around the Park and our other Forest sites. You can already see an example of a laid hedge of this style along Station Road - look carefully and you can see the main trunks laying diagonally. This was done in 2014 by the Forest of Marston Vale volunteers and rangers.

In a traditional farm setting one side of the hedge would be left with all the twiggy growth uncut (usually the side to keep the stock in). On the other side the twiggy growth would be ‘sided up’, much like you would do with your garden hedge to achieve a neat finish - and not encroach on where the crops are growing. From a conservation point of view it is good practice to leave some taller, larger hedge plants to grow into trees or ‘standards’ as they are known.

Hedges need to be between at least 7 to 10 years old to be laid in the first place. Prior to laying the hedge, it must first be prepared. Access to both sides of the hedge is needed so that can often mean siding up both sides of the hedge as high as can be reached. Any tree guards also need to be removed.

Image: Hedgelaying work at the Millennium Country Park

Before you can begin to lay a hedge you need to decide in which direction to lay it. A hedge is generally laid in the same direction along its length and in an uphill direction following any rise in ground level, however small. This is done so that the dormant buds near the ground can be encouraged by the rising sap to burst in to life.

To lay the hedge you have to ‘plash’ or pleach the stem to reduce it in thickness so it can bend without breaking it. Traditionally an axe or a billhook would be used to reduce the stem near the base to a long thin tongue of sapwood and cambium (the living layer of the tree through which nutrients and fluids pass up and down the tree). Once the stem is thin enough it will naturally begin to bend over and it can be brought down to lay at the desired angle. It is useful to have someone to support the stem as it is laid as, at this stage, the pleach can be quite fragile.

Once a length of hedge has been laid the stakes are added to help support the weight of the hedge plants until they begin to regrow and the pleachers callous over and stiffen. Further structural support is provided by binders being woven along the tops of the stakes. Binders are long thin whippy hazel or willow branches (similar to those used in basket weaving).

Laying a hedge is labour intensive but - if properly maintained - can last for decades. We hope that by taking the time and traditional approach we'll have healthy, thriving hedges at the Millennium County Park for many years to come!

 Image: Volunteers hedgelaying at the Millennium Country Park

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Our volunteers kindly donate their time to help us plant trees and look after our Community Woodlands and Millennium Country Park. For just over £1 per week you can help support us too:

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