Having recently mentioned hedges, I was inspired to revisit my first “hands-on” conservation project yesterday afternoon to assess its progress after thirteen years. Footloose and relatively unfocused after leaving school in 2003, I took a job as an underkeeper on a local estate. Finding my weekends more or less empty, I began to cut back a leggy old section of hawthorn hedge on my family’s farm with a view to regenerating the old stock. I had never done anything like it before, and in retrospect it seems like an odd project for a totally ignorant teenager to attempt without any experience or help. In the event, government funding was available for this kind of regeneration work, and it was one of the few times in my life when I’ve actually been able to make money out of my own sweat and tears.
I cut down the entire hedge by hand, working a bow saw until my hands were smeared with blisters. Progress took place in fits and starts, and I would often arrive on site with half an hour of daylight to spare in the short winter days, cutting down two or three of the tall, leggy trees before woodcock would start to flight past and I would return home again. I had shoulder-length curly hair at the time (an attempt to be more like Robert Plant), and this would often prove to be my undoing in the deep thorns. In due course, I built a stock-proof fence along the entire three hundred yards of the hedge, and then became distracted and thought no more of the project for the next ten years.
A visit to the hedge during the deep frost yesterday was extremely revealing. The hedge has sprung back to life with real enthusiasm and vigour, and with help from the fence, it now provides the kind of thick-bottomed cover that is so crucial for birds and wildlife. For reasons known only to themselves, brown hares have returned to the glen over the last ten years – they are now a relatively common sight when they were absolutely unheard of before. There are all kinds of intriguing explanations for this, but thick hedgerow cover for leverets is surely a contributing factor. In fact, hares have begun to crop up in some extremely un-hare-like places in this parish, and their return has been one of the most surprising and heartening reversals of any wild animal I’ve worked with. I wouldn’t claim that this upsurge in hares is as a result of my work, but it can only have helped.
Perhaps sixty percent of the old hawthorns have recovered from their cutting. This is pretty good, since I remember that many were ancient and had rotted away horribly inside. Given their condition and antiquity, the trees were quite sparsely distributed anyway, so the high mortality after cutting has produced a gappy, sparse effect. This wouldn’t be ideal if this was going to serve as an agricultural boundary, but given that it simply has to serve as a corridor for birds and wildlife to use as they move across green, heavily improved sheep pastures, the effect is more than satisfactory. It would have been good to have bolstered the dead stumps with new plants, and perhaps drawing on new blood (or sap?) will help to develop the hedge’s potential in the future. Ideally, I’d love to lay this hedge one day – watch this space.