The first thing I did was plant a hedge.
Within three hours of collecting the keys from the estate agent, I was digging in a line ofhawthorn whips. I had hardly been inside our new house, and focused instead on more important matters. Much of my conservation work is characterized by impatience; a refusal to postpone. There is no time like the present, particularly when it comes to projects which may take years to reach fruition.
Hedges are best planted in February and March. This was late April, and the conditions looked poor for the young trees. The ground was baked hard by days of dry weather, and the bare-root plants were parched and tired. Some of the twigs had produced pale, sickly buds and several of the young tree bundles were on the edge of exhaustion. If I didn’t act quickly, I would not only miss a year but I would also lose some fine young trees.
The rain refused to come for days. I fell to watering the young hawthorns by hand, watching the water gurgle down into the deep spade slots. The trees slumped and foundered for a fortnight, held on life support. Some seemed to die, and I wondered if I had been a victim of my over-enthusiasm. I balanced this fear with the certainty that hedges are a cornerstone of agricultural conservation. I’ve planted long stretches of hedgerow over the past ten years, and these have been extremely useful for wildlife. Lessons learnt on the Chayne and elsewhere would surely apply to this new place, which seemed to have all kinds of quality habitats but lacked dense hedge cover. Even if I failed in 2017, I had made a start.
When the rain finally came, the young trees slowly came to life. They put out a few cursory leaves, and I was astonished to find that less than 1% had died. After a poor start, the plants did little more than hold their ground for the rest of the summer. Few grew more than an inch or two. Their worst experience came when I accidentally trashed a handful of them with the hay bob in early September, but after the grass had been bundled up and carried away, the young hedge was enshrined in a new stockproof fence.
We do not have much space here, and the fence was a necessary evil. I wanted the hedge to be wide enough to offer a meaningful grass margin, but this came at a cost to the area of workable land. If we make hay in this field again in 2018, I will be at least twenty bales short. This is a pity, but I am fascinated to find myself facing trade-off between productivity and conservation – it’s a well-known dilemma.
Our sheep grazed the hayfield all through the autumn. They mowed down the resurgent grass until it was reduced to a sour yellow stubble. The hedge thickened inside the fence. The grass grew deep and green around the young trees, safe from hungry mouths.
There are hares on the low ground, and I had hoped that this hedge and others would lure them up around the farmhouse. Cover, food, shelter and variety offer a strong attraction for all kinds of wildlife, but so much of this will come as the hedge matures. I am working for the future, and I have to accept that these processes work over decades.
Having braced myself for a long wait, I could hardly believe my eyes when I found a hare in the hedge on Boxing Day. The tired, bow-backed shape slipped beneath the wire and loped away through the frost, and I was left reeling with delight. It would be ludicrous to claim that this short section of new hedge has already made a meaningful impact on the local hare population, but there’s now good grazing where there was none before. This is the first hare we have seen up here in almost nine months, and his visit was no coincidence.
Conservation is founded upon dialogue with nature. Having said my piece and established a hedge, it is infinitely satisfying to find that a hare has responded. A nudge like this provides all the encouragement I need to push on with further hedging in 2018.