Devon is a county with a wonderful diversity of landscapes – it has Dartmoor and Exmoor, undulating green fields, rocky coastlines, large areas of woodland… but the way you know you are really in Devon is by its hedges.
Much of the county is inaccessible by public transport, and I can never forget my shock when first moving here three years ago, at just how long it took to get from point A to point B by car. The whole county seemed to be covered with mile after mile of meandering green tunnels – up and down hills, endless hairpin bends – high shady trees and hedges in various states of growth and maintenance – however beautiful in themselves, I felt impatient, exasperated .
And away from the wooded areas the country lanes were narrow, and claustrophobic, flanked by savagely-cut, high hedges impossible to see over the top.
Well, one cannot stay exasperated for ever, and I grew more patient – deciding that other species had needs as well as my own. I knew of the importance of hedges to wildlife, as habitat or as corridors, and I began to pick up a few snippets of other information. I wanted to know more.
The annual Devon Hedge Week has just taken place, so I took the opportunity to go along to the Halsannery Countryside Centre for a morning’s event with Tom Hynes from Northern Devon Coast and Countryside Service. Autumn leaves of vibrant reds, golds and yellows were strewn along the edges of the track as I approached the house. It was very good to breathe the fresh leafy earth-scented air.
Tom told us a little about the history of Devon hedges, and how they have evolved. I was amazed to learn that about 20% of them have been established as long as 800 years, and many more are very old indeed! A typical hedge is formed along earth banks, often supported by dry stone walling. Plants and trees establish themselves along the top of the banks, providing a wealth of resources for wildlife. Brambles and bushes lower down the banks are especially favoured by dormice.
We walked over the fields to look at hedges that had been restored at various times in recent years, one very recent and one awaiting work, and at each hedge Tom told us about methods of hedge management. I soon learned there was much more to all this than there first seemed , depending on fitness of purpose, geographical conditions and so on. So each hedge would be unique, depending on its history, current use, and importantly, its position in the landscape.
Tom gave us a great demonstration of the traditional craft of hedge-laying (steeping), and at the end of the morning, I came away with a new appreciation of these hedges that cover so much of the county.
Regarding the question of whether or not flailing is a good thing – have a look at Paula’s brilliant post on the Locks Park Farm blog.
I still have many more questions, but on a visit to a friend’s farm today, I was able to recognise a well-laid hedge when I saw one, and its many benefits to humans and wildlife, and just how much these hedges hold together the fabric of the Devon landscape.
More info: www.devon.gov.uk/devon_hedges