You can get asked a lot of interesting questions when you start writing a blog. You can end up being quoted in all sorts of places as well. Providing part of a clergyman’s sermon on one hand, quoted as part of somebody’s university paper on the other. (In fact because it’s ‘published’ in a blog it can be ‘referenced’ and is therefore fair game to use as evidence. As opposed to something Jim just said because he might just say the first thing that came into his head.
But one question I got was from an American gentleman called Scottie who has a blog of his own at https://scottiestoybox.com/
He wrote, “I am intrigued by the idea of sheep and cattle being kept in an area by hedges. In my childhood my grandparents and uncles had farms. I know that was a long time ago, but I remember the pastures all being fenced. The runs were fenced. I can not recall any area that was simply a hedge. Yet I your writings I have seen you mention the hedges with the sheep before. Just for my curiosity can you expand some time on the subject? Such as how much is hedges alone, do the sheep need to be trained about hedges, why don’t they eat the hedges and so many ideas and questions? Oh and what about predators, do the hedges discourage them?”
It’s questions like that which remind us that it’s a big world, and just how different things are when you travel. So it struck me that for Scottie and others it might make sense to explain a bit.
As usual I’ve just borrowed pictures off the web. None of them is mine, so any artistic flair is entirely that of the original photographer.
The first picture shows a reasonably good hedge. It looks plausibly stock-proof and it’ll keep cattle in for a fair while and but it won’t hold sheep for quite so long.
The problem comes because cattle are by nature a woodland animal and they’ll eat leaves off trees. They love sycamore. Sheep are also happy enough to eat leaves. Both animals will browse, spot something they like, stretch out their neck to reach it, move forward a bit, see something else they like, move forward to reach it, and before you know where you are, they’re through the hedge.
Cattle aren’t too bad, unless the hedge is in poor condition with obvious low spots. They won’t push through solid thorn or even solid sycamore. Sheep will slowly but steadily eat their way through, perhaps because they’re almost coming ‘under’ the thorns.
The second picture shows somebody ‘laying a hedge’. (Round here hedges are also known as ‘dikes’ but in this case I’ll stick with the term ‘laying a hedge’ because ‘laying a dike’ might loose something in translation.)
To lay the hedge you cut partially through the upright timber, close to the ground. You then bend it over and lay it on top of the last one you laid. Depending on circumstances and local styles you might weave it round posts or you might leave some pieces long enough to be woven around. But this chap is showing you what you have to do every ten or fifteen years to keep a hedge stock-proof.
Picture 3 shows a hedge protected from livestock by barbed wire. If you’ve got dairy cows a hedge like that one will probably be good enough in itself, but with younger stock who are more adventurous it’s wise to have barbed wire. For most cattle you’ll get away with a ‘breast wire’. Looking at the picture, instead of having four wires, you’d have one, the breast wire. I’d suggest you’d probably have the second one from the top.
When we started running cows with their calves as a suckler herd, we put a second wire up because the calves can walk under the breast wire. This isn’t normally a problem because obviously they can just walk back. But sometimes, when it’s wet, they snuggle into the hedge out of the weather. When they ‘unsnuggle’ and stand up, it is entirely possible for them to stand up on the wrong side of the hedge and they’ve inadvertently escaped. So we had two wires, the second a hammer shaft length below the breast wire.
Then for Picture 4, if you have sheep, forget barbed wire. Sheep will push between wires, protected by their fleece. And as they push they gradually work with wires loose, so everything just sort of sags. With sheep you need sheep netting. This keeps the sheep away from the hedge and protects it from being eaten. You notice there is a breast wire above the sheep netting. Personally I’d make that barbed wire not plain. The reason for this is that if you have cattle (or horses) and plain wire, they’ll just use it to rub themselves on. Half a ton of bovine putting its full weight on the wire to have a really good scratch will very soon loosen everything, and at this point your cow will just step over the sagging remains that are left.
So why hedges?
Well in theory they can keep livestock in place without using wire. If you’re back with pre-First Word War levels of labour, you could probably get away without wire. You’ll have enough men to keep the hedges laid, gaps mended and everything stock proof.
Nowadays, you have to have the wire.
The advantages of the hedge are that it does provide excellent shelter, keeping the weather off the livestock, giving them somewhere to huddle when we have driving wind and rain.
There are a whole heap of environmental advantages as well, as each hedge can be a linear woodland connecting up with lots of other linear woodlands. With regard to predators they do provide cover for foxes and suchlike, but then for those engaged in fox control, the hedge is also the road the fox will use and you wait at an appropriate place to intercept the target.
You’ll find that owls and hawks also patrol the hedgerows, keeping their eyes open for rats, mice etc.
So there you have it. Hedgerows for beginners, if we had to start from scratch with an infinite expanse of prairie we probably wouldn’t have bothered with hedges either. But with a century or so to get themselves properly established, they’re pretty useful.
How old are our hedges? Max Hooper was the Biologist and historian who pointed out that as hedges grow older, the number of constituent species increases at a steady rate. In simple terms you get one extra woody species every hundred years. So pace out 33 yards, and count up the number of woody species in the hedge as you do it, the number of species is the age of the hedge in centuries.
It’s a rule of thumb and obviously doesn’t work well if somebody set out to plant a hedge with a lot of different species but it’s reasonable enough. Also I suspect that, because there are only so many woody species to be found in particular areas, it might underestimate the age of some of the older hedges. But I suspect most of ours had been planted before the Mayflower sailed.
Finally, as an aside, I’ve got another book out.
Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.
For a mere 99p
Or for Scottie and our American friends, at
for a mere $1.28
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.