Hedgerows, once essential to farmers for containing livestock, have progressively given way to post and wire fencing. As the demand for stock-proof hedgerows has waned, the quality of our existing hedgerows has declined.
To provide maximum benefit, hedgerows should be dense, wide-based and composed of native Irish trees and shrubs.
However, research conducted by Teagasc has revealed that only 1% of Ireland’s hedgerows maintain these features and are classified as of ‘high-quality’.
Among the least desirable hedgerow shapes on Irish farms is the ‘upside-down toilet brush hedge’. This shape forms where a newly planted hedge is allowed to grow unclipped, and then is annually cut back to a height of 1 to 1.5 meters.
This regime results in a hedge with a narrow base, bare stems and a fringe of growth at the top – somewhat resembling an upside-down toilet brush – and offers few of the potential benefits provided by a thick, tall and dense hedgerow.
Acknowledging the potential of hedgerows for carbon sequestration and biodiversity enhancement, Footprint Farmers are not only planting and managing hedgerows this autumn, but are also exploring the possibility of coppicing or laying to revitalize these valuable resources on their lands.
Nationwide, many farmers have also chosen to implement these actions for the first time as part of the ACRES measures.
Coppicing and laying are time-honored practices that have been carried out in the Irish landscape since pre-history.
When executed correctly, they can transform poor-quality hedgerows into sturdy barriers, providing both shelter and security for livestock and a host of benefits for climate and biodiversity.
‘Laying’ is a skilful art that entails the partial cutting of the stems of small trees at the base of the hedgerow to create ‘hinges’. Trees are then bent over at the point of these hinges to create a robust, living barrier that becomes denser over time.
A skillfully managed hedgerow two years after laying.
‘Coppicing’ is a more drastic approach, where thorn hedges are cut back close to ground level. When carried out correctly, this can prompt dense new regrowth at the base.
Importantly, skilled hedgerow management also presents an opportunity for farmers to showcase their stewardship of the Irish countryside.
To ensure farmers are positively recognised for their efforts, it’s vital that coppicing and laying are undertaken correctly, by skilled practitioners, and only when necessary.
Top tips – hedgerow management:Assess first: only once leaves have dropped in late autumn can you clearly assess the structure of your hedge.Benefits v costs: coppicing and laying are drastic management actions and labour-intensive for a number of years; only coppice or lay if the benefits clearly outweigh the costs, both to the farmer and to biodiversity.Habitat: always leave some areas of hedgerow standing to provide for wildlife while the hedge is rejuvenating.Mature trees: leave existing mature trees uncut and allow occasional young trees to grow tall and mature to provide song perches for birds.Fence: livestock must be kept well back from rejuvenating hedgerows. In some areas, rabbit, hare and/or deer fencing may also be necessary.Farm safety: carefully remove wire, posts and any rubbish in the hedge before cutting.Variety: it’s best to have a variety of hedgerow types on your farm – some managed and others free-growing – as they each provide different habitats for wildlife.Green waste: consider leaving piles of brush or cuttings in a quiet area as a wildlife habitat (burning will not be allowed after 30 November).Communicate: if you’re managing a hedge and concerned about public opinion, join the ‘Hedge Code’ or erect a simple sign to explain your hedge management actions (for more info, see www.hedgerows.ie).Consider less intrusive alternatives before coppicing. These could include fencing livestock well back from the hedge, planting up gaps, and avoiding spraying near the base to allow vegetation to naturally regenerate.Thorn hedges (whitethorn and blackthorn) are appropriate for coppicing.Begin by sawing off at 12 to 15 inches and then use a small chainsaw to cut the stems to no higher than four inches above the level of the soil.Cut stumps at a slight angle so water doesn’t pool and cause the stump to rot.It’s crucial to take the time to clear around stumps by hand to allow light to reach the base – this is what leads to low, dense regrowth.For the first few years, keep cutting regrowth back to 75mm above the previous year’s cut, gradually shaping the new growth into a triangular shape, ie, wide at the base and narrower at the top.Hedge-laying is a skilled manual craft that usually requires professional assistance.Heavy machinery is unsuitable for hedge-laying; using a digger to lay a hedge will damage root plates, break stems and destroy the hedge.Recommended tools include a small chainsaw, a small axe and a billhook.Begin by clearing the hedge of side branches and non-stem material, such as ivy or bramble.Cut the stems 80% of the way through, making your cut on the downward side and keeping it low to the ground, leaving a long ‘hinge’ area.Bend the stems 25 to 45 degrees (uphill if on a hillside).Ideally, secure with hazel stakes and finish the hedge with a binding of hazel rods.
‘Laying’ is a skilful art that entails the partial cutting of small tree stems at the base of the hedgerow to create ‘hinges’. Watch detailed demonstration videos on coppicing or laying on the Irish Farmers Journal YouTube channel.Attend an upcoming hedge management demonstration day: visit the events page on www.hedgerows.ie for more info.