Laying Redland Green's field maple hedge

Members of RGCG and other volunteers from the local community laid the field maple hedge running alongside the Metford Road allotments on the weekend of January 19 & 20 2019.

We are most grateful to Redland and Cotham Amenities Society who funded this work, having also funded the Green's mixed species hedge laid in November 2018.

We are also grateful to Jerry Cole, North Area Grounds Supervisor in the Parks and Estates Department of Bristol City Council, who approved this work and who supported RGCG with safety fencing and personal protective equipment for participants. He also arranged for the off-cuts to be chipped and removed afterwards. They will be deposited in the adjacent Metford Road allotments, where wood chippings are much in demand. They are principally used as a mulch to surface paths between vegetable beds, but are also put in compost bins to rot down, after which they make a nutritious addition to the soil of vegetable beds. This is a good example of finding a really local use for what would otherwise be regarded as waste, and a great example of sharing and co-operation between different entities.

The field maple hedge running along the boundary of the Green with Metford Road allotments is about 30 years old. It has been maintained by Bristol City Council, who have pollarded the trunks and trimmed back the side growth every few years. This treatment has resulted - as, sadly, is the case with most hedgerows in the countryside - in a hedge which lacks density at its base and which has many gaps, some of which can be seen in the pictures below. The trunks are thick, but the network of branches which regenerate after cutting are thin and spindly. The hedge offers little value to wildlife. Laying the hedge will lengthen the lifespan of the hedge and will provide a good refuge for invertebrates, small mammals and amphibians, and will, when it grows, provide safe nesting sites for birds.

The hedge looked attractive in autumn, but there are gaps in a number of places along its stretch, more obvious in winter than when the trees in leaf.

Apart from a bit of drizzle on Saturday morning, we were very fortunate to have good weather - and even a tiny bit of sun! We were a mix of absolute novices and more experienced hedge-layers. Our tutor, Malcolm Dowling (more about Malcolm below), let the more experienced of us get on with the preparation while he tutored the first-timers and demonstrated the theory and practice, taking breaks to enthusiastically extol the pleasures and virtues of hedge-laying to any and all passers-by who expressed an interest. Most people who passed through the park didn't seem to mind the path being closed off while we worked, and quite a few were surprised and interested to see a traditional countryside craft taking place in the city. We are indeed fortunate, as there are not that many hedges to lay in urban Bristol.

The hedge started out with a dense network of thin and spindly branches, which had to be cleared for access to the trunk prior to laying it. The side growth up to a height of about 1.5 metres was cut off. Dense tangles of ivy had also to be removed.

After clearing the side branches, the main trunk can be cut into. Traditonally done with a billhook, here a chainsaw was used because of the thickness of the 30 year old trunks.

After cutting into the trunk, an axe is used to further split the trunk below the cut. The extra length gives the remaining attached trunk the flexibility it needs to be laid on its side.

Extra care had to be taken, as field maple is a tree which snaps easily.

Work progressed concurrently on different stretches of the hedge. The thin branches at the top of the tree remain in place and are laid along with the trunk. Some are woven behind and under the laid trunks for extra density. The thick ground cover provided by the laid trunks is valuable habitat for invertebrates and small mammals, such as field mice.

It wasn't long before the local wildlife came to give our work a look over!

The trees along the longest south-west facing stretch of fence have more sun than the north-west facing length of fence and had grown much more, with thicker trunks. Some of them required a good deal of encouragement to lay down!

It seems miraculous that the tree will survive and regenerate after most of its trunk has been severed, but it does. In spring, the tree will sprout new vertical growth from growth points all along the laid trunks.

Where a tree has several trunks, each can be cut into to be laid, providing extra valuable density at the hedge's base.

We all enjoyed ourselves immensely and learned a lot more about laying hedges. The two hedges now laid in the Green have been very different experiences. The first hedge, of mixed species, was better for the complete novice. We learned the basics with traditional instruments (billhook and axes) as the trees were younger and thus had smaller trunks, and had not previously been cut back in any way. This much older hedge was typical of many hedges in the countryside which have been flail cut, and this experience is therefore valuable for the advanced novice to learn how to lay older, non-traditionally managed hedges.

In the process of laying the hedge, we also uncovered a lot of rubble and rubbish which will be taken to the council recycling and waste facility.

Malcolm Dowling, our hedge-layer and trainer, started laying hedges when he retired at the age of 60, and is now a champion hedge layer of 79.

This photograph was taken in November 2017 when Malcolm was laying one of the Metford Road Community Orchard's two hedgerows.

Malcolm, who trades under the name "Grandad", also builds dry stone walls - another ancient countryside skill.

Malcolm's 19 year old grandson, Ollie, provided invaluable assistance. Ollie has been helping Malcolm lay hedges since he was 8 years old, and is now a competent and experienced hedge-layer.