Thursday, 20 March 2014

Final session

Monday and Tuesday saw Fred, Ian and myself complete phase two of the Avery Hill hedge. This was sixty-nine meters of a rather low thin hedge, comprised mostly of Field Maple and Hawthorn, with some flowering cherry, Holly and Privet mixed in. Given the early spring weather, and to be on the safe-side, a comprehensive nest check was done on Saturday, with no sign of any nest building found. As with phase one, that can be seen in the distance in the shot below, the hedge is overshadowed by mature trees along almost its entire length and this will no doubt restrict regrowth.

There are two bus stops used by the students adjacent to this section of the hedge and we had to work around the pick-up times and close off sections of the footpath off-peak.

I pleached-in this stem at right angles in order to get a bit of body into a thin section of the hedge and it worked out rather well.

We brought in an additional 60 stakes and 60 binders to replace the rather poor materials supplied and I think this helped the appearance of the finished hedge.

So that's it - all over till the autumn. Thanks to everyone who has helped along the way with advice, guidance, practical assistance or just good old friendship. Let's hope it's a good summer with lots of great birding opportunities and that there are nice hedges to lay in the coming season.

Sunday, 16 March 2014


The annual Maasheggen hedgelaying festival took place at Beugen, close to the Maas river system, south-east of Nijmegen on Sunday 9th March. Like no other hedgelaying competition I have ever attended, it is a huge event, drawing an estimated crowd of nine to ten thousand spectators. The weather was glorious right from the start and below you can see the competitors getting their pre-competition talk.

Only the local Maasheggen style is allowed in the competition itself and Phil and Dave had entered as a team - teams are the norm in Dutch competitions, with up to five competitors in each team. Peter and I had been asked to do demonstration cants of Midland and South of England, as were a team from Flanders doing their local style and Jef Gielen constructing a 'wildlife hedge'.
Our cants were in the field furthest away from the entrance and marquee and rather heavy, considering that we were laying with hand tools only - serves me right for pontificating about the overuse of chainsaws.


 This is my bit about half way though. The temperature had got to 18c or so by then and the sweat was pouring off me. You can see John's Land Rover and tent in the background and beyond that some of the hedges being worked on by those in the competition.

Despite our somewhat remote location, we attracted good crowds and here is Peter giving it some welly on a particularly heavy stem, making the pleaching cut and taking off the heal at the same time. He got a well deserved round of applause for his efforts. Note how the public are allowed close to the cutter - no chainsaws of course - and the brush had to be placed behind where the public are standing, in specifically marked areas so that they had a good view.

This is my finished cant, with Jef and his assistant finishing off their 'wildlife hedge' in the foreground. You will see that he has used living stakes (crops) and incorporated almost all the available material to create a very wide, dense hedge.

 Difficult to gauge what the spectators thought of the South of England style, as the Dutch are naturally very polite but many said it was 'beautiful'. I'm not sure if this meant neat and tidy or perhaps over-fussy for what is, after all, a field boundary. The use of binders would certainly have been something new to them and these willow ones gave a very nice finish.

The Dutch style is very different from anything seen in the UK, with pleaching cuts made at various heights and the stems at a low angle, and horizontal along the top of the hedge. The example below won second prize in the competition and the team of three are laying the final stems along the top of the hedge which, with the live crops, makes for a very strong hedge. The result is rather sparse to our eyes but regrowth would no doubt be good.

This was the winning hedge. Most of the side growth has been removed but they have laid most of the stems from low down, somewhat reminiscent of the 'Yorkshire' style.

And here are two very happy Englishmen, who produced a creditable version of a Massheggen.

We all had a great day. The weather was fabulous and the hospitality of our hosts second to none. The lasting impression was one of huge crowds, meticulous organisation, the unbridled enthusiasm of the competitors and a genuine interest in the wildlife value of hedgerows from the spectators.More photos of the trip can be seen here.


A bonus for me was my first ever sighting of migrating Common Cranes (Grus grus) when sixty one flew over the site at 10am - very special.

I also got to meet Georg Muller, the author of 'Europe's Field Boundaries'. This work is the result of more than thirty years of study and documentation of field boundaries of all kinds in twenty-three European countries - a true magnum opus. If you interested have a look at his web site here.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Heggen-vlechten in Nederland

Last week I was very fortunate to be able to join a small team of hedge layers from the south of England on a trip to The Netherlands. The purpose of the trip was to help with some commercial hedge laying, provide training opportunities and to take part in the annual Maasheggenvlechten hedgelaying festival.

Hedgelaying in The Netherlands had all but died out after the last world war but there has been a strong revival in the last ten years led by a small but dynamic group of enthusiasts, supported by local authorities and conservation organisations. The old style of hedge laying used in The Netherlands is shrouded in the mists of time with very little documentary evidence available. The style now practised is the subject of much discussion as to it's heritage but it is accepted as authentic in some quarters, although there are moves to adopt a more 'English' style in some areas.

As you can imagine I took a lot of photos and a selection of these can be found here.

Our first day was spent laying a section of a rather nice hedge that was to be part of a new bridle way with a new hedge planted alongside. As you can see it was a bright frost morning. The hedge has been topped in the past and some of the stems are large and multi-part.

We were laying this on a commercial basis and so worked as a team, with a chainsaw cutter working with a layer, followed up by two others staking, binding and tidying up. A reported from a Dutch Radio and TV station had joined us at our hotel after breakfast and accompanied us to the hedge, doing live radio interviews for the morning news programme and making a short film that was broadcast on the evening TV news - fame at last!

 It was a nice bright day so we cracked on at a good pace and, with three Dutch teams laying short cants, we completed 175 meters, which for the English team equated to about 30 meters per man.

With hazel stakes and binders being in short supply in The Netherlands our hosts had procured chestnut 'tomato stakes' from France, which were un-cleft and about and inch and a half to two inches in diameter. A good size for fitting in the hedge centre but slightly shorter in length than would have been ideal. The binders were willow and very nice indeed, being fresh, a good length, free from side branches and of a consistent diameter.

The end result was very pleasing and, as it was my task for the day, if I don't know how to stake and bind a SoE hedge now, I never will. You can see that a new fence is being erected on the left and a new hedge will be planted alongside this.

A great treat for me was the appearance of a dozen or so White Storks. There was a nesting area just over the river at the end of the hedge and on several occasions during the day they circled overhead in a communal display. I believe these to be descendants of birds reintroduced to the area in the late 1960s.

On day two we helped out with a training session for about twenty people who had signed up for a six day course on hedge management. This was the final day of the course and was a session of practical hedge laying in SoE style. The students had attended talks on hedge management and had some previous experience of cutting and laying. All were very enthusiastic and keen to get hands-on with the hedge. Our host Lex Roeleveld from Sichting Heg-en-Ladschap (The Hedge and Landscape Foundation) gave a short introductory talk and Phil followed this with a short session on tools and tool sharpening.

The hedge was a mixed species maiden of about twelve years and part had been laid by the students in a previous session.

Most of the stems were easily manageable with hand tools but there were a few that presented a challenge but this young woman did a great job cutting the pleach and removing the large heal with her axe.

As you can see the hedge was not very bushy and very little material was removed. However the finished product was a good, stock-proof hedge and a credit to the students.

 Day three saw us move to another area of the country, closer to the German border and near the river Maas. We were working with members of the Heggengilde, an association of professional hedge layers. They were interested in seeing English commercial hedge laying techniques and to brush up on their axe work. A 75 meter section of Hawthorn hedge was chosen as being suitable for chainsaw work and typical of what you might expect on a commercial job. Perhaps a bit heavy for axe work but these were experienced cutters.

Here we see a familiar figure in blue overalls demonstrating the tricks of the trade - the most important of which is how to quickly decide what is coming out of the hedge before pleaching the stem.

One of the Guild members gets in some axe work.


 It's not very often that you get to eat lunch al fresco in temperatures of 17c in early March. And what a lunch it was - home smoked salmon, 'hedgelayers' soup and fried egg and ham sandwiches.

The finished hedge featuring a nice smooth 90 degree turn.

 I think I'll cover the competition in a separate post tomorrow.