Hedgerows – Bounties Untold

Ted Cook (Heritage Specialist)

(Seedsavers Assos. – CELT jointly sponsored Day Course at The Seedsavers Assoc. of Ireland, Scariff, Co. Clare. Saturday October 14th 2006)

The aim of this Day Course was to demonstrate that the Ancient Forest Pattern of Life is not entirely lost – so long as efficient Wildlife Corridoors are maintained and managed, that connect WATER/WETLAND to MOUNTAIN/HEATH to WOODLAND/SPINNEY to FARMLAND/MEADOW.

The Autumnal Tones and Bright Light added movement – on a classical October Day – to our Outdoor Field Day at Seedsavers; reminding us that we are primarily an Outdoor Species. That the phenomenon of farming with its attendant sedate lifestyle is quite recent in relation to our Hunter-Gatherer origins.

Our earliest roads were “Cow Paths” – in Irish we know them as “Bothair”, or the “Way of the Cow” – Neolithic Mans first inroads to the Aboriginal Temperate Rainforests that covered our islands. And as we progressively felled (Mediaeval German Verb – FIELD) the Great Wood for Livestock Husbandry and Tillage, the inroads with their generous wooded margins remained. Ireland’s earliest Roadside Hedgerows were expressly protected and specified under Brehon Law Code – Irelands’ Ancient Land Law.

With inherent Passion for Existence common to all genetic organisms, none can have been so relieved as the Wild beings of the Woods when in 1667, the Dublin Parliament enacted the “Cattle Act” (the first of our Enclosure Statutes under the newly enforced English Common Law). The bulk of Irelands’ 785 000 miles (circa) Field Boundaries and Ditches date from 1667, as provided for in the enactments of our House of Commons in College Green, Dublin.

The “Haggard Bush” or Hawthorn (otherwise May tree or Whitethorn), along with Furze, Broom and Blackthorn were prescribed varieties under the 1667 Act. The same decade of the 17th Century has been documented by Eileen McCracken (Woodlands of Ireland 1600) as the definitive years of unbridled Oakwood Clearances.

The contemporaneously planted and wisely sited “sporty lives of Woodland run wild” (Wordsworth) offered the only avenue of escape to “the Owl; Mouse; the Great; the Outlaw and the Mycorrhizal Fungus” – can’t you hear the sigh of Relief of the Wildbeings?

While our “Outraged and Plundered” race witnessed the brutal Cromwellian Campaign, the Flowers of the Forest raced for survival – among them the Yarrow; Meadowsweet and Wild Mint – the 3 Primary Medicinal Plants of the Druidic Caste. Our shrews and Hedgehogs and Pale Primrose Blossom abide and rest along Irelands’ largest naturalised Manmade Monument.

In the height of the Penal Period, Hedge Masters shared their literacy and memory under the cover of this Monument – in 1941, DeValera sent our School children to tap the infinitely renewable Vitamin C resource of our roadside and Field Boundaries hanging heavy with secrets untold – Rosehip; Damson; Wild/ Crab apple; Bilberry; Blackberry; Bullace etc. that scurvy be checked during that stupefying 6 year World War.

Capparoe Townland, where Seedsavers have camped in the heard of Thomond – (in the face of a threat more sinister than that presented to Brian Boru by the hordes of Philistine Vikings – namely the Creature Spirit of G.M.O’s) is adorned with species rich and (thankfully) sensitively maintained Hedges. Dressed in Dogrose and Woodbine – and swathes of gleaming Ivy, we assessed the Benefits and functions of Structural Diversity of the field hedges – in addition to the Species Diversity of the ground; field; shrub and higher plants. And Management Options concerning hedge – laying; coppicing and the simple skill of “recruiting” hedgerow Trees and their after care.

Research by Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland (CVNI) in the early 1990’s concluded that as much as 15% of Ireland’s Hardwood Resource remains in our field networks; that 600 of our 817 indigenous flowering plants find their habitat in the dappled shade of our ditches and that, in common with the remnant shreds of Wildwood, the mast; leaf and twig drop continue to provide the necessaries for abundant decomposer fungus and insect, that in time transmute the litter into powerful pro-biotic mycorrhizam that maintains the life processes of the surrounding soils – that sustain us as Human Beings.

We learnt to be watchful of Aspen and Suckering European Elm, as and when they occur and establish in the “fence of bushes”.

And of very particular relevance to the adjacent Orchards, we profiled the History and Pathology of Fire blight and Hawthorn Mildew (respectively a Bacterium and Fungus) for which no chemical control exists – and which pose fatal problems for both Hawthorn and Apple Genera. In the case of Hawthorn Mildew, a chemical (Triadmefon) has emerged commercially but remains strictly prohibited from use on Hedgerow and Woodland species. Best Practice and Experience has proven that in the vicinity of Orchards, Hedges are managed in late Summer (preferably July) and never in late Spring – the latter practice results in presenting harbours and evergy sources for harmful Bacteria – specifically Fireblight. And is illegal under the amended 2000 Wildlife Act. (March 1st to August 31st is the Statutory Protection Period for our Hedges).

Additionally we evaluated other Regulations – the 1991 Roads Act that places the “Duty of Care” on Roadside Landholders to inspect and remove arboreal dangers to the Road User. This writer suggests that Ivy be carefully controlled along the Roadside because of its’ tendency to mask Die-back; Deadwood; Decay and Disease. Like our Attic Woodworm Species, Ivy has presented some degree of Infestation along our Hedge Heritage simply because they have run out of Habitat – Wildwood.

Of serious impact on the field and under-canopy storey of Hedges are the introduced Snowberry; Giant Hogweed; Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Knotweed – additional vigilance is required for the American Bramble (Rubus spectabilis).

We noted that other and subtle Fungus that is associated with measuring Air Quality – the Lichen. At Capparoe, the “good story” pollution-intolerant species are ubiquitous – with relatively little of the Orange Sulphur tolerant Zanthoria species. Careful attention in such “Conservation Zones” as Capparoe, to presence or otherwise of Zanthoria is of critical importance. We identified and noted a number of “Clean Air” lichens.

Research in the U.K. in the aftermath of the Foot and Mouth outbreak suggests that where field Boundaries were dense and stout – our bovines were relatively safe. Vets have told this writer over the years that the same holds true for Brucellosis ie. Livestock are note exposed tactilely to one another. The same may again hold true to secure our Vegetable Haggards (enclosures) from hungry predators – unquestionably, and as has been demonstrated, food shortages are associated, progressively, with what our late friend John Seymour called “the Frankenstein Crops” with their associated “Terminator Technology”.

After Lunch, time was afforded to introducing the simple skill of propagation of Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Hazel, Woodbine, Ash, Oak and our much maligned Sallow (also Sally or Willow) – truly the “Prince of the Copse” – our source of Aspirin, Basketry, the host bush of no less than 266 invertebrates (Dept. Agriculture Northern Ireland) and the timber used in the making of the Sound Box of the Brian Boru Harp (Trinity College Dublin 12th Century) and importantly the first flowering catkin to greet the re-emerging Bombus (Bumblebee – that tanker of nectar) during early Spring. Important to us because as many as 40 food plants (fruit and Vegetables) in Ireland rely on pollination by the “Bombus”.

As participation included a number of Farmers – we exchanged views on the merits or otherwise of REPS in relation to grant-aiding New Hedges for our countryside. A financial package is available but only for up to 300 meters of new hedging.

Regrettably REPS I, launched in 1995, penalised participating REPS farmers that allowed their hedges exceed 5 feet – it is heartening to note at least some degree of “ecology” in the current/impending REPS 4.

Was it on RTE or Local Radio, this writer described REPS as the Rural Environmental Persecution Scheme – thankfully “Species” are again breathing easily in their roosts, cocoons, nests, song posts, sunning posts, holts, burrows, warrens, sets and layers, along the Hedges.

“Privacy” was no small factor during our interactive contributions – we were unanimous in endorsing the old adage “Best neighbours keep good Fences”.

We ambled through the Seedsavers’ newly acquired acreage and observed the “gold and burgundy brightening Autumn” in the late afternoon evensong – more resembling Vespers as the land – full-lunged, began its out breath of Nocturne and the last of the Hover flies, Wild Honey Bees, Wasps and Bumblebees milled about the few remaining Ivy blossoms – at Capparoe the fruits have already set on the curtains of Ivy. That same “Passion for Existence” will soon be stirring among the Fieldfare and Redwings to our cold north – as they gather in Scandinavia and Iceland for their Southbound Winter quarters along Irelands berry-laden Hedgerow Internet.

And by 5pm we reflected on that other freely-given benefit: because in addition to conferring stability on the land by literally holding the earth together, Ireland’s field hedges offer another “Great Store” – our sad hearts to gladden – the gift of Psychic Stability among our very own Species as we manage the Stupefying Transition that currently permeates Rural Ireland.

Hedgerows – A vital part of our landscape and heritage

Bob Wilson, CELT (published in the Clare Champion)

Our network of hedgerows form more than just boundaries and stock-proof barriers. They are shelter for both wild and domestic animals. They are a place where a big percentage of our native trees and shrubs survive. They are cover for wildlife to move through the countryside. They are nesting sites for birds. They are home to many of the friendly predatory insects that feed on the pestilent bugs which attack crops.

Many of our hedgerows have existed for hundreds of years – especially those of roadsides and townland boundaries. These were either planted or they developed naturally along the walls and ditches constructed by our ancestors. The older the hedge, the greater the number of different species of trees and shrubs growing in it. Studies have shown that it takes roughly a hundred years for each new species to establish itself in an existing planted hedge.

Many birds and small mammals rely on hedgerows for cover and around two-thirds of Ireland’s bird species nest in hedges. This is why it is now illegal to cut hedges during the Springtime. Typical native hedgerow shrubs are Whitethorn, Blackthorn, Elder, Furze, Holly, Dog Rose, Guelder Rose, Hazel. Adding to the plant biodiversity, or variety, are trees such as Oak, Ash, Alder, Birch, Damson, Crab Apple – they are often cut back, but where a few are allowed to grow to maturity, they form an important aspect of the landscape. Also hedges are home to a great many ferns, mosses, lichen and a host of wildflowers giving colour and life to the ditch.The hedge is effectively a miniature woodland habitat, spreading like a net across the countryside.

To do it’s job, the hedgerow must of course be properly maintained. The Rural Environment Protection Scheme requires good hedgerow maintenance and the best method is the old and trusted way of ‘laying’ hedges. The lower part of the stem is cut down to a thin strip so that the stem can then be bent over nearly horizontal to fill gaps. The sap will continue to flow through the narrowed stem and new growth will appear along the whole length. Any dead branches can be incorporated into the filling. The ‘layered’ hedge is then fastened tight with stakes and woven hazel rods and forms a neat stock-proof barrier whilst the new growth establishes itself. Any noticeable spaces can be planted up with thorn ‘quicks’ which are protected by dead branches. After a couple of years a thick hedge will have grown. Often we see hedges severely trimmed with a long, square top – this is not good and allows the magpies and pine martens to run along the top picking out eggs and chicks from small birds nests. Trimming of hedges should be kept to an ‘A’ shape with different aged trees at intervals giving maximum values of boundary, barrier, biodiversity and scenic landscape for all to enjoy and admire.

“The landscape a patchwork of woodland and heather, Of tillage and pasture all mingled together……. The neatly groomed hedgerows criss-crossing each hill, Sheep, cattle and horses all grazing at will” (From ‘The Dim Long Ago’ as printed in ‘Songs, Recitations and Short Stories’ by Joe Noonan, Flagmount).

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